Is Ballard the next South Lake Union?

By Stephen H. Dunphy
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The original Stimson Mill on Salmon Bay helped define Ballard.

By Stephen H. Dunphy

I am sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Ballard on Ballard Avenue Northwest, sipping a nice cup of espresso. The hotel has 29 rooms, starting at $200-plus, with a fancy restaurant just off the lobby. Along the avenue, there are trendy stores, coffee shops and popular taverns. This is the new Ballard.

Yet just a block away toward the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the old Ballard is very visible. Here you find CSR Marine, Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel, Trident Seafoods and small manufacturers such as Nebar Hose and Fittings. Nebar is one of those small companies that had to leave South Lake Union when it began changing.

Ballard is a strong blend of the old and new. But the neighborhood is changing and could change even more dramatically in the near future. If the plans of several Ballard groups come together, the area could become a kind of funky version of South Lake Union, combining the best of what Ballard has to offer -- a real neighborhood with some character -- with the tech-based jobs driving Seattle’s economy.

Changes already are underway. Developer Martin Selig purchased property at the corner of 15th Avenue Northwest and Northwest Market Street and is planning a 200,000-square-foot office building on the site, currently occupied by a gas station and fast-food restaurant. Trupanion, the pet insurance company now housed in a nondescript building in Ballard, reportedly will be the prime tenant. Market and 15th is the major intersection in Ballard, making the building a visible sign of changes to come.

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A mix of the old and the new, Ballard is changing, particularly at these locations.

The Nordic Heritage Museum is making a final push for funds for a new museum. Over the years, the organization has purchased land along Market and now owns an entire long block between 26th and 28th Avenues Northwest. It plans to break ground on a $45-million facility in 2016. “This is very important to us,” said Eric Nelson, the museum’s director. “We see it as an anchor for the Nordic heritage of Ballard, as part of its history.” It could also make Ballard a true destination -- the locks already are a top draw.

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Small, trendy shop along Ballard Ave. NW help define the new Ballard. Credit: Ballard Chamber of Commerce

Two years ago a group fostered by the Ballard Chamber of Commerce created the Ballard Partnership for Smart Growth, with the idea that “a proactive leadership effort must be taken to help guide and shape the explosive growth that Ballard has seen – and will likely continue to see in the future.” The group, which includes property owners, business owners, residents, the chamber and the city, recently created a strategic plan (a kind of blueprint for growth) and will soon begin a marketing study of the area.

And change is already present in the old industrial warehouses and light manufacturing areas of Ballard. A new industry -- craft breweries -- occupies the old buildings. There are nearly a dozen in the neighborhood now and more to come.

But Ballard does not want to become just like South Lake Union.

“Our challenge is how do we preserve the character of Ballard and get the growth we want,” said Mike Stewart, executive director of the Ballard Chamber. “But we don’t want the canyons of tall building like Belltown or Dexter Avenue.” And there is an urgency.

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Ballard Ave. still has some of the old-Ballard charm. Credit: Ballard Chamber of Commerce 

“If we don’t do something to engage in where we are going, to help shape it, we’re going to wake up one day and say, ‘What happened’ to the Ballard we knew -- and wanted,” Stewart said. “We are trying to create an 18-hour economy here, not just one that lights up at 5 p.m.”

Ballard faces some roadblocks to its hoped-for future of sustained growth, namely a lack of office and commercial space to house those high-tech companies and jobs. Also absent are the tenants ready to take a chance on Ballard.

Tom Bayley, president of C.D. Stimson Co., has the permits, plans and designs for a campus-style office building development along Shilshole Avenue Northwest, site of the original Stimson Mill. The mill operated from 1888 to the 1950s. It’s an 11-acre site ready to build -- the prospectus says the site features a short walk from the center of Ballard, “panoramic views,” the Lake Washington Ship Canal and an on-site marina.

What’s needed?

“A tenant,” Bayley said. “I need a strong tenant to get the project going. Big companies are just not choosing Ballard.”

Ballard is changing in other ways as well, mostly the shifting demographics of the area. Nelson, from the Nordic Heritage Museum, said that families with young children are moving into the Sunset Hill area (northwest of central Ballard). It is one reason the Seattle School District wants the current home of the museum back as a school site.

Ballard already is densely populated -- about 10,000 people per square mile vs. 7,400 for all of Seattle. Stewart said Ballard is more than 300 percent over the target “urban village” density set by the city some years ago. New residential buildings are springing up, mostly aimed at young couples or roommate arrangements, plus a number of commercial buildings. One of the draws, of course, is the nightlife -- Ballard has become known for dining, music, taverns and pubs.

Almost all questions about Ballard’s future eventually come down to transit. Sound Transit, the city, and local groups explored transit options beginning in 2012 and came up with five possible light-rail routes from Ballard to Downtown Seattle. In addition, several proposed routes would connect Ballard to the University District.

Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association, sees transit as the key. “Where it goes and where the stations are will determine the future of Ballard,” he said. He envisions zoning changes allowing buildings 85 feet tall or higher around any light-rail stations, double the height of existing buildings.

The association supports the Sound Transit idea, but Wasserman said, “My own point of view is to fix the Ballard Bridge, or build a new one.” While expensive, a new bridge would be far less than the billions light rail would cost, according to government projections.

Transit is a frustrating topic since any plans or changes are easily a decade away. The bridge is a bottleneck now, often backing traffic up for blocks when it opens. There is a “rapid ride” bus line from Ballard to Downtown Seattle, but it often is caught in the bottlenecks as well.

Wasserman says that Ballard is going through major changes, but he sees strength in the industrial sector. He cited the growth of the breweries in the older waterfront areas. The warehouses are “probably more productive than they’ve been for years,” he said, adding that traditional enterprises such as fishing, ship repair and other businesses also are doing well.

The group of Ballard leaders who make up the Ballard Partnership for Smart Growth envision Ballard as a vital place to live, work, shop, eat and play. They want to create a thriving environment for Central Ballard that supports commercial and residential property owners, residents, business and visitors.

A strategic plan developed by the partnership has the usual litany of “desired outcomes.” They include general goals such as “economic stability and vibrant activity” and “attractive urban design.” Stewart said the goal is to shape design and to some extent zoning. “We want that 100-year building,” he said.

The plan also gets down to specifics such as providing money for a local leadership organization. Toward that end they are working to create a Ballard Improvement Area as a funding mechanism, similar to business improvement areas in other areas of the city.

“Right now the biggest portion of our budget is the annual Seafood Fest,” said Stewart. “We can’t rely on membership-based organizations like the chamber.”

Ballard as the next South Lake Union? Not so fast.

For Ballard planners, South Lake Union seems a sterile place. Scott Ingham, co-president of the Ballard chamber, says it lacks the historical character that Ballard has. "It is all concrete and construction with not much else to offer,” he said.

“I don’t think we see ourselves as the next South Lake Union,” Ingham added. “But what we have to have is the commercial viability here to let the people who live in Ballard work in Ballard.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Stephen H. Dunphy

Stephen H. Dunphy

Stephen H. Dunphy writes on business and economic issues for Crosscut. He was a business editor and columnist for a number of years at The Seattle Times.