Monday, November 30, 2009

Lake Washington: still toxic after all these years?

Late this summer, the State Department of Health (DOH) posted a “Lake Washington Advisory” sign at the E. Madison Street road end that I, for one, found a bit shocking. The advisory warns that eating certain fish from the Lake could be harmful due to “chemical pollution.” In fact, two fish (the carp and the northern pikeminnow) are singled out—in no fewer than seven languages—as too dangerous to be eaten at all; and another fish, the cutthroat trout, is listed as being worthy of only one serving per month.

Sounds bad, but what’s going on here? I thought that Lake Washington had been cleaned up long ago. Is the Lake getting cleaner, as I had previously supposed, or is the water quality here actually deteriorating?

I decided to find out, so I called the number helpfully listed at the bottom of the advisory. I was connected with Dave McBride, Lead Toxicologist with the DOH’s fish program, who assured me that things are not as bad as they may seem from a cursory review of the new advisory. First of all, he said, this is not really new information, even though there had previously been no posting on the subject. What happened, he said, is that the department recently received funding for some new signs. In fact, he said, there already had been an interim advisory concerning Lake Washington fish. The new signs coincide with the decision to make the advisory a permanent one.

So why are these fish so bad for our health? PCBs and mercury are the primary contaminants, according to McBride. PCBs have been banned for 30 years or so, but they still exist in plentiful supply in the environment, he told me. “There’s not really any new input (of PCBs),” he noted, “so much as there’s a recycling of existing PCBs within the system.” What this means for big, fatty, long-lived bottom fish such as carp, he said, is that they have time to build up an unhealthful supply of these chemicals and mercury, which occurs both naturally in the environment and as a result of human intervention. Chemicals continue to be introduced into Lake Washington through such means as the leaching of landfills and the draining of old transformers into the Lake, McBride told me. Fossil fuels also cause pollution, he noted; and any lake located in an urban environment, such as ours, will never be pristine.

The good news is that the trend is in the right direction. “The Lake is definitely cleaner than it was twenty or thirty years ago,” he said, “but it’s still not perfect.” Lake Washington is not worse than most other lakes in the state, McBride said, and it probably could be rated a ‘moderate’ lake in terms of fish contamination.

There really aren’t all that many carp in Lake Washington in the first place (and perhaps no northern pikeminnow), according to McBride. There are cutthroat trout in the Lake, but the “Good to Eat” lake fish are much more plentiful, fortunately. The yellow perch is good for a meal a week, but the sockeye, rainbow trout (shown above), and pumpkin seed are all good for two to three meals a week. So go ahead, knock yourself out--assuming you can catch any of them!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thieves in the night: hardly a random act

This was the scene at Madison Park Hardware on Thanksgiving morning, following a break-in the previous night. The store (located at 1837 42nd Avenue E.) has been broken into many times in the past, but I believe that forced entry usually occurs through the alley side. In this case, the front door was the access point, the burglars either battering or kicking the door in, breaking the glass, damaging the door frame, and wrecking the kick plates. Not a pretty sight, and one that the police and the store owners were investigating when I wandered by during the morning; so there was no immediate assessment of the consequences.

Unfortunately, this kind of criminal activity is becoming all too common in the neighborhood lately, at least based on anecdotal evidence. At a recent meeting of the Madison Park Community Council, more than one third of the audience raised their hands when asked whether they had been recent victims of either a car or house burglary. One of my neighbors actually reported that the front seats had been stolen out of his parked car during the summer.

I will be doing a posting next week concerning the East Precinct's Crime Prevention efforts. At least for residential areas, a formalized block watch program might be one way to help fight crime in the 'hood. More to follow...

UPDATE: Scott McKee of Madison Park Hardware reports by email that the burglars, in what was clearly a premeditated act, stole the store's safe and apparently brought their own hand truck in order to cart the safe out of the store.
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Antiques and fine furnishings store Maison Michael II (4118 East Madison St.) was also hit that night, presumably by the same brazen crew that broke into Madison Park Hardware. Owner Michael Schoonmaker told me that the store was entered through a side window, probably sometime between 3 and 4 in the morning. The store was not trashed, fortunately, but some items were taken, including the store's computer.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It's official: no Water Taxis for Lake Washington

As expected, the King County Ferry District Board of Supervisors (aka the King County Council) voted this month to defer the start date of possible demonstration routes for Water Taxi service on Lake Washington. As we reported in September, Madison Park was already out of the running as a destination point for the new service, but Leschi remained a candidate. Although service was scheduled to begin on two foot-ferry demonstration routes in 2010, the Ferry District's reversal at minimum postpones the start date and, more likely, probably kills the project for the foreseeable future.

Politics is at the heart of the decision, as the idea of the County's expanding ferry service while simultaneously limiting Metro bus service did not sit well with a lot of people. The subject came up during the recent King County Executive election campaign; and the County Council members, who also constitute the Ferry District Board, were certainly aware of the potential negative fallout of going forward with ferry expansion plans.

The method used by the Board to stop expansion of the ferry routes was to cut the Ferry District levy for 2010, thereby choking off tax revenues to the Ferry District that would have funded the operation. The demonstration routes were expected to cost $1.2 million in 2010 and another 1.36 million in 2011. The original property-tax rate, set in 2007, was 5.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation for King County properties. This will be reduced to .3 cents for 2010, allowing the King County Council to increase the property tax by a proportional amount to fund Metro bus services. Thus, property owners will pay the same total levy, but the tax support for transportation will be directed to buses rather than ferries.

The existing King County Water Taxi routes from West Seattle and Vashion Island into downtown will continue next year.

[Photo courtesy of the King County Ferry District.]

Saturday, November 21, 2009

October Real Estate Report

Sellers ‘capitulate’ to the market

During my ramblings around Madison Park last month I happened to cross paths with a well-known local real estate agent who was standing in front of a house—one of his listings—where a “sold” sign had recently been posted. He was watching the movers cart out the last vestiges of the “staged” furniture that had been on display in the home during its many months on the market. My congratulations on the sale were met with a weary sigh. “Well,” the agent said, “the seller lost a bundle and I lost a bundle, but at least we got the thing sold!” Then he added wryly, “It sure was a heck of a deal for the buyer, though.”

The seller had been “testing” the market over a long period by holding out for a higher price. But he ultimately succumbed to market realities, accepting a much reduced sale price. In a phrase borrowed from the stock market, he finally reached his personal capitulation point. And he was not alone. With only one notable exception, every Madison Park seller in October accepted a discount from their originally-hoped-for selling price, 12.5% on average. Even so, it appears that the market is achieving equilibrium and maybe even a bit of momentum.

Eight home sales were recorded in the Park during October, which was down from September’s volume of 11 sales but is level with the average eight-sales-per month pace of the market during the third quarter. There were also a large number of new pendings added during October and the first two weeks of November, bringing the total pendings at mid-month to 23, including three homes sold on a “contingent” basis. This is a huge increase from the 12 pendings outstanding a month earlier.

All but one of the six houses sold during October were in the $1 million or more price range, with a median sale price of $1,272,500 for all the houses. Their median square footage was 3,497, reflecting a median price per square foot of $454. The two condos (each boasting less than 600 sq. ft.) changed hands at about $300,000 each, for a median price per square foot of $524. While the houses sold in only 90 days on average, the condos took over twice as long to sell: 188 days each.

This combination of sales activity and the fact that there were only ten new homes listed for sale during the last month has caused inventory levels to continue their steady decline. The total number of homes on the market in Madison Park is now only 78, which compares favorably to the 116 active listings we had at the beginning of the summer (for those who are number oriented, that’s a 33% decline). Where there was a 17-month absorption rate (total listings divided by the month’s sales) in May, now there’s only 9.75 months of inventory, a pretty substantial improvement.

In addition to the two condos sold in October, there are nine additional condos that are now listed as pending, including two of the three units in this 2007 building at 1611 43rd Avenue E. These condos have been on the market for almost 700 days, according to Redfin; and it's expected that the developer will be taking a bath on the sale of the units, so to speak:

Here are the numbers for the Madison Park market (Broadmoor and Washington Park included) as of mid-November (courtesy of Redfin):


Listings: 53
Median List Price: $1,995,000
Median Sq. Ft.: 4,372
Median Price per Sq. Ft.: $456
Average Days on Market: 129
Proportion with Price Reductions: 45%

Condos & Townhouses

Listings: 25
Median List Price: $599,950
Median Sq. Ft.: 1,125
Median Price per Sq. Ft.: $533
Average Days on Market: 185
Proportion with Price Reductions: 56%

Interestingly, the proportion of for-sale properties that have been reduced in price is trending upwards, perhaps another sign of the capitulation process at work. As any viewer of cable TV’s Million Dollar Listing (Bravo channel, Mondays at 10:00) will tell you, sellers in even pricier neighborhoods than ours can be pretty unsophisticated about the market and resistant to facing the reality of declining real estate values. Many of them, of course, don’t have to sell and simply withdraw their properties or stick to their over-market price while awaiting a recovery that may or may not occur.

If you don’t have to sell, of course, there are more options available than for those who cannot afford to hold. But clearly it is possible with the right property to properly gauge the market and price accordingly. One Madison Park home, for example, was sold in October after only 9 days on the market—and at a 3% premium to the list price. It could be a fluke, or it might just be a good example of “pricing to the market.”

On the other hand, there is the example of that Washington Park house I mentioned in an earlier posting, the one whose owners had been “chasing the market down.” After almost 500 days on the market, the nicely located Hillside Drive home was finally sold early this month. Though the sale price of $1,350,000 was a 52% reduction from the initial offering price of $2,795,000, this was still a 35% increase in value from what the owners reportedly paid for the property in 1999. Not quite a hard-luck story, but a come down and a capitulation to the market nonetheless.

[Upper photo: a 2007 contemporary home at 1840 41st Avenue E., listed by Kathryn Hinds of Windermere at $1,795,000 (my favorite for-sale property in Madison Park). Thanks to Wendy Skerritt of Windermere Realty for her help in providing some of the market data utilized in this report.]

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Last chance to order Greek Christmas delicacies

Even if you are not Greek like me, you probably still enjoy digging into a good batch of baclava or spanakopita when the opportunity presents itself. Well, now's your chance to get in on a good thing. The talented parishoners of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption on Capitol Hill (1804 13th Avenue) are baking up a storm in preparation for their annual holiday bakesale, and the deadline to order is Monday, November 30th. So if you're in the mood for some great Greek delicacies, including tiropita, koulouraka, and pastitsio, you better check out the list of goodies (with mouth-watering pictures) at the Church's Holiday Fest website right now.

Orders can be picked up at the Church December 4-6.The Church will be holding its annual Holiday Fest dinner on December 5, and everyone is invited. Information is available here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

SR-520: Second Montlake Bridge Endorsed

A State legislative workgroup yesterday moved the SR-520 bridge replacement project a step closer by endorsing a six-lane solution (including two HOV lanes) and a wider Montlake approach, which will result in the construction of a second Montalke drawbridge (as shown above) if the plan is ultimately approved by the full legislature.

Although the vote was 10-2 in favor of the plan, known as "Option A," it was two Seattle representatives on the committee, including our own Rep. Jamie Pederson, who were opposed, according to the Seattle Times.

The replacement of the Evergreen Point floating bridge was discussed at the most recent meeting of the Madison Park Community Council, held earlier this week. As a result of that discussion I have to retract my earlier comments about the probable lack of impact on Madison Park of the new bridge. Those who have been paying closer attention to the project than I tell me that the design of the new, much taller bridge will almost certainly create what one critic called "an Alaksan Way Viaduct" profile all the way across the Lake. Additionally, a proposed noise-deadening wall on part of the north side of the bridge (to protect the sensibilities of Laurelhurst residents, apparently) will intensify the noise levels in Madison Park, in the opinion of some.

So the plan is much more controversial in Madison Park than I had believed. Unfortunately (and probably purposefully) there are no artist's conceptions on the State Department of Transportation's website showing what the new bridge will look like in profile.

The SR-520 legislative workgroup is sponsoring a townhall meeting next week: 6 pm on November 24 at the Center for Urban Horticulture (3501 NE 41st Street). The DOT website claims that the meeting agenda and related materials are available here, but as of this morning no such information had been posted to the site. I guess we're supposed to check back later.

[Graphics courtesy of the State Department of Transportation.]

UPDATE: KPLU today posted a report on its website stating that there is a coalition of Montlake and Madison Park neighbors who intend to fight the State's "Option A" plan for SR-520 expansion, but quotes no one other than a resident of Montlake. I am unaware of a concerted effort of Madison Park residents to oppose the plan.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Safeway: we've found your lost cart!

Anyone who thinks that all of Madison Park's beaches are pristine ought to run down and take a look at this scene at one of our road end "pocket parks." The debris gradually building up at the E. Highland Street beach can hardly be called flotsam and jetsam, since it doesn't appear that any of these objects arrived by water.

My neighbor, who clued me in to the build up, says that it began with the plastic chaise lounge late this summer, to which was later added the lovely print sofa with matching cushions. More recently, the shopping cart was abandoned there (arriving by way of the Capitol Hill Safeway or the one near University Village?).

If it's unclear how it all got there, it's just as unclear how it's going to be taken out. There's just a narrow beaten path down to the beach through the blackberry bushes and brambles, so it'll be quite a job.

Have I mentioned my bad back?

[Aerial photo (infamous beach marked in red) courtesy of Bing.]

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Defining Madison Park: an essay (part three)

In its more than 100 years as an upscale Madison Park neighborhood, Washington Park has gradually but inexorably grown from a relatively small enclave at the top of the hill to its present-day expansive form, covering most (or, depending on your view, all) of Madison Park south of E. Madison Street. The residential community of Washington Park, as noted earlier in our series, was so-named because of its proximity to the City park of the same name and, presumably, as a way to distinguish the area from the rest of Madison Park, which was considered much less exclusive.

From its inception, Washington Park was known for its large and stately homes. A good example of early homebuilding in the neighborhood is the Walker-Ames Mansion (808 36th Avenue E.), built in 1906, which has served as the home of University of Washington presidents since it was bequeathed to the UW in the early part of the last century. That’s the house pictured above, and here’s how it looks today:

Historically, Washington Park was confined to just a few blocks east of E. Lake Washington Boulevard and directly south of E. Madison Street. Even by mid-century, the area considered to be Washington Park was much less extensive than it is today. Longtime Madison Park resident Lola McKee (Madison Park Hardware) reports that back then everybody knew that Washington Park extended to 39th Avenue E. and went no further. All of the blocks to the east were just plain old Madison Park, she says.

This distinction made a lot of sense geographically, since Madison Park (the City park, that is) was to the east and Washington Park (the City park) was to the west. So how does it happen that today the neighborhood of Washington Park extends all the way to the shores of Lake Washington and perhaps (depending on where you draw the line) even touches Madison Park, the City park that gives our community its name? Isn’t that just a bit perverse?

As it happens, the redefinition of Washington Park is almost certainly an extreme case of neighborhood creep, which over the years was encouraged and abetted by home builders, homeowners, and real estate agents anxious to capture the cachet of a Washington Park address when selling residences located further and further from that neighborhood’s original starting point.

Let me explain neighborhood creep by pointing to what may well be a present-day example of the phenomenon: a successful attempt to market a new residential project, Madison Lofts, as being in Madison Park when the properties in question clearly sit outside of what has traditionally been considered our community. The Madison Lofts is that new brick condo building in Madison Valley located in the 2900 block on the north side of E. Madison Street. Even the City of Seattle (which, as we’ve noted, is somewhat confused about our southern border) recognizes that on the west side Madison Park begins at E. Lake Washington Boulevard. That, at least, is where they erected the “Madison Park/Washington Park Welcome You” sign.

Undoubtedly because Madison Park is considered to be a more exclusive neighborhood than Madison Valley, the developer and its real estate agent decided to market the condos as though they are located in Madison Park, which after all is only two blocks away. The Northwest Multiple Listing Service accepted this designation and listed the property as a Madison Park address. Perhaps this wouldn’t have happened if Madison Lofts had been built on a site with a previously existing Madison Valley residence on it, but the site was undeveloped. So for this new residential address, realtors bought into the developer’s concept that Madison Lofts is in Madison Park. And as a result, anyone buying a condo there presumably believes he or she lives in Madison Park. If other new residential buildings were to be built in the area between 29th and E. Lake Washington Boulevard, presumably they could and would be marketed in the same manner. And if that happened, there would be an additional block or two of people who believe they live in Madison Park, effectively extending Madison Park into Madison Valley.

Neighborhood creep is clearly a gradual process, and it probably only works successfully when there’s an affinity between the type of construction in the new area and that of the original neighborhood. In other words, as the area to the east of Washington Park became gentrified, it was perhaps logical and appropriate to consider it part of Washington Park. But the extension of Washington Park eastward probably wouldn’t have been successful if the area had continued to be dominated by bungalows, cottages, and beach houses, as the area “down the hill” from 39th Avenue E. was during much of the 20th Century.

While it’s pretty evident that most people in the community accept the idea that Washington Park now extends all the way to the Lake, a question still remains: Does Washington Park encompass all of Madison Park south of E. Madison Street?

When I moved to Madison Park I accepted the view of a friend who already lived here that to be south of Madison is to be in Washington Park. But I gradually became aware of the fact that not everyone subscribes to this notion. In researching this story I asked local realtors what they thought. Here’s the answer from one well-informed professional: “Washington Park begins at the Reed Estate. I can’t remember what street that is, but I can tell you one thing for sure—Washington Park Tower is not located in Washington Park.”

He’s right, assuming you accept the current view of real estate officialdom, which appears to be consistent with historical usage. The Northwest Multiple Listing Service (MLS) puts the area north of E. Garfield Street (the northern border of the Reed Estate) solidly in Madison Park. The Washington Park neighborhood begins south of Garfield. Just to confirm this position, I checked on the four residences currently listed for sale in the five blocks south of Madison that are supposedly not considered Washington Park. In each case (one of which is a condo unit in the Washington Park Tower) the MLS shows the neighborhood as “Madison Park” and not “Washington Park.” I also talked to a couple of longtime residents of these blocks who agreed that Washington Park starts somewhere to the south, one telling me ‘I grew up right here and didn’t think I lived in Washington Park then--and I certainly don’t think I live in it now.’

So there you have it: the Washington Park Tower (shown in the photo above) does not sit in the Washington Park neighborhood. Here’s how the dividing line looks on an aerial view, courtesy of Bing (click to enlarge):

Now that we’ve disposed of that issue, what’s left define about Madison Park? Well, several things. For one, what do we call that group of houses that sit to the east of E. Lake Washington Boulevard and to the north of E. Madison Street (behind the Shell Station and Arboretum Court)? They are the closest to Washington Park Arboretum of any houses located in Madison Park, so by all rights they ought to be part of the Washington Park neighborhood, shouldn’t they? Not so. By historic convention (and the supreme authority of the MLS), the four-block area squeezed between Broadmoor and the Arboretum is actually a stub section of “Madison Park.” Here’s the aerial view, again courtesy of Bing (click to enlarge):

Interestingly, this area is disputed by the Greater Madison Valley Community Council (GMVCC), which believes it is part of the Valley. In fact, the Council’s expansive view of their community also takes in a section of Washington Park running from 33rd to 36th Avenue E., south of Madison (this is perhaps a bit of a surprise to residents in that area). This map shows the border between the Valley and the Park, according to the “Greater” view:

So Madison Park residents on the four blocks to the north of Madison--as well as those on another six blocks to the south--are in the happy position of being represented by two community councils at the same time; which, according to City planner Steve Sheppard, shouldn’t necessarily be considered a bad thing. Madison Valley or Madison Park? Let the residents decide!

At this point we’re almost done with our overview, but there are still two additional items left to claim our attention: 1) What about Canterbury? And 2) Where, if at all, does Denny-Blaine fit into the picture?

Canterbury, for those not in the know, is an area of Madison Park located next to Broadmoor‘s east side, in the area north of E. Newton Street. It was built as a developed community in the late 1950s and consists of about 100 mostly ranch-style homes popular during that era:

Like the rest of Madison Park, Canterbury has been undergoing a lot of redevelopment in recent years; but even before that, it was considered the tonier area of Madison Park north of Madison Street. The MLS does not consider Canterbury to be a separate neighborhood on a par with Broadmoor or Washington Park, so homes in the area are listed for sale simply as in the “Madison Park” neighborhood. Instead, “Canterbury” is listed as the plat area (or “project”), in the same manner as a house in Washington Park might have “John J. McGilvra Second Addition” as a plat designation on its MLS listing.

Nevertheless, Canterbury is clearly recognized by the Madison Park Community Council (MPCC) in its bylaws as a separate enclave on a par with Washington Park and Broadmoor, so why should we be any less generous in our evaluation? Canterbury is obviously a defined Madison Park neighborhood, another enclave.
And Denny-Blaine?:

Like Canterbury, the MPCC recognizes the neighborhood as being within the Council’s area of representation. But there’s a difference. Yes, it’s true that the Denny-Blaine has no community council; and as we saw in part two of this series, it has been disowned by the Madrona community. Additionally, the City’s Department of Economic Development includes Denny-Blaine in the coverage area for the Madison Park Business District. So Denny-Blaine is part of Madison Park, right?

Not really. The residents there apparently don’t think of themselves as being in either Madison Park or Madrona. And according to current MPCC President Ken Myrabo, the reason Denny-Blaine was added to the MPCC coverage area is not because it is considered part of Madison Park but simply to give its residents representation by a community council. From that perspective, Denny-Blaine might at most be considered part of “Greater Madison Park,” but someone really ought to poll the residents there to see if they agree. The final verdict: Denny-Blaine is not Madison Park.

So that about does it. We’ve now explored the entire geography of Madison Park, and we’ve put to rest the misapprehensions anyone could possibly have on the subject of where Madison Park begins and ends. We now know what enclaves exist within the Park and what the boundaries are of each of these subunits. We’ve completed our definitive review and have emerged from our investigation--5,718 words later--weary but informed. Who could possibly now question our logical and reasoned conclusions?

Well lots of people, probably. Definitions, as we have seen, have been surprisingly dynamic throughout the course of Madison Park history. And, in fact, there’s no real authority on these matters. The City--as we’ve seen--is befuddled, the community councils disagree, and the Park’s residents have their own conflicting opinions. In my months of probing the definition of Madison Park I’ve talked to a lot of people, many of whom had strong opinions. But one well-known realtor was dismissive of the idea that there is any reason for confusion about neighborhood definitions. As she told me (and here I am paraphrasing), ‘It doesn’t make any difference what the City says, the community council says, or even what the homeowner says about what neighborhood their house is in. It’s the real estate professionals who decide these things!”

Well, that settles that!

[Historic photo of the Walker-Ames house courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries.]

Thursday, November 12, 2009

McDermott braves Park Shore crowd

When I heard that U.S. Representative Jim McDermott was coming into the Park today to discuss healthcare, I thought it was possible (just slightly) that he might run into one of those adversarial "town hall" situations we've all been hearing about. After all, the House only recently (and barely) passed what could become landmark healthcare legislation, and a lot of people have some pretty strong opinions on the subject.

It was not a tough crowd, however, that turned out at Park Shore early this morning to hear our congressman speak about the history of efforts since Teddy Roosevelt's day to increase the federal government's role in American healthcare and to defend his position in favor of the House's bill (which is now awaiting a verdict in the Senate). Most in the audience were residents of Park Shore, although there was a sprinkling of other people from the neighborhood who responded to the "Everyone is Welcome" call.

McDermott, with 11 terms in Congress and a long history in State politics, is an old trooper--and he handled even the very few hostile questions ("Why don't you care about the deficit, Mr. McDermott?"') with good humor and tact. As for his vote in favor of the legislation, he said that "to do nothing is not acceptable." While admitting that the bill is far from perfect, he said "you have to start somewhere."

Best three-line dialogue:

Audience member: "I don't think we can trust you guys in government to be in charge of our healthcare."

Response: "Would you like to see the government get out of Medicare and take it private?"

Audience member: "...ah...No."

It was not quite the knock-down-drag-out event I was hoping for, but that's probably just as well. More informative for sure.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Defining Madison Park: an essay (part two)

Over the course of several decades the City of Seattle has, apparently through inattention and inertia, helped to perpetuate the myth that Washington Park (or at least the bulk of it) isn’t located in Madison Park, but rather exists as an enclave of a neighborhood called “Harrison Denny-Blaine”:

This myth has been accepted by map makers, news sources, national and local websites, and other unsuspecting seekers of Seattle-neighborhood information. The result of the City government’s imprecision is that Madison Park neighborhood is often shown in a truncated form when our community is discussed in the media. Here, for example, is the map of Madison Park used by the Seattle PI:

The City’s definition of Madison Park, which excludes Washington Park, is also used by news aggregating sites such as and EveryBlock, by real estate listing sites such as Redfin, Tulia and Zillow, and by internet shopping sites such as CitySearch . In a recent Google search I found no fewer than 20 websites that aggregate Seattle neighborhood information in such as way as to exclude Washington Park from Madison Park. And why? Because the City’s “unofficial” neighborhood map does so.

So how did the City come to believe that Madison Park stops at E. Lee Street and that the non-existent neighborhood of “Harrison Denny-Blaine” is the actual home of the Seattle Tennis Club and of those upscale Washington Park houses pictured above? I decided to find out.

In researching this topic over the past couple of months I discovered that the source of this geographical confusion is something called the Seattle City Clerk's Office Neighborhood Map Atlas. There, shown as one of the “Capitol Hill Neighborhoods” is Madison Park, minus most of Washington Park. And there, shown as one of the “Central District Neighborhoods” is Harrison Denny-Blaine, including most of Washington Park. To be fair, the map does display a disclaimer at the bottom stating that the map “is designed for subject indexing of legislation, photographs, and other documents in the City Clerk's Office and Seattle Municipal Archives. It provides a way to increase consistency in the way geographic names are used and to allow precise retrieval of documents concerning neighborhood districts. It is not designed or intended as an ‘official’ City of Seattle neighborhood map”

So here we have an “unofficial” Seattle neighborhood map that is, none the less, used as the guide for recording and retrieving City information about the neighborhoods, is publicly available on the City’s website as the Seattle neighborhood map, and is purported to be the means by which “consistency” is achieved in defining the geography of the City. Consistency, in this case, means that Madison Park is missing one of its vital components and is constrained to about two thirds of its actual size.

And the map, by the way, is not just used for filing purposes. I have discovered that various City departments, including Seattle Public Utilities, utilize the City Clerk’s map as the official source of neighborhood boundaries. Here, for example is the area map for the Adopt-A-Street program:

The question of why the map is so off base stumped the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods when I raised the issue this summer. The first person I talked to said she had never heard of “Harrison Denny-Blaine” as a neighborhood. But when I told her the location, she was surprised to find it on the neighborhood map displayed in her office. Disclaiming any other knowledge of the subject, she passed me along to a colleague, Ted Divina, District Coordinator for the Central Area, who was also at a loss to explain how Madison Park got so whacked on the City’s map.

He theorized that the concept of ”Harrison Denny-Blaine” may be an historical anomaly of some kind, since there apparently was once a Harrison Community Council in the area, he thought. He suggested that perhaps the Greater Madison Valley Community Council (GMVCC) is the successor to the Harrison council. But even so, what would explain the inclusion of Washington Park in the “Harrison” neighborhood? And whatever the “Harrison” council may have once claimed, the Madison Valley council certainly doesn’t pretend that its coverage area extends into Denny-Blaine or into Washington Park (or, at least not into the part of Washington Park that overlooks Lake Washington). Here’s the official GMVCC map (we’ll be coming back to it later):

So at this point in the investigation it appeared we were at a dead end, the seemingly inexplicable story of the phantom Harrison Denny-Blaine neighborhood having been permanently lost in the mists of time. After further futile research I was just about to give up on this mystery, but last week I decided to make one last call to Ted Devina in the Department of Neighborhoods to see if he had uncovered anything. He said he hadn’t, but he remembered that there still was someone working in the department who had been there back in the 1970’s and who might know the answer. He directed me to Steve Sheppard, a senior planner in the group; and Sheppard, it turns out, does remember why there’s a Harrison Denny-Blaine neighborhood on the map. It’s a story he describes as “not very convoluted.” But, really, it is.

According to Sheppard, the story actually begins back in the 1960’s, when a federal grant funded a major effort by Seattle city government to rank all of the neighborhoods on the basis of their need for physical improvements. The idea was to use the rankings as a way to determine eligibility for infrastructure funding through bond issues such as Forward Thrust. The starting point for this process, he says, was to ask “what are our Seattle neighborhoods?”

But this presented some difficulties. There wasn’t universal agreement on where neighborhoods began and ended, and the neighborhoods that did exist weren’t necessarily contiguous to each other (in other words, some parts of the city didn’t really fit into a particular neighborhood, leaving gaps on the map of neighborhoods). For every block of the City to be fairly represented in the funding process, the neighborhoods had to abut each other, meaning that the historical boundaries of some neighborhoods needed to be expanded. Additionally, each neighborhood had to have a fair chance to get funding; so the neighborhoods had to be of roughly uniform size. There was also a desire, Sheppard believes, for the neighborhoods to have a good demographic mix (in other words, poorer areas combined with richer ones).

In the case of our area, Madison Park (including Broadmoor) was already large enough and diverse enough, according to Sheppard, to constitute a neighborhood for purposes of the official map. To the south and west of Madison Park, however, there was only the Harrison neighborhood, covering part of what today is Madison Valley. Combining Harrison with Denny-Blaine (which had no community council) did not, apparently, create a big enough neighborhood to compete equally with the others. So apparently most of Washington Park was added to “Harrison Denny-Blaine” simply to get the critical mass necessary for the neighborhood to compete effectively for bond funds. “It was a strange bedfellows situation,” Sheppard says, “but it was necessary for the purpose of getting funding.“

And it worked. As Sheppard remembers it, the City recognized 113 Seattle neighborhoods on its official map, but only the twenty top neighborhoods were to receive Forward Thrust money for their projects. After each of the neighborhood infrastructure improvement proposals had been received, the City chose Harrison Denny-Blaine as the 20th and final neighborhood to be awarded funding. All of the money was used for projects in Madison Valley.

According to Sheppard the intention was to have the people living in the respective neighborhoods make the decisions on how to define their communities. As he recalls, both the Harrison and Madison Park community councils were involved in the decision making on drawing the lines for the City’s neighborhood map. However, the purpose of that map was admittedly a rather limited one related to Forward Thrust funding. Sheppard agrees that “it’s really within the purview of the people living an area to decide the boundaries of their community.” Meaning, presumably, that the City should not be perpetuating a map that is inconsistent with neighborhood definitions adopted by the respective community councils.

In this case, the Harrison Community Council no longer exists; and its successor, the Greater Madison Valley Community Council, as we have seen, does not claim either Denny-Blaine or most of Washington Park as within its “jurisdiction.” The Madison Park Community Council, meanwhile, has apparently always included Washington Park within its coverage area. In fact, the official Madison Park map taken from the MPCC’s by-laws also includes Denny-Blaine. This map has the additional virtue of being consistent with what the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development says are the boundaries for the “Madison Park Business District”:

Just to cover all the bases, I checked with Cynthia Stross, President of the Madrona Community Council, to see what Madrona’s view on the matter might be. Her definitive response: “Denny-Blaine is not part of Madrona.”

So there you have it. All of the communities involved agree that there is no Harrison Denny-Blaine neighborhood, and no one claims to represent either Denny-Blaine or Washington Park other than the Madison Park Community Council. Yet the City persists in “unofficially” believing there is a Harrison Denny-Blaine neighborhood and that Madison Park exists almost entirely north of E. Madison Street. All because of some bond issue of 40 years ago. Somewhere in the denizens of City Hall someone is probably right now filing a memo about Washington Park in a file labeled “Harrison Denny-Blaine.”

But at least we know the truth.

We’re almost done exploring the definition of Madison Park, but not quite. To this point we have determined that Madison Park definitely includes the enclaves of Broadmoor and Washington Park. And we’ve also defined the boundaries of the Park, hopefully to the satisfaction of most readers. What remains to be investigated is where Washington Park begins and ends. In our third (and final) installment in this series we will therefore ask the question “Do the residents of Washington Park Tower actually live in Washington Park?”
We may even provide an answer.

[The photo shows the Washington Park shoreline looking north from the vantage point of Lakeview Park at the intersection of E. Lake Washington Boulevard and Hillside Drive E., on the border between Washington Park and Denny-Blaine.]

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Area community center unlikely

The Central District News, a neighboring blog, reported last week that the Seattle School District had received four bids for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School site located at 3201 E. Republican Street. There are a couple of reasons why this story may be of interest to residents of Madison Park, even though the school, which closed in 2007, is a couple blocks south of our community.

For one thing, the Bush School, which is contiguous to the MLK School site, is apparently the top bidder for the property. Although the School’s main buildings are—like the MLK School—in Madison Valley, Bush’s Gracemont Upper Campus actually is located in Washington Park, so I think we can legitimately claim the Bush School as one of our own.

Another bid for the site has been submitted by a group of community activists, Citizens for a Community Center at MLK (CCC), which is the second reason the story could be interesting from the standpoint of Madison Park. Right now there is no community center located anywhere within the area, unless you want to count the Miller Community Center (330 19th Avenue E.) on Capitol Hill, or the Montlake Community Center (1618 E. Calhoun St.) as “within the area.” If the Madison Valley activists have their way, there would be a community center located practically on Madison Park’s doorstep.

However, it looks like it is just not meant to be. The CCC’s bid to purchase the site for $2,400,000 is 36% lower than the Bush School’s $3,750,000 bid. Two other bidders, Hamlin Robinson School (a non-profit private school for children with learning disabilities) and the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, each have lower bids than The Bush School. All of the bidders also provided the school district with proposals for renting the property, with The Bush School offering significantly more than any of the others.

The district, of course, is not obligated to take the highest bid; but given the Seattle Schools’ budget problems, the school board would certainly come in for some justified criticism if it didn’t take the money and run. Additionally, it is not clear that either the CCC or First AME actually have the cash in hand at this time to back up their bids. So it looks as if the idea of a community center for the area may just be one of those pipe dreams you hear about.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Christmas ships to arrive December 19

For those of you who plan holiday parties timed to coincide with the arrival of the Christmas Ships at Madison Park Beach, you will probably be interested to know that the Seattle Department of Parks & Recreation today released this year's schedule showing that the ships will make their appearance here during the afternoon of Saturday, December 19, from 4:55 until 5:15 pm. Seems a bit earlier in the day than has been the case in past years.

For many of us, however, it is just a bit too soon to be thinking Christmas--though I see that Tully's has been decked out for the holiday season for at least a week, and Christmas trees are already in stores downtown. I guess you can never begin worrying about the holidays too early.

The Christmas Ships' appearance at Madison Park Beach is sponsored by the Miller Park and Montlake Community Centers. There is no Community Center anywhere in close proximity to Madison Park (a fact which is relevant to a story I will be posting this weekend).

By the way, the Christmas Ships will begin their Lake Washington runs on December 1, with a call on Gas Works Park. Earlier, on Sunday, November 29, there will be a preview voyage starting at Lake Union Park (860 Terry Avenue N.) at 6 pm. The ships will arrive at the Madrona Beach on Saturday, December 5 at 9:25 pm.
[Photo by Curt Milton (cascadeguy on Flickr), who also writes the blog EastlakeAve.]

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Defining Madison Park: an essay (part one)

You might think it would be a pretty easy thing to describe the community in which you live, defining, for those not in the know, its characteristics and its boundaries. A simple neighborhood definition might be possible for a lot of places in this town; but, as I’ve discovered, it’s not a simple thing to accomplish when it comes to Madison Park. For it’s a fact that there is no consensus on what it means to live in Madison Park. The City has an opinion, the local realtors have one, the area’s community councils each have one—and their views are certainly not identical. And then there are the people who actually do (or, in the opinion of others, do not) live in the Park.

Where, exactly, does Madison Park begin, and where does it end?

Let’s start with a premise, perhaps the only one, on which all of us can agree: living in Madison Park does not mean sleeping, homeless, within in the confines of the actual City park known by the same name. Yes, the community does get its geographic identify from the City park, but the two things are not synonymous. Once we agree on that fact, however, we are probably done with consensus. From this point forward the story gets complicated and the disagreements sometimes become acute.

I first became aware of the problem of defining Madison Park well before I moved here. Although a native Seattleite, I had lived my entire life ‘north of the canal’ and was simply unfamiliar with the details of neighborhood geography ‘south of the cut.’ I made the mistake of introducing a friend to someone by saying that “she lives in Madison Park like you do!” I was immediately corrected by my friend, who told me she didn’t live in Madison Park! Really? This was a surprise to me, since I’d visited her at her house. “You’re just confused,” she told me, “I actually live in Washington Park.” “What’s the distinction?” I asked. “Washington Park is south of Madison, Madison Park is north,” she told me. This, it turns out, is the mutually exclusive proposition endorsed by a few: Washington Park is not a part of Madison Park. This was news to me then—and it still is.

I suspect it’s also news to a lot of other people who live in Washington Park, as some people think I do. Other people, by the way, don’t think I do. For not only is there a dispute over whether Washington Park is part of Madison Park, there’s also a dispute over where Washington Park itself begins and ends. Do I really live in Washington Park? And even if I do, is Washington Park also home to my neighbors on the next block? Well there’s a dispute about that as well, since the City thinks that many of us down here actually live in a neighborhood called Harrison Denny-Blaine, which isn’t Washington Park at all. In the City’s opinion, not only is The Seattle Tennis Club not in Washington Park, it isn’t even in Madison Park! Confused? I told you this was complicated.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

In the beginning there was the park, Madison Park, the land for which was set aside by landowner Judge John McGilvra in 1880. Madison Street had already been named (but not by McGilvra, as is sometimes claimed), and the park at the end of the street logically became Madison Park (the picture above shows the Park in 1900). McGilvra, who owned the surrounding land, developed some of it into cottages, and the growing community along the Lake soon became known as the Madison Park neighborhood. To this point, the story is pretty straightforward.

By early 1900’s the City had already set aside (but had yet to substantially develop) the 260-acre Washington Park, which would later, beginning in the 1930’s, be developed into the Washington Park Arboretum under an agreement between the City and the University of Washington. (The picture above shows Lake Washington Boulevard snaking through the Park in 1913). During the 1920’s, meanwhile, a 216-acre “country club within the city” had been built in Madison Park. Opening in 1927, Broadmoor provided Seattle’s wealthy with a gated community on a golf course, all located within shouting distance of downtown. This is Broadmoor, circa 1930:
Thus, by the late 1930’s the three major components of Madison Park were well established, with Washington Park at one “end” of E. Madison Street, Madison Park at the other, and Broadmoor sitting secluded and serene in the middle. The neighborhood of big houses and mansions built in the area south of Broadmoor (and therefore south of E. Madison Street) become known, apparently early in the 1900’s, as the Washington Park neighborhood. The designation may have been prompted by a desire to distinguish the area from the grittier and more working class housing of Madison Park to the east. Washington Park certainly had a greater cachet than the rest of Madison Park, although after Broadmoor opened, Washington Park was no longer the most exclusive enclave within Madison Park.

Unlike Washington Park, there’s no problem defining the boundaries of Broadmoor: the community is pretty well walled in. The only question that concerns us here, therefore, is whether Broadmoor is part of Madison Park or is not part. I haven’t taken a poll on the subject, but I suspect there may be a few people living there who feel they are not residents of Madison Park. But that’s certainly not the official view. Broadmoor, I am told, has historically been represented on the Madison Park Community Council (MPCC), and to quote current Broadmoor Homeowners Association president Erin McCormick, “I consider our neighborhood part of Madison Park. In fact when I am asked where I live, I say ‘Madison Park area’ because that is well known to people not from the area, and it is a destination point.” Most Seattleites who are in the know, I imagine, would agree that Broadmoor is in Madison Park, just as they think of Blue Ridge as an exclusive section of Ballard. Google, for what it’s worth, actually places Broadmoor at the very center of Madison Park:
While there may be a few exclusivists out there who hold themselves aloof from Madison Park, the record seems pretty clear that both Broadmoor and Washington Park have historically been considered parts of Madison Park and are so viewed by most residents. The interconnection of Broadmoor and Washington Park with the rest of Madison Park is further reinforced by the fact that the Madison Park business district serves as the focal point for most residents of the area. Bert’s, Bing’s, Madison Park Hardware, and Pharmaca are among the many places along the strip where people from each of the neighborhoods intermix on a daily basis. And of course the city park and its beach provide another common point of reference for what is really one big Madison Park community.

Once we accept the idea that we’re all in the Park together, you might think it would be a relatively simple matter to define our boundaries. After all, the Park is surrounded on two sides by water and Lake Washington Boulevard is generally accepted as the demarcation line to the west. But it’s a fact that to both the south and the west there are multiple disputes over large chunks of Madison Park’s territory.

Before we get into all that, let’s start with this blog’s working definition of the community: “Madison Park is bounded by Lake Washington Boulevard E. on the west and south (to the intersection with 39th Avenue E.) and by Lake Washington and Union Bay to the east and north respectively.” Here’s what that looks like on the map:

This definition of Madison Park is consistent with Wikipedia’s definition (I should know, since I wrote it). It has a couple of advantages: 1) it is fairly easy to explain, since Lake Washington Boulevard extends almost to the water at Lake Washington, allowing that street to define both the western and southern boundaries of the Park and 2) it is almost exactly the same definition as used by the U.S. census for King County Tract 63 (shown at right).
For some reason, the Census Bureau doesn’t extend the tract all the way south to the intersection of 39th Avenue E. and Lake Washington Boulevard. Instead, it extends only to 36th Avenue E. and then meanders up Hillside, over to McGilvra and down 39th for awhile, finally reaching the Lake at “E. Mercer Street” (which appears not to be a real street at that point). The difference between Census Tract 63 and our definition of Madison Park, however, is fairly insignificant—amounting, by my count, to 60 or 70 high-end houses.

The City of Seattle, meanwhile, has a very different take on Madison Park’s southern border, eliminating almost all of Washington Park from Madison Park. Here’s what the City’s neighborhood map looks like:

As you can see, a majority of the territory south of E. Madison Street is missing, including all the blocks south of E. Prospect Street and most of the blocks south of E. Lee Street. In fact, the southern border of Madison Park, as defined on the City’s map, is what some people think is the real border between Washington Park and Madison Park. In other words, everything south of E. Madison Street doesn’t necessarily constitute Washington Park, just certain blocks. And these are the very blocks that appear not to be a part of Madison Park in the City’s opinion. In fact the City seems to think that Washington Park is part of some other neighborhood, namely something called Harrison Denny-Blaine.

Now if you have never heard of Harrison Denny-Blaine, you are not alone. Denny-Blaine is certainly a recognized neighborhood, but Harrison Denny-Blaine? If you Google it you find that every reference to HDB ties back to the City’s use of the term on its neighborhood maps. Real estate websites such as Zillow, Redfin and Trulia follow the City’s convention and use the HDB designation, as does Google (although Google places the neighborhood south of Washington Park rather than including Washington Park in HDB).

Why the City appears to believe there’s a Harrison Denny-Blaine neighborhood and why Washington Park is included in it are among the issues we will explore in Part Two of this story, to be posted next week. We’ll also explain why the Madison Park houses located closest to Washington Park Arboretum are designated as “Madison Park” by realtors while some houses that are closest to Madison Park itself (the actual city park, that is) are designated as “Washington Park.”
Confused? Stay tuned.
[Historic photos courtesty of the Seattle Municipal Archives.]

Monday, November 2, 2009

Post-Halloween color in the Park

We lucked out over the weekend with some sunny, warm weather,

which inspired me to get out and wander around the 'hood, camera in hand.

Although I have never considered myself much of a photographer, a day like Sunday in a neighborhood like ours presented some great opportunities for documenting the fall scene that were hard to resist.
These maple trees sure look great now (but there's a lot of fall leaf raking ahead):

Trick or drink?

My neighbors, Adele and Dan Clancy, took what (at least from my perspective) was an innvoative approach to Halloween last Saturday, dressing up and roaming about the neighborhood with empty wine glasses in hand. I'm not sure how many unsuspecting homeowners they accosted with their apparently novel opening line: "Trick or Drink!", but I understand that the tactic (or was it a strategy?) worked very well at multiple locations, including at the Madison Park residence pictured above.
They were, unfortunately, SOL* at our house (no wine on the premises), but we'll be better prepared in the future. Next year we'll report on whether these two fun-loving characters have "double-handedly" been able to establish a new Holloween fashion for Madison Park. A trend has to start somewhere!
*For this audience I can translate the acronym as 'Sorry, Out of Luck."
[Photo by David Hutchins, aka Jimmy Olsen.]