Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Blogging as a ‘labor of love’


Last month at the four-month anniversary of Madison Park Blogger, I posted a rather self-congratulatory photo of myself, an indulgence that one of my neighbors later labeled “a shameless act of self-promotion.” I suppose I figured that by putting my mug out there for all to see I would garner some additional notoriety for myself as I ambled around the ‘hood. If so, my plan worked superbly.

Why just the other night, for instance, a nicely dressed young man, obviously recognizing me, suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. He waved frantically at me and came running across to where I stood. “Sir, sir,” he said, “I’d just like to know one thing.”

“Yes?”

“Is it possible that you’d be interested in buying some magazines?”

And then there was another occasion, just last week, when a young woman walking her dog suddenly recognized me and called out “Say, aren’t you that Madison Park Blogger?” I replied that indeed I was. “Well,” she said, “why haven’t you followed up on that great story idea I emailed you about last month? You know. The one about people shouldn’t be allowed to put soiled baby diapers into their garbage cans.” **

But seriously, it actually has been a rather gratifying fifth month for the Madison Park Blogger. For one thing, a couple of outside organizations (outside Madison Park, that is) asked me to affiliate my blog with theirs (I was flattered but didn’t succumb.) Also, my monthly Madison Park real estate analysis was picked up and published for the first time as a column (Real Estate Chase) by the Madison Park Times. September also saw my first scoop, of sorts. That posting—the one about the County’s plans for possible passenger ferry service on Lake Washington—has now been reprinted by two different media sources. Another milestone for the blog occurred last week when we passed the 50-subscriber mark.

So I feel that MPB is on a roll. Here are the numbers from SiteMeter:

Okay, so it’s a mini-roll; but we are inching upward. Google Analytics reports that 1,090 different people have visited Madison Park Blogger at least once since the blog’s inception, for a total of 12,338 page views. My most-read posting this month was “MadArt will accost you.” With 333 readers to date, it surpasses “Girl injured jumping off diving board” as the Number 1 MPB story of all time.

And it really isn’t true that the only people who confront me on the street are people trying to sell me something or who have crazy story ideas. While wandering around the Park this summer I’ve had very nice conversations about my blog with several fans who introduced themselves. One of them asked me if I was making much money through my efforts. I had to admit that since I’m an “Art not Ads” advocate, there are no revenues associated with Madison Park Blogger—just expenses.

“Oh,” she said, “then I guess that it must just be a labor of love for you!”

That it is.

[**Just kidding.]

Monday, September 28, 2009

What’s new in the schoolhouse?

With the school year just underway and a new principal in place at John J. McGilvra Elementary School, I decided it would be interesting to learn what’s new in the ninety-six-year-old building. With that end in mind, my trusty photographer Jeff Romeo, his assistant Paul, and I all traipsed over to the school last week to meet with incoming principal DeWanda Cook-Weaver, on what was day nine of the new school year.

I can faithfully report, first of all, that the school district has categorically not spent too much money providing McGilvra’s principal with luxurious quarters. Cook-Weaver’s office probably measures no more than 10’ x 10’; and on the day we visited, it was still crammed with the new principal’s unpacked boxes (“I just haven’t gotten to them yet”). The remaining space was filled with file cabinets, a small table, a couple of chairs, and a utilitarian desk. The office was decorated, in part, with poster-sized sheets of paper on which were hand-written discussion points concerning McGilvra’s various incoming classes (“no pictures of them, please”). These, she said, had been used in her meetings with the school staff to help with planning for the new school year.

Although Cook-Weaver’s assignment as McGilvra’s principal technically began with the new contract year on September 1, she told me she made good use of the summer to get ready. “I made a point of meeting with the teachers and staff,” she said. “It was an informal opportunity for them to get to know me and for me to know them. I believe that good relationships are important.” She added that no one was required to meet with her in advance of the school year, but she “strongly suggested” that they do so (and apparently they all bought into the suggestion).

She also met with many of the parents, who she described as being “ultra involved” in the school and concerned about the education of their children. “This is good,” she told me. “I’ve had the experience of working in schools where there’s been a need to beat the bushes to get parent involvement.” That’s certainly not a problem here, she noted.

Cook-Weaver replaces Jo Shapiro as principal. Shapiro moved to Hamilton International Middle School to serve as assistant principal this year. Cook-Weaver’s last assignment was as co-principal of Lowell Elementary on Capitol Hill. Prior to that she served as principal of Emerson and as an assistant principal of two other elementary schools in the Seattle district. So she’s had more than ten years of administrative experience; and she said she feels well prepared to lead the school, which this year has 21 teachers (including specialists) and seven support staff.

There are 255 students currently enrolled at McGilvra, with the students divided pretty equally between kindergarten and each of the five grades. Although detailed demographic information for this school year is not yet available, it is unlikely to be much different from the makeup of the school last year, since 80% or more of students each year are returning to the school. Last year the students were about half male and half female, with not a lot of ethnic diversity relative to the Seattle Public School population as a whole (which last year was only 43% white):

Interestingly, McGilvra was the “first choice” school for the parents of 75% of enrolled students. Almost exactly half of the school’s students (49.6%) lived in McGilvra’s “reference area”:

McGilvra has a solid academic reputation and a waiting list of students for enrollment each year. “We have some excellent teachers,” Cook-Weaver told me. “This is definitely a high academic achievement school.” McGilvra’s scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) certainly seem to prove the point. The school compares very favorably with other elementary schools in Seattle and with students across the State:




There is one area of academic concern, however, resulting from the WASL test last year. The writing skills of the school’s students, at least as tested at the fourth grade level, fell dramatically between 2007 and 2008. Last year only 59% of McGilvra’s students met the state writing standard, down from 90% the year before.

I asked Cook-Weaver what the school is doing to counter this apparent dip in writing skills. She said that improving writing had also been an issue at her last school, Lowell; and the approach there was to get approval from the school district to implement a special program at the school through Writer’s Workshop (WW). The goal was to bring up test scores by establishing “an interdisciplinary writing technique which can build students' fluency in writing through continuous, repeated exposure to the process of writing,” to quote WW’s statement of purpose.

Cook-Weaver attended K-2 training at the Writer’s Workshop in New York in 2007, she said, and followed that up with additional training this summer for the upper elementary grades. Whether the program should be or will be implemented at McGilvra, however, will depend on assessments made this year, Cook-Weaver said. “We know here at McGIlvra there is a need, and I have been in contact with (the school district) about the ways we might approach the problem.”

She told me that she is excited about having a new tool this year to measure ongoing academic progress at McGilvra. The school district has just implemented something called MAP, short for Measurement of Academic Progress. Unlike WASL, which is conducted only at the end of the school year for certain grades, MAP is a three-times-a-year computer–based testing program of all the school’s students in the areas of math and reading skills.
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“I am elated to have something systematic to help us look at how our children are doing throughout the year and which lets us compare our progress with what’s happening across the district,” Cook-Weaver told me. “It will allow us to focus on how to help an entire class or even look at individual students.” The first MAP testing is already well underway at McGilvra, with the results becoming available to teachers in early October.

It was clear from my conversation with her last week that Cook-Weaver is both enthusiastic and dedicated to the job. I noted that last year’s survey of student attitudes gave McGilvra very high marks in almost every area. Here’s a sample of the students’ average responses (4.0 would represent absolute agreement with the statement):

“I like school” 3.3
“I try hard to do good work in school” 3.8
“It’s important to me to get good grades” 3.7
“I feel safe in my classroom” 3.8
“I like my teacher this year” 3.8
“I know what my teacher expects of me” 3.5
“My teacher is fair in dealing with students” 3.6

Cook-Weaver told me it’s her responsibility as principal to see that the “student climate” remains high at McGilvra under her leadership.

What’s the single biggest surprise of her brief tenure? “The intensity of parent involvement,” she said. Although she said she had heard about McGivlra’s parents and had been at other schools with highly committed parents, “now that I’m in the actual job at McGilvra, I have a real feel for what everyone was talking about.” Not that there’s anything wrong with highly interested parents. “We all are working for the same goal,” she noted. “The goal is to ensure that our children get what they need while they are at McGilvra.”

[Photos by Jeff Romeo Photography. Data source: Seattle Public Schools.]

Friday, September 25, 2009

Book sale at the Bathhouse tomorrow

Books, CDs and DVDs will be on sale at the Bathhouse at Madison Park Beach on Saturday from 10 am until 4 pm. Proceeds of the sale will be used to supplement the operating budget of the Madison Park Community Council, which could surely use the extra money. The Bathhouse is located at the intersection of E. Howe Street and 43rd Avenue E.

It is rumored that in conjunction with the book sale, artists from Park Shore Retirement Community will be presenting a showing of their works at the Bathhouse.

It should be a busy day at the Park tomorrow, given that American History Day will be simultaneously underway in both the across-the-street portion of the Park and at Pioneer Hall.

Police Blotter

The Capitol Hill Seattle (CHS) blog’s recent police blotter has, among
other reports, a lead story about an attempted car theft going awry and the alleged perpetrator being hauled off to the hoosegow. Exactly the kind of crime story one might wish to read, and you can do so here.

While I know that the Police Blotter I used to provide on this blog was one of the favorite things of many readers, I quickly discovered that there just isn’t enough time in a normal day to do justice to the posting, which entails going to the East Precinct every few days, downloading multiple discs to a personal computer, and culling through all of the City’s police reports in order to find those incidents that actually took place in our own East Precinct. And that’s what has to happen before one even begins to write a synopsis of what’s contained in those redacted and often ungrammatical police missives. So I am happy to recommend CHS’s efforts to those who want to know what’s been happening in the precinct.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Revolutionary Battle scene in Madison Park?

It was a grand idea, and if carried to fruition would have created quite a spectacle in the Park this Saturday: a large-scale battle re-enactment as part of American History Day. The will was there; but, alas, the money was not. So instead of watching a staged battle scene in the Park this weekend, event goers will be treated to a “living history encampment.” Not quite the same as soldiers skirmishing, but fun for history buffs nonetheless.

Organizers, including the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s local chapter, promise there will be knowledgeable re-enactors in period uniforms from both the Civil and Revolutionary Wars, colorful displays, and lively demonstrations. It’s all timed to coincide with the Alaska Yukon Exposition Centennial celebrations currently underway in Seattle. American History Day participants will include the 2nd Connecticut Colonial Reenactors, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Philippine Scouts of 1899, the Washington State Sons of the American Revolution, and the Snoqualmie Nation.

While some of the re-enactments will occur in the Park, much of the day’s activity will be across the street at Pioneer Hall (1644 43rd Avenue E.). The Hall will be open from 9am until 6pm, and the public is definitely invited (a “small donation” is requested).
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[Photo: 5th Connecticut Regiment reenactors shown in 2006 Battle of Yorktown reenactment by Jeanette Dussell.]

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The beginnings of an ‘Indian Summer’?

It may have been the first day of autumn, but it certainly wasn’t obvious in the Park yesterday. With temperatures in the high-80’s and the sky a crystal blue, who could blame some of us for playing hooky?

This was the beach scene in the afternoon:

And this was the view from the lawn at the Edgewater Apartments;

from the deck of the Seattle Tennis Club;


and in “downtown” Madison Park (those Crape Myrtles just never stop blooming!)

Photos by Alan Smithee. Click to enlarge.

Monday, September 21, 2009

August Real Estate Report



A tale of two real estate markets

You’ve probably noticed the recent spate of reports that the Seattle real estate market is finally heating up. A recent front page story in the Seattle Times, for example, was headlined “Home sales hot, especially in upscale areas.” Following up on a recent report by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (MLS), the Times concluded that there was a “summer surge” in August not only in the overall Puget Sound residential market, but in such tonier neighborhoods as West Bellevue/Medina, where the August single-family home sales increase year over year was 169%, and Queen Anne/Magnolia, for which the MLS reported a 74% increase.

Nevertheless, it’s a fact that MLS numbers for both King County and Seattle only showed only a 5% increase in sales for August 2009 over August 2008. Even worse, our general area (Capitol Hill/Madison Park/Central District) showed an actual 8% decline in year-over-year sales. So taken on the whole, August house sales certainly don’t justify all the hype about a newly sizzling real estate environment in the region.

What’s getting everyone’s hopes up, however, is the fact that pending sales (listed houses that are still somewhere in the process of closing) were up sharply in August: 24% in Seattle, and 45% for the Capitol Hill/Madison Park/Central District area. Sounds good, but what about Madison Park?

First, let’s look at what actually happened here in August. Our five August home sales represented a 50% decline from the 10 sales recorded in the same month last year, according to the MLS; and this rate of sales is significantly below the level of prior years:
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The year-to-date numbers for residential sales in Madison Park also show a clear cut downward trend:


Nevertheless, August sales were pretty much in line with what monthly sales have been since the spring and, at worst, probably represent a continuing slow acceleration of the market from the levels of the past winter. Here’s a quick overview, based on data from Redfin, of what the Madison Park real estate market looks like as summer ends (as always, I include Broadmoor and Washington Park in the Madison Park statistics):


Single Family Homes

Listings: 68
Median List Price: $1,950,000
Median Price of Houses Sold in August (4): $510,000
Average Sales Price Discount from List Price: 9%
Months of Inventory (Listings/Sales): 17

Condos and Townhouses

Listings: 29
Median List Price: $500,000
Price of Condos and Townhouses Sold in August (1): $585,000
Sales Price Discount from List Price: 10%
Months of Inventory (Listings/Sales): 29



The MLS reports that there were 15 pendings in Madison Park as of mid-September. If translated into actual sales in future months, these pendings might signal an upswing. But will they close? In past years it was assumed that if a home was pending it would almost certainly close, probably within 30 days. Real estate agents tell me that now, however, pendings are far from certain to close quickly; and some deals ultimately may fall through. Among the obstacles to closing are continuing problems with financing (especially at the jumbo-mortgage level) and new rules concerning appraisals.

But before we discuss the ways a sale might fall through, let’s look at what differentiates our real estate market here in Madison Park from what’s going on in the Puget Sound region as a whole. Why is the market still relatively stagnant here while it’s supposedly “hot” elsewhere? And are all of those other “upscale” neighborhoods really taking off while Madison Park is being left by the wayside?

Don’t believe it, says Dave Hale, Windermere Real Estate’s Managing Broker in Madison Park. Market conditions here in the Park are mirrored in every upper-end market in the Seattle area, he notes. Houses selling above $1 million dollars are always more difficult to move, since their “audience” consists of a pretty select group of buyers. What he sees happening right now is something of a disconnect between the “hot” market for low-to-moderately priced houses and the more rarified market for million-dollar-plus homes. The lower-priced market is benefiting from a lot of factors, including government aid for first-time home buyers, increased availability of conventional-mortgage financing, and plenty of interest on the part of many sellers to do deals (including banks that have taken back houses through foreclosure). At the high end of the market, conditions are still not as favorable, though Hale says he sees definite signs of improvement.

Looking at Madison Park, the division between the two kinds of real estate markets is pretty clear. Of 68 houses listed for sale here, only eight houses (12% of the total) are priced under $1 million. Yet it was houses in the under $1 million category that sold last month, according to the MLS. Four houses were closed with a median price of about $500,000, and one condo closed at $585,000. Only one property changed hands at over $1 million, and that was a $2.6 million house located in the Reed Estate on Lake Washington.

This is precisely the kind of market bifurcation that’s happening in other upper-end markets. In Medina/West Bellevue, for example, the median price of a house sold last month was a relatively high $915,000. But this actually represents a 45% decline in value from the $1,600,000 median price of homes sold in August 2008. Does this mean that home owners in Media/West Bellevue have lost almost half the value of their homes in just one year? Hardly. The numbers simply show that a disproportionate number of relatively lower-priced homes are selling in that market while the more expensive houses still sit awaiting buyers. The median price of a Medina listing this month is $2,495,000, according to Redfin. Just as in Madison Park, the MLS reports only five home sales in Medina during August. The median sales price of these homes was $1,375,000, just 55% of the median price of the houses still on the market in Medina.

So what are the positive signs for our market? Hale sees several. He reports that his office, with its 45 agents, has been averaging five sales a month in the over $1 million category for the last five months. In just the first half of September, however, Windermere Madison Park already had six pendings at that price level. Indeed, looking just at Madison Park, all of the pendings are in the over $1 million category. The median price (again, that’s the price halfway between the highest and the lowest listing) for the currently pending single-family residences in the Park is $1,595,000, while the median price for the two pending condos is $1,420,000.

Another hopeful sign that Hale points to is an apparent easing of the jumbo-loan market, both in terms of pricing and availability. Trevor Bennett, a mortgage loan officer with Bank of America, agrees with this assessment. “We’re starting to see a lot more activity in the upper market,” he says, noting that the confidence level of upper-income buyers seems to be a lot higher than it has been. Helping the situation, he reports, is the fact that underwriting guidelines for non-conforming loans are a lot better today than they have been. Another positive factor he cites is that the rate differential between the jumbo (non-conforming) loan market and the conventional market has converged in recent months. Historically, the rates for jumbo loans had been only 0.2% higher than the rates for conventional loans, according to MortgageMag.com. But for well over a year the difference between the two rates had been as much as 3%. Last week that differential declined to about 1.1%, on average, nationally. Jumbo rates currently range from 5.75% to 7% for jumbo loans versus 4.85% for conventional mortgages in the Seattle area.

Generally, conventional mortgages have been limited to loan amounts of $417,000 or less. Recently, however, there has also been a “high-balance” conforming loan category for mortgages of up to $567,500 in the Puget Sound area. But financing above these levels had been difficult since the real estate market collapse in the summer of 2007. That’s not quite as true today. Bennett says that B of A now has a jumbo loan program that will finance 80% of a house’s value up to a loan amount of $1.5 million. Above that level loans are still available, but the amount of equity required might be increased to 25 or 30 percent, he says.

Priscilla Crutcher, Vice President and Manager at Golf Savings Bank, says “home buyers are being scared into thinking that there are no jumbo loans available, but there actually are some really aggressive deals out there for people with liquid assets.” She notes that there are mortgage providers in the market now who are willing to take a home buyer’s portfolio into consideration as part of the underwriting process. She says her goal is to not require a buyer to liquidate his investment portfolio in a down market just to increase the equity portion of a home purchase. Crutcher, who works prmarily with jumbo mortgage loans, reports she is currently very busy dong creative loan structuring of this kind.

Julia Eaton, a senior loan originator at Landover Mortgage’s Lake Union office, agrees that lending in the upper market is now easier than it has been. She notes that while credit standards are still “pretty tight,” she can lend up to $5 million to people with high credit scores (750 or better) and a significant level of liquid assets. “This is encouraging,” she notes, since up until recently there just hasn’t been a mortgage product in the market at that loan level. She, too, has noticed a recent change in the upper market. “I feel like the borrower with a portfolio that took a hit is now coming back into the housing market,” she says. “I really believe we’ve already hit the bottom.”

Subtle changes in the market are also being noticed by real estate agents who cater to upper-end buyers. Windermere agent Jeff Stanley says he thinks “potential buyers are becoming convinced that the bottom is either behind us or we’re in it.” Either way, he believes, many people are now thinking it’s time to make the move: “Previously there was a lot of low-balling going on out there. People were reading the papers with stories about a buyers’ market.” It’s not that way now, he says. But even though he believes “the market has definitely gotten a lot hotter,” he acknowledges that it’s got a long way to go to equal what’s now happening down market, where he recently witnessed multiple-offer situations on several houses priced under $700,000.

While there are still plenty of danger signs on the road, most real estate people I talked to have the palpable sense that the worst is behind us. “Historically,” says Windermere’s Hale, “our market has been very stable and has shown decent appreciation. Then we got into a situation where we were seeing 10 or even 15 percent appreciation each year.” The market simply couldn’t be sustained at that level, he adds. While he acknowledges that we’re still in a buyers’ market, he believes that simply means there’s still an opportunity to get in before a turnaround is obvious to everyone. “The market is going to come back,” he says “it always does.”

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Thanks to Wendy Skerritt of Windermere and to the NWMLS for their assistance in providing data utilized in this report.

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[Photo: This $1,575,000 Craftsman-style house located at 1624 39th Avenue E. is a listing of Windermere agent Darcy Breene. The 3,560 sq. ft. house is one of the less expensive listings in Madison Park.]

Friday, September 18, 2009

Waterborne rodent invasion coming soon to a beach near you

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They’re ugly; they’re voracious; they’re prolific—and they’re here. Large buck-toothed semi-aquatic rodents foraging in the waters of Lake Washington and sometimes venturing onto the shores of Madison Park. They’re a non-native species that could threaten the entire Lake Washington ecosystem if not controlled. And right now, well, let’s just say that they’re certainly not under control.

Unless you live on the Lake or spend a lot of time at the beach or road-end parks you may be unaware of these big rat-like interlopers. They’re called Nutria (species name: Myocastor coypus), and they are much bigger than so-called Norway rats, though smaller than beavers. They already infest Portage Bay, and they are becoming an increasing problem on Lake Washington as well. There are regular sightings of Nutria in Laurelhurst, for example, where eradication efforts earlier this year netted several animals.

Nutria are natives of South America, so what are they doing here? Well, eating up the habitat used by other species; burrowing into and eroding embankments along waterways; and reproducing like crazy. As to why they are here, the answer lies in a failed experiment in raising the critters for their fur. Although Nutria were first brought to the United States in the 1890’s, they were not introduced into the Pacific Northwest until the 1930’s. During and right after the Second World War, when it became evident that raising Nutria for their pelts was no longer economically viable, some animals were probably released into the wild rather than destroyed. Other animals may have escaped captivity even earlier. Nutria were seen in Washington until the 1970’s or early 1980’s and then apparently died out. For some unknown reason (possibly emigration from Oregon), they reappeared in Lake Union and Lake Washington in 2005. And their populations have been growing ever since.

In some parts of the country, Nutria have devastated their adopted homes. On Chesapeake Bay, for example, the rodents’ habit of digging out and feeding on the roots of marsh grasses has caused substantial wetland losses. Millions of dollars are being spent annually on eradication efforts there. As for the Northwest, it’s the Portland area, Skagit County and Portage Bay that seem to have the most clearly documented cases of significant Nutria incursions.

At first sight a Nutria may not seem to be particularly menacing or obnoxious. Its front end is much less rat-like than its back end. Here’s a detailed description so you’ll know one when you see one: an adult Nutria has yellow or reddish brown fur; a dense grey undercoat highlighted with long coarse hairs; yellow or orange teeth; short legs with webbed back feet; and a long rat tail that constitutes about one third of its total length. Nutria weigh between 12 and 15 pounds and are about two feet long. If you do see one on land (as I did a few months ago at a neighborhood road end) don’t mess with it. Those big teeth can be dangerous.

Although the animals are generally nocturnal, there have been recent daytime sightings of Nutria in the waters off Madison Park, on road-end beaches in the area, and along the shoreline of the Seattle Tennis Club. According to Diana Forman of the Portage Bay Floating Homes Association (FHA), Nutria have also been reported along the UofW shoreline from Conibear Shellhouse to the fish hatchery and in many Lake Washington locations, including Magnuson Park, Seward Park, Juanita Bay, Yarrow Point, and Bothell.

So what’s to be done? The most effective and most environmentally correct method is trapping. Earlier this year 165 Nutria were trapped in our area under a program funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Of these, 78% were taken from UW property, and the rest were removed from Portage Bay, Montlake-area wetlands, and Laurelhurst, according to the FHA. Houseboat owners on Portage Bay, along with the Seattle Yacht Club, the Queen City Yacht Club and shoreline property owners, have funded a contract with the USDA Wildlife Services to continue with an eradication program in Portage Bay, an effort which may extend into 2010. As of the end of July, the total number of trapped Nutria had risen to 209, as reported in the Portage Bay FHA’s newsletter.

I spoke with Ken Gruver, Assistant State Director of Wildlife Services, about the Nutria menace in our region. He said “there are already enough Nutria in Lake Washington that they are changing the habitat.” If uncontrolled, they will outcompete other species such as beavers and muskrats, damage or destroy the wetland environments of birds and fish, and undermine property along the lakeshore. Not a good prospect for the Lake.

In addition to trapping, he said, there are also toxicants that can be used on the animals without killing other species. He noted that while Lake Washington is experiencing a marked increase in the number of animals, there is still time to correct the problem before the Nutria invasion gets totally out of hand. He noted that Portland has experienced serious damage to its waterways through the rapid growth of the Nutria population there, which has not yet been controlled. On the other hand, the Nutria problem appears to have been resolved in Skagit County, he said, as the result of eradication efforts there. With regard to our Lake, Gruver said that while the problem may be solvable now, in five years it may be too late.

When will we know that we have a real problem in Madison Park? “When property owners along the shoreline first start to see erosion of their property,” said Gruver. That’s what happened in Laurelhust, he noted. “As soon as people saw the habitat change they began asking what can be done.” There’s nothing like seeing your property drop into the Lake to get your attention.

Yes, it could happen here.

There’s a lot of useful information available on the FHA website about Nutria and their impact on Lake Washington, including resources and details on how to report Nutria sightings. KING-TV has a 2007 news story on Lake Washington Nutria (available on video here), as well as a 2008 update on the Nutria invasion of Laurelhurst and the UW (available here). Finally, there are some great professional Nutria photos available here.

Top photo courtesy of Naturecrusaders. Bottom photo by Milos Andera.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Madison Park Beach 'unsuitable for children' ?

Earlier this summer we learned that our beach was being touted on one national website as a great place to discover "sugary eye candy." That followed upon an earlier national story that promoted the beach as the perfect place for a "gaycation." And just recently our little stretch of sand was nominated by readers of the Huffington Post website as one of the best city beaches in the country.

So with all of that going for us, it comes as a bit of a shock to learn that a well-known local publication is reporting Madison Park's beach as unfit for human consumption. Or, at minimum, that's the opinion of Dan Savage, the editorial director of the alternative newspaper The Stranger. In a posting yesterday on the paper's blog, Slog, the curmudgeonly Savage claims that Madison Park Beach is so "tiny" and "practically enclosed" that smoking should be banned there.

Here's the full indictment: "The smoke wafting around Madison Park on a nice day makes the park--always packed--pretty much uninhabitable for non-smokers and unsuitable for children. Sitting in Madison Park on a sunny day is like sitting in Linda's in 1997. You leave the park--you leave the beach--with your clothes stinking of smoke."

I'm just guessing here, but I suspect that Linda's (a tavern on Capitol Hill) was pretty smoke filled in 1997. Beyond that, however, is there anything in this hyperbolic outburst that makes sense to our regular beach goers? Judging by the photo used to illustrate Savage's posting, the inherent dangers of our beach are certainly not self evident: nary a smoker (nor a waft of smoke) to be seen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pet peeves redux

I’ve made the argument before on this blog that we’ve got it pretty darn good down here in our little end-of-the-road community. And as evidence for this contention, I’ve cited the kinds of stories that my neighbors and other blog readers think I ought to write about. While we may be plenty upset about the big issues (war in Iraq, the state of our investment portfolios, and the Taylor Swift/Kanye West contretemps, for example), what really seems to rile us the most is discourtesy and rule breaking—especially when perpetrated by outsiders.

Here’s a second edition of the petty irritants Madison Parkers seem to be dealing with this summer (in other words, more of our pet peeves):

People who come to the Park but are too lazy or too imbecilic to walk a few feet to get to the stairs. The target here is those bums who decide they just can’t walk that far and therefore head up or down the embankment, trampling both the vegetation and the protective fencing in the process. One of my neighbors was witness to an accident a few weeks ago where an elderly woman walking along 43rd tripped on the wire fencing and was nearly impaled on one of the metal fence posts. He himself had earlier tripped in the same area while making a morning run. The Parks Department has repeatedly repaired the fences, but they still seem to end up at least partially on the sidewalk after every heavily-attended weekend at the Park.

People who have the misguided belief that everyone in the Park gets up at 6:30 in the morning (or, more likely, have never given it a moment’s thought). It’s those early-morning runners, walkers and bikers who travel in tandem and talk loudly to others in their pod that I’m referring to here. This is especially an issue in the summer when windows may be open and street noises are even more intrusive. To these miscreants we ask “Does the whole neighborhood really need to hear about what your podiatrist told you during your last visit?” Also at fault: walking cell-phone users who apparently believe that the person on the other end won’t hear them unless they shout the entire conversation.

People who put their dog poop in other people’s trashcans. Yes, I know this is much better behavior than the other thing. But believe it or not, some Madison Park residents (especially those who don’t own dogs) object to dog poop in their receptacles when the cans are located close to open windows or decks --and it’s 100 degrees outside. I know, this attitude does seem strange.

People who come down to use the Park from other neighborhoods (or, heaven forbid, even from outside of Seattle) and then actually park their cars on our streets. Some of us can’t even park in front of our own homes as a result! In some cases we can’t even get out of our own driveways because of illegally parked cars. And where are the City’s parking enforcement people at 6:30 on a Sunday afternoon? (P.S. Can’t these Park users go to the beach somewhere else, such as Alki?)

People who allow their dogs to come out and bark at every person, animal and delivery truck that goes by their house. Okay, to be honest, no one suggested this was a story I should cover. But they were just being polite, since my dogs are notorious barkers. In my defense, I limit the barking to between the hours between 8:00 am and 10:00 pm (11:00 pm on weekends). I’ll try to do better.

[Photo of the Park fencing on 43rd Avenue E. near E. Howe Street by David Hutchins.]

Sunday, September 13, 2009

MadArt wows

If the goal was to showcase artistic talent and bring people to Madison Park, then the organizers of MadArt certainly scored on both points last night. The evening reception at Starbuck’s was packed, and the art walk that followed drew crowds of people, many of whom lingered on Madison well into night. Indeed, those who stayed late benefited from getting to see a different art show from what transpired during the daylight. Most of the art on display in the shop windows took on a whole new aspect when lit from above or behind and viewed from the dark of the street.

MadArt founder Alison Wyckoff Milliman told me she was “thrilled to see these artists prove themselves by rising to the challenge and coming through as they did.” She noted that the response to the art by viewers seemed to be “overwhelmingly positive.” That was certainly my impression as my wife and I made the rounds, starting with Anne Marie Lingerie and ending at Spa Del Lago (the installation there, shown below, is by artist Jen T. Mills and was one of the highlights of the show).
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MadArt Director Bryan Ohno spent the morning today recovering from last night and trolling the Madison Park shops listening to people coming upon the art unawares. He said it was fun to watch “people walking around in their normal way--maybe walking their dog--and then suddenly seeing art in a shop window and reacting.” It’s exactly what the MadArt organizers were looking for, he said, “a lot of interaction between people and the art.”

I’m excited to be able to break a bit of news here on the blog. Based on the success of the artists in creating installations for this event, Ohno reports that the venerable Foster/White Gallery will be featuring the MadArt artists in a special show in February 2010. All in line with what Milliman originally envisioned for the project: helping new artists get to the next level. Obviously, MadArt has given these artists some momentum.

The show here in the Park, meanwhile, continues in the windows of 18 Madison Shops on the north side of Madison through October 4. In particular check out my favorites, which certainly include George Rodriguez’s magnificent ceramic figures at Red Wagon Toys (shown below) and Kinu Watanabe’s inspired clay grouping at Martha E. Harris (shown in the photo at the top of this posting).


For more information on each the 22 artists displayed, visit MadArt’s website.

[Photos courtesy of Bryan Ohno, MadArt, except for the George Rodriguez installation, photographed by Alan Smithee.]

Friday, September 11, 2009

Madison Park loses out on Water Taxi route

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Madison Park has apparently missed the boat on becoming a port for the Lake Washington Water Taxi service contemplated by King County. The County already runs a passenger-only Water Taxi from West Seattle to Downtown, and the County’s plan has been to test the waters of Lake Washington by possibly creating a similar service here on one or more routes. Although Madison Park was initially considered one of five “primary destinations” for a Water Taxi demonstration route, don’t expect to be taking public transportation across the Lake any time soon. The King County Ferry District’s Board of Supervisors has eliminated Madison Park from consideration for a summer 2010 run.

Leschi, on the other hand, made the cut and as of last month remained in the running for three possible routes across the Lake next year: Kenmore/Leschi, Kirkland/Leschi, and Renton/Leschi. Madison Park had also been a possible destination from each of these three Lake cities, but the Ferry District concluded last year that Leschi had major advantages over Madison Park. The principal downside to Madison Park, according to a recent study prepared for the Ferry District, is that our dock is inadequate and would have to be rebuilt or expanded to handle ferry traffic:

This situation also existed at the University of Washington’s Sakuma Viewpoint site, which was also eliminated from consideration by the Ferry District. Because the demonstration routes were intended for service beginning in June 2010, there simply would not be enough time to design a facility, get the necessary environmental permitting, and complete construction in that short timeframe. Leschi, on the other hand, has a dock that could accommodate ferry traffic without significant modification, according to the study:

This gives Leschi a leg up for the potential 2010 run, but Madison Park and the UW Sakuma Viewpoint site each “remain a candidate for implementation (of ferry service) in 2011 and beyond.” So state the authors of the study.

In addition to the potential Leschi routes, two other across-Lake routes have remained under consideration by the Ferry District: Kenmore/UofW Waterfront Activities Center, and Kirkland/UofW Waterfront Activities Center. Two non-Lake Washington demonstration routes are also possibilities: Ballard Shilshole Bay Marina/Pier 50 and Des Moines Marina/Pier 50. The District earlier had eliminated several routes (such as Renton/Bellevue and Ballard/South Lake Union) due to other risk factors. So, from an original 20 possible routes under consideration for 2010 service, seven routes remained as of May 2009; and these were the subject of the recently released study, authored by KPFF Consulting Engineers.

This map details the remaining possibilities:


The study evaluated three principal risk (meaning schedule-delay) factors for each of the possible routes: environmental and land use issues, potential ridership, and the anticipated level of community support. Interestingly, Leschi does not rank as low risk in the study for any of these factors, and the three proposed Leschi routes are all rated as “medium” risk overall, as is the Kirkland/UW route. The two non-Lake Washington routes, each of which would land at Pier 50, are both rated “low” risk overall. Among the risks of the Leschi routes, according to the study, is the unknown reaction of the local community to the idea of a Water Taxi landing in its midst.

That would also have to be considered a problem with regard to Madison Park, assuming we were back in the running for waterborne taxi service. Apparently no one from the County has ever told the Madison Park Community Council that our dock was a possible Water Taxi landing site. When I told MPCC President Ken Myrabo what I had learned about the County process, he replied “that’s news to me.”

But before anyone here, or in Leschi for that matter, gets too worked up about the downside impact of Water Taxis, take note that the County is out of money and the whole idea of having a demonstration project on Lake Washington (or an additional one on Puget Sound) may be undergoing some rethinking. I am told by a King County Marine Division employee that the Executive Committee of the Ferry District’s Board of Supervisors may be recommending that the Supervisors put the project on hold. If that happens, you’ll hear about it here.

[Photos courtesy of the King County Ferry District. Map, from the KPFF study, by Berk & Associates.]

Thursday, September 10, 2009

It starts with a smile…

Like many of us who pay attention to what’s going in the world around us, Washington Park resident Ginny Hutchinson and her longtime friend Cathy Haffner, both former Fortune 100 Company executives, found themselves increasingly disillusioned with the tide of negative news that inundates us on a daily basis. But unlike most of us who recognize the corrosive impact of this barrage of negativity, Hutchinson and Heffner decided to do something about it. They quit their jobs, started a “positive media” company, and wrote a book, Better Because of You, to get the word out. Their message is simple and straightforward: each of us can create the positive change we’d like to see.

The book is designed to show people how to make things better, beginning with their own thinking. It is divided into easily read and digested sections (health, wealth, work, play, for example), and includes many tips from people who have learned lessons about improving their lives using simple strategies. Their motto, and the ultimate goal for their readers, is “be the person your dog thinks you are.”

Better Because of You is part inspirational and part practical, but the focus is clearly on what the individual can do to counter the negativity that pervades our society. In a world where such websites as fmylife.com draw millions of visitors, Hutchinson and Heffner decided that there needed to be a counter movement. They believe that simple daily acts of positiveness by individuals will multiply outward, creating an irresistible momentum for making the world a better place. Hence the concept of “better because..." (you fill in the blank). For example, “better because… I smiled at someone today and it made both of us happier.”

Smiling is, in fact, a good starting point for what Hutchinson and Heffner are trying to accomplish. According to a long-term study by Harvard Professor Nicholas Christakis, who has endorsed Better Because of You, “emotions can pass among a network of people up to three degrees of separation away; so your joy may, to a larger extent than you realize, be determined by how cheerful your friends’ friends’ friends are, even if some of the people in this chain are total strangers to you.” So smiling may be a way of putting some positive energy out there to people you may not even know. Playing this idea forward, Hutchinson and Heffner have the goal of gathering smiles from each of the world’s 192 countries by year’s end, collecting them on their website, BetterBecause.com. Readers are also encouraged to add their personal stories to the website of the ways they are doing big or small things to make their lives (and the lives of those around them) better.

Better Because of You, which is available through Amazon.com and at Elliott Bay Books, includes a giant section of inspirational quotes on a variety of subjects. Here’s one of my favorites:

The mind is like a parachute. It works best when it's open” (Anon.)

(You can also check out Better Because’s fan page on Facebook)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Vacant, and likely to remain so

It’s been described as “a blight on the neighborhood” by one area merchant and as “the black hole in the middle of the commercial district” by a former tenant of the building. But when it was built in 1926 and for much of its life--at least up until the 1980’s--the wooden structure at 4116 E. Madison Street was a charming mainstay of Madison Park’s business community, “a beautiful little building.” It certainly is not that today. In fact the central retail unit of the building, which has been vacant since women’s clothing store Nubia’s moved out several years ago, confronts passersby with a visibly crumbling fa├žade and strong hints of a water-damaged interior.

It’s not a pretty picture, and it naturally raises the question, “Why is this prime piece of Madison Park real estate being allowed to sit vacant and deteriorating?” The answer is known only to building owner Constance Gillespie. For everyone else, it’s a matter of idle (or, in some cases, informed) speculation. But virtually no one I talked to was willing to speak about Gillespie or her building on the record. Off the record, however, some area merchants who know her had plenty to tell me.

The most benign way to summarize their views is to say that Gillespie is unanimously considered “eccentric.” Believed to be in her late 70s, she is reputed to control many other commercial buildings in Seattle that she and her mother once owned or managed jointly. And while she does not live in Madison Park, she is often seen in the neighborhood, arriving in a battered old car filled to the brim with boxes, papers, and other detritus. I am told that she is suspicious both of computers and of the post office, so it is difficult to communicate with her. Talking to her is sometimes even difficult for people meeting her in person. One former tenant of hers told me that it was 23 years between the time that he moved out of her building and when she would finally acknowledge him when he said “hello” to her on the street.

She has the reputation as a shrewd lease negotiator, however. I am told that while her rents are reasonable, her leases are tightly written and effectively make the tenant responsible for virtually everything that happens in the interior space. As for the exterior of the building, she is known for her aversion to spending money on maintenance, let alone on making improvements. And it shows.

At one time the center unit of the building housed a firm of interior architects and designers who created something of a garden oasis on the alley side of the building. A magnificent plum tree, I am told, was surrounded by a lushly planted courtyard—a real amenity for the neighborhood. But what was once a garden spot has been allowed over the years to fall into rack and ruin. It's more of an overgrown jungle now:
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There apparently have been several aborted attempts to lease the retail space from Gillespie since Nubia’s departed. In one instance a potential tenant reportedly made leasehold improvements to the space before abandoning the work in a dispute with the owner. Another potential tenant was supposedly unable to get approval from Gillespie to make necessary alterations to the space in order to accommodate his business needs. Whatever the truth of these stories, it is pretty clear that Gillespie has not been in any rush to establish a new retail tenant in the heart of Madison Park’s commercial district. And this fact is not making her any points with many other area merchants.


The building is assessed at $491,000, according to King County tax records. But people I talked to say the building’s value is well in excess of $1,000,000. Several of them told me that they know prospective buyers for the space who would be willing to rehabilitate or replace the building, but Gillespie has always said that she’s not selling. And no one’s expecting the situation to change anytime soon. There’s a general sense of resignation on the street about the property: it is what it is. “It’s a shame that a building in that prime location should be allowed to get into this condition,” says one area resident, “but what can you do?”

Nevertheless, there are still those who hope. Gillespie is known for not paying her property taxes in a timely fashion (indeed, King County property records currently show the property as delinquent for this and past years). I am told that each year as it gets to the point where a delinquency could result in the County’s foreclosing on the property, potential purchasers go on line to see if Gillespie has missed the deadline. But she never has.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Viewing the Park from different angles

For those of us who don’t get out on Lake Washington very often (if at all), here’s an opportunity to take a voyeuristic peak back at Madison Park from the water side. This is a photo sent to me by Mercer Island author Dave Dykstra, whose book, Lake Washington 130 Homes, I briefly reviewed earlier this summer. It shows the waterside mansion of Howard and Sheri Schultz in a shot taken during the summer. Here’s the property as it looks during the winter months:

Dykstra has a lot of other water-based Madison Park photos in his book, which is available at Ropa Bella.

If you are unfamiliar with Google Earth you are missing out on a free and fun program that you really should be exploring (assuming that your computer has the capacity to handle it). Here is a satellite image of Madison Park from 1 km in space (click to enlarge):

There are multiple locations within Madison Park where you can get a street-level view (this is also true if you are just using the map search function of Google). Here is the intersection of E. Lake Washington Blvd. and McGilvra Blvd. E., at the border of Madison Park and Denny-Blaine (you can pan this 360 degrees):


View Larger Map

Seattle panoramic photographer Bradford Bohonus also has some interesting 360 degree views of Madison Park on his site, VRSeattle.com. This is his shot of Madison Park Beach on an early autumn day:

On his webpage you can pan this photo, as well as four others in the neighborhood. He also has several nice views of the Arboretum.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A different kind of cross country

It was not your typical beach scene in the Park this afternoon (and perhaps a bit of a surprise to children playing in the water) as a gaggle* of high-school girls plowed into the Lake to run laps along the shoreline. I am told it was just the Seattle Prep Girls Cross Country Track Team doing some resistence training in the water with their coach (but it looked like they were having way more fun than that).

Parents should note, by the way, that the lifeguards at Madison Park Beach will complete their summer assignment on Labor Day, after which there will be no more lifeguarding until next year.

*gaggle: a loosley organized tactical formation.
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[Photo by Alan Smithee.]

Preschool still has openings

There are still openings available for the Madison Park Cooperative Preschool's 2009-2010 school year. The preschool, which is located in the Madison Park Bathhouse, is affiliated with the Parent Education Program at Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) and has been in operation here in the Park since the 1970's.
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Parents of two-year olds have the option of enrolling their children in either one of the Tuesday/Thursday classes or one of the Monday/Wednesday classes. Information is available on the MPCP website. The Bathhouse is located at 1900 43rd Avenue East.