Should a massive quake rumble Seattle, military vehicles coming to our rescue from Interbay’s National Guard Armory would likely get stuck in the area’s traffic—not ideal in matters of readiness. For 45 years, soldiers, tactical trucks, and equipment have swarmed this wedge of land that abuts the railroad tracks north of the Magnolia Bridge. Now, a decision to relocate the facility outside city limits has opened up 25 prime acres—and a conversation about what kind of city we want to be.
Last year, the State Legislature appointed a committee to figure out the property’s future. This group’s mandate: hash out a use that “maximizes public benefit.” Which could mean so many things. Hundreds of citizens showed up to open houses with ideas; a common theme emerges among suggestions that range from sensible to bananas: This trapezoidal tract behind the neighborhood’s Whole Foods presents an opportunity to do something bold and ambitious, a rare chance for a city to explore innovative solutions to some of its biggest challenges (housing, for one). It comes along at a moment when a neighborhood long viewed as the route to somewhere else arrives at a crossroads of its own.
Even Interbay’s name defines it by proximity to other places. With Salmon Bay to the north and Elliott Bay just south, it slices between Magnolia, Ballard, Queen Anne, and downtown. Mostly, the district is home to industry. But that’s about to change. In the fall, Expedia will move 4,500 employees from Bellevue to the travel company’s new waterfront-facing tech campus in south Interbay. A Sound Transit Link light rail station is coming in the next 15 years, too. The character of this nascent community hinges in large part on what becomes of this parcel of land the size of almost 19 CenturyLink football fields.
In March, the Interbay Public Development Advisory Committee put out a call for ideas about the armory site. By email and in person, the community delivered. “I am pleading...begging you...to build a new animal shelter,” wrote one pet-loving citizen who wanted to expand the Seattle Animal Shelter that sits just to the south. Transportation advocates envisioned a key transit corridor—bike facilities, walking trails, charging zones for a fleet of electric buses. “Build a high school” was a big one too. Right now students who live in Magnolia and Queen Anne attend Ballard High School, which has surpassed its capacity by 132 students.
The need for housing, especially the affordable kind, was one of the most resounding messages. “In my view, it makes all the sense in the world to look at what might be possible,” says H. Pike Oliver, acting chair of the real estate department in the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments. Oliver even showed a group of visiting Harvard design school graduates Interbay so they could render their own vision of the concrete plot. With a site of this size, he says, “you start to be able to do some very creative things, most of which we have not done in Seattle.” Others proposed a self-sufficient eco-district with homes, schools and childcare, green space, and a grocery; the kind you might see in sustainability-focused regions of Europe.
Laura Loe, founder of the organizing collective Share the Cities, worries low-income housing next to a rail yard’s compromised air quality raises social justice concerns. But she considers these brainstorms ultimately a good part of the civic process. “I think it energized people into feeling like their citizen advocacy voice is going to be heard,” she says. “I think people feel empowered to have big dreams.”
Business owners, too, have bet on Interbay. Bryn Lumsden, who just opened a casual spot called Champagne Diner south of the armory, calls the area “a wild west on Elliott.” His first restaurant, Damn the Weather, was part of Pioneer Square’s resurgence, and Lumsden’s optimistic this underserved district is also ready for more dining options—“if we didn’t believe in the neighborhood, we wouldn’t do it.”
Interbay began as a marshy tidal flat where the native Duwamish tribes would collect shellfish and snatch waterfowl, but as settlement encroached, the muddy grounds were covered with soil and garbage. Much later, from the mid-1940s until the late ’60s it housed a city dump, now a golf course.
Sure, Interbay has its topography constraints. This is a valley, a sunken slough prone to flooding as well as earthquake-induced liquefaction—basically, what happens to a marathon runners’ legs at the end of race but with dirt losing strength and stiffness. But to be fair, so is all of downtown through Boeing Field.
The committee will close the comment thread in October to make official recommendations to state leaders by November 15. It could be a long time before we know what will eventually happen to those 25 acres. So far the only certainty is the level of passion residents invest in addressing Seattle’s challenges.