Work Begins On the North Lake Union Community Wharf

photo by MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Kyle Hunter is the project manager for Center for Wooden Boats’ newest location at the north end of Lake Union. The building at left and shown below will become a facility where people can work on their boats. A future phase will develop the dock and waterfront.

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You wouldn’t want to have seen — or smelled — some of the stuff Kyle Hunter and his crew took out of a 1920s-vintage warehouse along the north shore of Lake Union in the past few weeks.

Often working with heavy rubber gloves, they removed 3 tons of garbage from the 100-foot-long structure: filthy blankets, clothing, sleeping bags, packs, bottles and all manner of personal items, much of it left behind by transients who’ve taken shelter in the former oil-products depot over the past several years.

It was a dirty job, but a satisfying one, Hunter said.

“We’ve got big dreams,” he said. “This is all part of making that happen.”

Under a lease signed this month, this warehouse and boatyard on King County-owned land near Gas Works Park are being reborn as the long-discussed Northlake Community Wharf.

It’s expected to better connect the Fremont and Wallingford neighborhoods to Lake Union through a facility operated as a second location of the nonprofit Center for Wooden Boats.

Eventually, the site is anticipated to include moorage and work space for tall ships and other historic craft, and perhaps rental of kayaks or small boats, giving the public additional access to the lake.

Already, center employees and volunteers have removed a tangled mess of blackberry vines choking the warehouse, and workers have put up a chain-link fence to secure the area.

By spring, the warehouse — cleaned, repainted, re-roofed, and outfitted with equipment — will house restoration and repair projects on vintage wooden boats, said Betsy Davis, the Center for Wooden Boats’ executive director.

At 5,000 square feet, the building offers more than eight times the work space of the center’s current shop at its South Lake Union site, allowing it to accommodate more and larger vessels.

King County Councilmember Larry Phillips, who sponsored legislation supporting the lease, said the plan means “dormant waterfront property on North Lake Union will be turned into a community gem celebrating our maritime heritage.”

The interim lease, under which the boat center pays $2,000 a month, covers only the upland portion of the location at 1475 N. Northlake Place, tucked between Seattle Police Harbor Patrol and the Northlake Shipyard.

The site’s two piers and its 220-foot strip of shoreline are envisioned as later additions to the campus, but only after study and resolution of complex issues surrounding environmental cleanup of the site, and the potential liability that could arise once the water access is open to the public.

Standard Oil of California developed the facility in the mid-1920s and operated it as a bulk-fueling facility for decades. Pipelines running underneath a pier carried oil that arrived by ship up to tanks on shore. More recently, King County purchased the property and operated it as a Metro Transit fueling station until the 1990s.

Turning it into a center for educational, recreational and heritage activities is an idea that goes back more than six years and has drawn support from organizations in Wallingford and Fremont and from Historic Seattle, a preservation group.

Although the Center for Wooden Boats emerged as a logical entity to run the site, it couldn’t afford to buy it.

A study last year put the value of the entire site at $2.8 million. The Center for Wooden Boats, meanwhile, operates with a total annual budget of about $2 million, coming largely from donations, grants, programs and memberships.

The study led to discussion of the lease, which will run through 2016.

Davis cited financial help for the project from “4Culture,” a countywide agency supporting the arts, heritage, preservation and public art.

King County Executive Dow Constantine, who also worked on the community-wharf issue, called the project “a rare opportunity to expand public access to the urban waterfront, and support The Center for Wooden Boats and the community at large.”

Reprinted by permission . Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

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