Wednesday, June 29, 2011

City ‘reassesses’ road-end blockage policy

By Bryan Tagas

As a result of a unanimous action of the Seattle City Council earlier this month, waterfront property owners who block access to public right of ways will now have to pay more—significantly more—for the privilege.  The City’s new stance has immediate implications for the two Madison Park property owners whose landscaping completely blocks access to the public waterfront at the E. Mercer Street road end.  The new fee schedule is retroactive to January 1, though it will be three more years before full implementation is phased in.

As we reported on this blog and in a front-page story in the Madison Park Times earlier this year, our neighborhood’s sixth public road end has been unusable by the public for many decades. The 120-feet-wide property is located south of the Seattle Tennis Club in an area of 39th Avenue E. known to locals as “Devil’s Dip.”   Though this prime lakeside real estate belongs to the City and is under the jurisdiction of its Department of Transportation, you’d never know it from looking. Conifers and hedges block access to the shoreline and almost totally obscure the view of the Lake.  This situation may change, however, if the abutting property owners decide that the cost of blocking public access is now too steep.  It appears that they will ultimately have to pay at least two times as much for annual permit fees as they have been paying.

But before we get into the details of the City’s new policy and its potential for opening up the E. Mercer Street road end to public use, let’s revisit how this particular piece of Madison Park waterfront ended up as a private reserve.  Since our original story was posted, several longtime residents have come forward with identical—though at this late date, unverifiable—stories about how the street was effectively “vacated” by the abutting property owners; in particular, the owner of the property to the north of the road end, Jacquetta Blanchett Freeman. According to local lore, Ms. Freeman, in order to discourage use by the madding crowd, installed a water-sprinkler system on the public right of way. Whenever she saw someone on the road end she would come out to verify if it was one of her friends or their children; and if not, the sprinklers would suddenly spring to life.  Over the years, Ms. Freeman successfully aborted the picnics, sunbathing activities, and assignations of many unsuspecting visitors to this public site. Eventually, strategic landscaping did the rest—and the public nature of the northern side of the road end became lost to history.

Or so the story goes.  According to one of our sources, there was also a concrete stairway from 39th Avenue E. that onetime provided access to the public waterfront.  That stairway was apparently removed at or before the time Ms. Freeman (or perhaps the previous property owner) convinced the City to allow the construction of a double-wide garage in the middle that public space. That garage is still there.

The property owner just to the south of the road end, meanwhile, planted a hedge of Portuguese Laurel across the southern third of the public space and then created a lovely side yard for himself by extending the hedge straight to the waterline, paralleling his own property.

As we reported, the current owners of these properties did not originate the encroachments but are simply the beneficiaries of a City policy that allows each of them to keep the benefits of excluding the public from the site by paying annual fees of $35,100 and $21,800, respectively.  What our investigation uncovered was the fact that for the entire ten-year period during which the fees have been charged, the City never updated the assessment of area property values upon which its fees were based.  By our estimate, the average assessment by the King County Assessor in 2010 was $467 per square foot for the close-by properties along 39th Avenue E.  In determining the encroachment fees, the City has been using $90 per square foot, the assessment it had originally arrived at in 2000.

This failure to keep pace with market values is what the City Council is attempting to correct with its newly passed ordinance. The original ordinance failed to allow for the use of King County Assessor data when determining fees, and the City had been remiss in never sending its own assessor to the property to re-evaluate the site based on current market conditions.

The new ordinance corrects this oversight by requiring that the land value of the encroached-upon space be based on “the abutting parcel’s current land value per square foot as determined by the King County Assessor.”   This is a big change.  The 2011 assessed value for the abutting property to the south of the road end is $512.71 per square foot.  This would value the 4,800 sq. ft. of the enclosed public property on that side of the road end at $2,461,017.  That’s 5.7 times the value the City assessor had placed on the property and equates to an annual fee increase from $21,600 to about $123,000, all other factors remaining equal.

The abutting property to the north, meanwhile, is assessed at $177.61 per sq. ft., 1.97 times the value the City assessor had previously placed on the property.  This values the enclosed public property there at $1,385,358, which could mean an annual fee increase from $35,100 to about $69,000.  However, because the area encroached upon extends beyond the center line of the public space, part of the 7,800 sq. ft. that the northern property owner has enclosed may be subject to the higher rate paid by the southern property owner.  The ordinance appears to require this: “If the use area extends beyond the centerline of the right-of-way or abuts multiple parcels, the permit fee shall be calculated for each portion of the use area according to the current value of the abutting parcels.”

In any event, the new fees, though retroactive, will not be assessed in full this year.  According to Brian de Place, the City’s Manager for Right-of-Way Management/Street Use, the intention of the ordinance is to “soften the effect of the increase.” So the new fees will be phased in over the next four years, 25% of the total increase to be tacked on each year through 2014.

It has taken the Council about six months to go from drafting to passing the final ordinance, but the impact of this action could have the consequence—unintended or otherwise—of ultimately making the private use of this public space just too expensive for one or more of the abutting property owners to want to pay for.

Time will tell.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Police Blotter 6/20/11

The Seattle Police continue to give special attention to the public drug-use problem in Madison Park.  As we reported last month, stepped-up police patrols are now occurring in the neighborhood, especially at the waterfront road ends of E. Lee, E. Prospect, and E. Highland Streets. It appears, at least anecdotally, that area residents are receiving fairly immediate police response to calls about suspicious behavior at these locations, and the congregation of youths at the road ends in the evenings and at night seems to be leveling off.

Separately, however, there was a report to the police this month about suspicious activity, probably drug-related, further inland at the southern end of Madison Park (the location identified by a yellow needle icon on the map above). The police narrative concerning the situation makes interesting reading.  Our copy of the police report has been redacted, so we will refer to the area resident who reported the suspicious activity as "Concerned Citizen" (CC).

To quote directly from the officer's report:  "On 5/18/11 at about 1600 hours, Concerned Citizen states that suspect vehicle [license plate number redacted], driven by a black male in his 20's, parked in the 1700 block of E. Mercer Street.  She has seen the vehicle on the block at least four times and does not recognize it as belonging to someone who lives in the neighborhood. CC states that the driver meets various vehicles in the block for a few minutes at a time and stores suspected narcotics in the trunk and transfers suspected narcotics into the trunks of the contacted vehicles.

On this date, [the suspect] linked up with with a tan-colored 1990's Toyota Camry...driven by a black male in his 20's, and CC saw what appeared to be a hand-to-hand exchange, with the contents of what was changing hands being concealed in McDonald's paper bags.  After previous appearances by [the suspect] on this block, residents have located apparent drug pipes made of tin foil and small zip lock baggies of the type used to package narcotics deposited on the street pavement after vehicles depart.  After the hand-to-hand exchange, CC took a photo of the [license] plate with her cell phone.  The drivers...may have noticed they were being watched and the vehicles left via the North-South alley  while CC called 911 to report the suspected narcotics activity at 1629 hours.  The vehicles had loitered in the block for about 30 minutes and the Camry had its hood up in what CC believed to be a ruse to justify the loitering. The vehicles were gone when I arrived at 1635 hours."

At the suggestion of the Concerned Citizen, the responding officer then interviewed a neighbor, who said she had been seeing suspicious loitering in the area for about 18 months.  She said she had also seen McDonald's bags being transferred, and both vehicle and on-foot contacts lasting from a few minutes to an hour.  She said that the suspect car was often occupied by three "clean cut" black males in their 20's, and she had previously seen the occupants contact suspected purchasers and walk with them into a nearby alley.  She said she had sometimes smelled marijuana after these incidents.

The officer ran the suspect license plate and discovered that the owner was a previous offender, arrested twice in 2010 on marijuana possession charges, both times while seated in the suspect vehicle.   The suspect was not at home, nor was the suspect car visible, when the officer checked out the suspect's residence.  The police report ends on this note:  "Based on the past narcotics arrests and the driver's actions as described by Concerned Citizen [and the neighbor], it is likely that their suspicions of narcotic activity are founded."

No duh.   However, the case is now officially "inactive" on the SPD books.


This Police Blotter, which covers the period from May 17 through June 20, would not be complete without mention of the typical kinds of criminal activity that occur each month.  This includes a rash of auto thefts (highlighted as solid-car icons on the above map).  Cars were stolen on the 2500 block of Canterbury Lane E. on May 25, on the 2000 block of 43rd Avenue E. on May 26, on the 2200 block of 43rd Avenue E. on June 6, at the intersection of 38th Avenue E. and E. Lee that same day, and on the 1800 block of 40th Avenue E. on June 16.   Car break-ins occurred on the 600 block of 32nd Avenue E. on May 18 and on the 800 block of Hillside Drive E. on June 14.

There were also three home break-ins reported.  Two happened sometime over Memorial Day weekend or shortly thereafter. One homeowner on the 1400 block of 41st Avenue E. reported that upon returning home she discovered that her house's backdoor was unlocked and open and that a bike and laptop had been stolen.  It was a similar story for a resident of the 2400 block of E. Mercer Street, who reported that during the same period someone had broken into his house through the downstairs door by smashing the glass and making entry.  It was unclear what  might have been stolen from the house. The day before Memorial Day Weekend began, another Madison Park resident, this one living on the 1500 block of 38th Avenue E., reported that four bikes had been stolen from his detached garage.

Finally, there was also a break-in at a commercial business on the 4000 block of E. Madison St. on June 14.  The manager arrived at the business that morning and discovered that the glass entrance door had been shattered and that a large wall-mounted television was on the floor, though still plugged into the wall.  It was apparent that the perpetrator had tried to take the TV but could not get it disconnected. By the front counter, the cash register till drawer was sitting on the floor.  The cash register had ben pried open and destroyed and a fax machine was lying upside down on the ground next to the security alarm box, which had been ripped from the wall.  Coins were scattered on the floor behind the counter. The manager also found that the store's safe (which, he said, was probably too heavy to be moved by one person) was missing.  The store's telephone lines had been cut, and it was apparent, according to the police report, that the suspects had attempted to enter an adjoining business by prying open its door but had failed to do so.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Facing up to market realities

We noticed this week that after almost 800 days on the market, the neighborhood’s most expensive spec house just moved from “active” to “pending sale,” thus providing us with a convenient jumping off point for a broader discussion of current market realities and how sellers are coping.  The spec house in question, located at 821 34th Avenue E., was featured on this blog a little over a year ago.  At that time, the 5,500 sq. ft. Georgian Colonial mansion was still for sale at its initial listing price of $5,650,000, which worked out to an eye-popping $1,027 per square foot.

Built in 2009, the Washington Park home featured, among other amenities, a “chef’s kitchen,” a large media room, a fitness center, and—naturally—a staging kitchen for catered events.  The property was conceived as an elegant abode for “the right buyer who will appreciate the value,” said house designer and co-developer Milan Heger at the time.  It appears, however, that the verdict of the market currently places the value at something closer to $3 million than $6 million.  The amount of the pending offer is not disclosed, but it apparently was made one day after the house’s listing price was reduced from $3,995,00 to $3,195,000, according to Redfin.  It seems the house has finally “chased the market down.”  Unfortunately for the sellers, it probably means a sale at 57% of the initial asking price, or less.

Meanwhile, another long-time-on-the-market speculative property finally changed hands in June. That 7,000 sq. ft. Washington Park home was initially offered for $4,290,000 in 2009.  Following a reduction in the listing price to $3,600,000 this spring, it finally sold for $3,250,000, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (MLS). That’s a 24% discount from the original offering price.

These are just two of the more extreme examples of sellers having to face up to current market realities.  Many other Madison Park home sellers, those not in the speculative-home-building business, have had to do the same this year.  Through end the May a total of 30 houses and condos were sold in the neighborhood.  Of these, all but four sold at a discount to their original offering price.  The average discount at sale was 12%, though the actual range of discounts accepted by sellers varied between 1% and 42%, with seven properties selling for more than a 12% discount from the initial price.

We excluded one property that sold during the period from our discount analysis, however, because it was a real outlier.  That property, shown above, is the foreclosed view home located across from the Seattle Tennis Club at 1115 McGilvra Boulevard E. It was listed for sale by the bank at a below-market $587,500 and very quickly sold for $805,000 in May, a hefty 37% premium over the asking price.   We hear there were multiple officers.  In today’s environment, however, typical sellers of properties should be expecting neither premiums nor bidding wars.   Maybe next year.

An aside concerning ‘pending sales’

That very interesting—and often contrarian—website, Seattle Bubble, had an informative posting earlier this month on the subject of pending sales (aka pendings).   Especially when there are few home sales in a given period, real estate brokers and agents often point to the list of pendings as a sign that things are looking up. In past markets, houses that moved from “active” to “pending” usually did end up on the “sold” list within 30 or 60 days. So even if only two houses sold in a market in a given month, for example, the fact that 10 houses were listed as pending sale meant that the following months would probably be much brighter.

Today, that’s not necessarily true.  As reported by Seattle Bubble founder Tim Ellis, there is currently a huge discrepancy in the Seattle market between pending and closed ratios relative to historic levels. He compared the number of pending sales in typical market conditions (January through April 2002) to the average number of actual sales recorded in the succeeding months (February through May 2002) and found that the difference was just 4.1%.  By implication then, almost 96% of pending sales were ultimately resulting in actual sales in 2002.

For this year, over the same two four-month periods, the difference between the average number of pendings and average subsequent sales was 31.7%.  In other words, only about two thirds of pending sales, on average, are currently being translated into closings in future months.  Several factors could be involved, including sales falling through due to lack of financing and a possible lengthening of the time it takes to get a home sold in today’s market.

Since our records for Madison Park do not go back to what would be considered a “normal” market, we can’t verify the extent to which there’s a difference between today’s situation and what transpired in the past in our part of town.  But we are able to look at the relationship between pendings and sold properties over the past year or so (March 2010 to February 2011 for pendings and May 2010 to April 2011 for sales). Doing so, we found that while there were 11 pendings per month, there were only 8 closings per month on average.  That’s a 27% difference, slightly better than the recent numbers for Seattle as a whole, but telling a similar story.

We’ve noticed that several Madison Park properties over the past year have gone from “active” to “pending” and back to “active” on more than one occasion.  It's not the kind of thing sellers—or their agents—like to contemplate.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

98112 fails to make “wealthiest” list

This is one of those “dog that didn’t bark in the night” kind of stories.  Newsworthy, in other words, for what didn’t happen rather than the other way around.  It has to do with a list that our part of town didn’t make this year:  the Puget Sound Business Journal’s Top-25 “Wealthiest Zip Codes” ranking for the region.  The fact that we’re not on it seemed strange to us since, as far as we could recall, we’d always been on it in the past.

But it turns out that’s not quite true.  We’d apparently been on the list every year until last year, when 98112 suddenly dropped from 10th place to off the list entirely.  In 2009, when Madison Park Blogger last reported on the PSBJ rankings, 98112 was one of only three Seattle zip codes that made the list, the others being 98177 (which includes the Highlands and Blue Ridge) and 98199 (which includes Magnolia).

However, all of the Seattle zip codes dropped off the 2010 PSBJ list, putting a spotlight (though one we missed) on what seemed to be the accelerating shift of wealth in the region from Seattle to the Eastside. The 2011 PSBJ list mirrors the 2010 edition in terms of the Top Ten represented:  Medina’s zip is in the lead, with seven other Eastside zips plus those for Fox Island and Bainbridge Island also making the cut.  The 98112 zip code area, of which Madison Park comprises about a quarter of the population, also includes Montlake, Denny Blaine, and most of Capitol Hill.

Here’s the strange part of the story.  In 2009 the PSBJ estimated the average household net worth for 98112 at $1,127,992, yet this year the PSBJ believes that number is well less than $500,000.  And while PSBJ showed top-ranked Medina’s average household net worth at $2,272,662 in 2009, the paper believes that number is only $830,068 this year, a whopping 63% decline over two years.  Yes, housing values have fallen, but the stock market was actually up during the intervening period.

Though 98112’s current average net household net worth is not reported by the PSBJ, by implication it would have to have been estimated by the paper as being less than the $476,049 it reports for the 25th-ranking zip code on its list this year: 98065 (Snoqualmie).  Given that PSBJ computed 98112’s average net worth at over $1 million in 2009, that would mean a 59%-or-more decline in our area’s wealth since that time.  

Such a huge falloff in our prosperity would really be something to report if it were actually true.  Fortunately, there’s no reason to believe it is.  It seems that in 2010 the PSBJ changed data sources and the new provider computes net household income and net worth on a different basis from that used by the old data gatherer.  This change significantly downshifted the values in 2010 from those of previous reporting periods, making the PSBJ’s 2010 list (and this year’s) not comparable to those of previous years.

It does make one wonder, however, how the information is computed and whether the resulting Top-25 list is even worth contemplating. After all, when the numbers from two different data sources vary by such a wide margin it naturally raises the question of their validity. The PSBJ says it utilized U.S. Census Bureau data, along with information from Nielsen Claritas, which samples households nationally and then interpolates the results by zip code.  The 2010 census numbers for household income, however, are not yet available—and household net worth is not even among the questions surveyed by the Census.

We do know that valid 2010 Census numbers will soon be available for Madison Park specifically.  When they arrive we will, of course, report them.

[Above: Puget Sound Business Journal map (click to enlarge), showing Top Ten area zip code areas based on estimated average net worth of households. Below:  Map showing 98112 geographic coverage area.]

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Floating bridge closed this weekend

This is just a follow up to our earlier posting, reminding Madison Parkers of the upcoming temporary closure of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, formally known as the Albert D. Rosellini Bridge. Beginning at 11 pm on Friday night and extending through 5 am on Monday morning, the bridge will be closed to traffic.  The closure will affect the SR-520 route all the way from the Montlake Boulevard exit in Seattle to the intersection of the highway with I-405 in Bellevue. The Montlake exit Eastbound from 520 will remain open.

Those living close to the bridge may be able to hear the noise of nighttime construction, which is expected to continue throughout the full period of the bridge closure. The most intensive work, however, will be on the Eastside, where the demolition of the pedestrian overpass at Medina and the building of a temporary intersection at Bellevue Way Northeast will be underway. This project is all about the expansion of SR-520 over there, all in preparation for the construction of the new floating bridge.

The map above (click to enlarge) shows this and the other Father's Day Weekend traffic disruption in the area, an unrelated closure of the I-5 on-ramps and off-ramps at Mercer Street. The closure will occur over the same period SR-520 is closed and is related to the Mercer Corridor Project.  Detour maps are available on the project site.

More information about the SR-520 closure is available here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bing's is sold

Although the deal had been in the works for several months, it was not until Friday last week that the final documents were signed and Bing’s officially changed hands.  The transition from old to new went unnoticed by patrons, however, since there was not much change in evidence.  Stan Moshier and Lori Campbell, who first opened Bing’s Bodacious Burgers in 1999, were still on board this weekend, working side by side with the new owners—at least one of whom is a very familiar face on the premises.

Stan and Lori told us that the reason for selling is that they’re ready to move on to the next thing.  There will definitely be a different eating establishment in their future.  For Bing’s new owners, George and Kylie Marshall, on the other hand, getting this gig of owning and operating a neighborhood restaurant is a dream come true.  Both sides, therefore, see the ownership change as a win/win situation.

It’s a win also for fans of the current Bing’s, since this will not be another Sostanza or Sorella’s kind of transition (shut the old place down and replace it with something new).  When we asked if big changes should be expected, George responded, “Not at all.  If it’s working, why fix it?”  There could be some tweaks here and there over time, he admitted, but nothing that would change the basic atmosphere or cuisine of the place.

George’s wife, Kylie, is well aware of what makes Bing’s a successful local food joint, having been part of the crew at Bing’s for the last six years.  With this move, she goes from co-worker to co-owner.  It’s a change she says she’s still getting the hang of.

Bing’s has been a neighborhood institution for the last twelve years. The family-style restaurant replaced the pharmacy that had previously gone out of business at that location.  The restaurant had something of a serendipitous birth.  As described by Lori, she and Stan were in the neighborhood to have brunch at The Attic when they stumbled upon a “For Lease” sign in the window at 4200 E. Madison St.  At that time they owned and operated a neighborhood pub in Greenwood called Pig n’ Whistle, but they wanted to do something new. They decided that their discovery of that great space gave them the opportunity to make it happen. Stan came up with the concept and then designed and built the restaurant that occupies the space today. This was just another in a series of successful restaurant-building ventures by Stan’s construction company. He’s built 16 restaurants to date, of which four he’s owned and operated.

New owners George and Kylie have a romantic story of having met at the Cheesecake Factory, where they both worked at the time. George, who hails originally from New Jersey, has 22 years of restaurant experience--beginning at MacDonald’s when he was just 15.  Kylie, who grew up on Whidbey Island, is one of several mutual friends from the island who moved to Seattle and ended up working at Bing’s together.

According to George, soon after he and Kylie first started dating five years ago, he said to her, “Someday we are going to own a restaurant together.” But he had no idea when that might happen.  He had become familiar with Bing’s as a result of picking up Kylie after work, and Kylie liked the vibes at Bing’s and enjoyed her co-workers. So when the opportunity came along to consider buying the place, they were definitely interested. Though it’s taken some time to iron out the details, George says that he and Kylie have gone into the new venture well aware of both the challenges and the opportunities they’ll encounter.  All of those years in the business, he says, are presumably worth something.

The new management team will continue to have the help of the old team for the immediate future.  In the long run, however, Stan and Lori plan to develop a new restaurant, with both the location and concept still to be determined.  Stan’s construction company is currently building a restaurant in Columbia City that will be owned by two former Bing’s employees, Heather Anderson and Sam Allard.

Oh, and then there’s Stan’s other, absolutely unrelated business: Hamm Industries, a distributor of, among other things, “manure vacuums and arena rakes” for the equestrian circuit.   As we said, unrelated.

[Lower photo:  Kylie, on the left, with her former co-worker and now employee, Faith.]

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Great day for a race

As happened last year, Mother Nature cooperated by suddenly producing a picture-perfect morning for the Shore Run/Walk event. Thousands of runners, walkers, and spectators thronged the neighborhood today for what was another highly successful fundraising effort in support of Fred Hutch.

Of course the most-fun event for many of us during the Shore Run each year is the Half-Mile Kids' Run. Watching it, that is.

The Kids' Run, sponsored this year by Zillow, brought out legions of parents, grandparents, and assorted hangers-on to witness the expectant faces as the runners readied...

...the initial burst of energy as the starting horn sounded...

...and the adrenaline rush of the runners when the finish line was in sight.

If there were any in the race or on the sidelines not having a good time, we didn't see them them.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Remember: Shore Run is tomorrow

The neighborhood will be disrupted for a good cause on Sunday morning as the 34th Annual Shore Run/Walk takes place to benefit the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The 5K and 10K events each terminate in Madison Park, and the Half-Mile Kids' Run will also utilize some surface streets in the 'hood, so parking and traffic flow through the area will be impacted.  Lake Washington Boulevard and McGilvra Boulevard E. will be closed to traffic at 7:45 am along the route and will not be reopened until the last runner or walker crosses the finish line (in the area of E. Madison Street and 42nd Avenue E.). Everyone should be across by 11:30.  The Kids' race takes place at 10:15 am, beginning at the intersection of 43rd Ave. E. and E. Howe Street.

Volunteers are still needed.  If you'd like to participate, call Judy Curran at (206) 328-4828 (

Friday, June 10, 2011

New York Times does Seattle

It's not every day that a Madison Park establishment is mentioned in the national media, but the Madison Park Conservatory merited this honor today in the New York Times, whose reviewer, Frank Bruni, created a Seattle tasting menu based on his experiences during the several days he spent in our mostly-rainy-though-briefly-sunny city. His story, which will presumably appear in tomorrow's printed edition of the Times, cites MPC as "an excellent recent arrival to the shores of Lake Washington" and calls the brunch he was served there "fantastic."

Bruni's take our town's culinary standing is worth quoting at length: "To eat in and around Seattle, which I did recently and recommend heartily, isn’t merely to eat well. It is to experience something that even many larger, more gastronomically celebrated cities and regions can’t offer, not to this degree: a profound and exhilarating sense of place.  I’m hard-pressed to think of another corner or patch of the United States where the locavore sensibilities of the moment are on such florid (and often sweetly funny) display, or where they pay richer dividends, at least if you’re a lover of fish."

You can read the full story here.

Tracking down a rumor

Multiple tipsters have contacted us this week asking what's the story on the sudden appearance of bank guards at the Madison Park branches of both BofA and KeyBank. Is there some threat we should know about?

We can confirm that the guards are present in both locations, but each bank is giving the same reason as to why:  this is just the normal rotation of guards among that bank's branch network. It's sort of a showing-the-flag effort, presumably resulting from the fact that costs are prohibitive for banks to have guards at all branches at all times. So they rotate the guards around the system. Or so the story goes.

Though it does seem rather coincidental that two different banks would decide to send guards to Madison Park at the same time,  it's worth noting that when we checked today there were no guards at either Chase's or Wells Fargo's bank branches. We're therefore assuming that there's not some neighborhood-wide bank issue which warrants an investigation on our part.  And besides, the likelihood is rather low that any bank would confirm to a blogger that it has some a vulnerability for which beefed-up security is necessary.

If something newsworthy does happen at one of our bank branches, we'll let you know.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Seattle Times: late to the party

MLK sale is suddenly big news

Commentary By Bryan Tagas

If there were an award for ringing the fire bell after the house has burned down, the Seattle Times would surely be deserving of a nomination today for its front-page story concerning the School District’s sale of Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School last year. The paper’s breathless coverage focuses on the questionable decision-making process by Seattle Schools and the conflict of interest which may have existed because of ties by District decision makers to the low-ball bidder, First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME).

Ostensibly, from the point of view of the Times, what makes this story suddenly worthy of this high-profile treatment is the fact that the State Auditor’s Office has announced it is looking into the situation.  But what really makes the case potentially juicy for the newspaper is the possible involvement in the School’s decision-making process of the now notorious Fred Stephens. That’s the man, as readers will recall, who famously failed to supervise ex-furniture repairman Silas Potter, the guy who eventually took down School Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson last year.

We now know a lot more about some of the players than we did at the time the School Board decided the MLK School issue.  Presumably this knowledge informs the Times’ new sensationalist approach to the MLK story--a story that many people, in and out of the media, were pretty well aware of before the State Auditor got involved.

One may legitimately ask, “What did the Times know and when did it know it?”  Surely the paper was aware that the School District was about to sell MLK for “a song” (to quote today’s headline) well before that sale actually took place.  If the paper had covered the story then as it covered it today, it would have provided the public service of shining a light on a very flawed process.  The Times also knew, or should have known, that there were legitimate procedural questions about the sale that had been raised by the opponents.  Included on that list was the fact that the School District did little due diligence with regard to FAME’s proposal to purchase the property.  We reported this bombshell as part of our own coverage of the MLK sale (Ron English, the School District’s in-house lawyer, telling us that no analysis was undertaken).

Before the School Board voted, what did the Times actually do with the information at its disposal?  It buried it on the inside pages, running a perfunctory story about the upcoming sale.  Why would the paper do that rather than beat the sensationalist drum it so recently discovered?  Well, it’s only speculation on my part, but when the MLK situation should have been big news the Times was editorially supporting passage of the $48 million Seattle School levy.  To do a story on the District giving away School assets “for a song” would have potentially undermined the paper’s effort to see the levy passed. Surely the Times would not have wanted blame for causing a levy failure.

But maybe that’s unfair.  Perhaps this was simply a case of slipshod journalism—the failure to follow a story to its logical conclusion.   Whatever the reason, mainstream media failed to do its job, with the Seattle Times squarely in the forefront.

What makes the MLK sale a big story is not just the possibility that School official Fred Stephens may have wanted to sell the property to a Church at which his father was once the pastor—or even that he may have used undue influence to see that that sale ultimately occurred.  If any of these allegations is true, this conflict-of-interest angle is certainly worthy of reportage.

What’s an even bigger story, however, is the one that’s based these facts:
  • Our cash-strapped School District sold a valuable asset for a pittance 
  • The process for vetting the various School-purchase proposals was critically flawed 
  • The taxpayers of the State (through Legislative appropriation) ended up paying for a church to acquire public property that could much later be resold by that church without any repayment to the taxpayers
Today the Seattle Times’ kicker (that line of copy just above the headline) screams: “Seattle school district passed up millions to favor low bidder in sale of Madison Valley school.”

NOW you tell us!

[The former MLK Elementary School site acquired by FAME is located at 3201 E. Republican St.  Photos show the current condition of the buildings on the property.] 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Crime watch

It’s that time of year again

One morning last week we awoke to discover something strange about the bags of used clothes we’d deposited on our street corner the previous night for pick up by the Northwest Center truck. Though we had put out three bags for the charity, only two remained. One of them, perhaps the one containing the Cole-Haan shoes, had been stolen during the night.

Later in the week a neighbor reported that two suspicious characters had recently been observed standing in the yard of her neighbor’s house. When accosted, the men had taken off, one of them jumping a fence to make his getaway.

Then there was that photo sent by another neighbor recently, showing a car up the street that had been broken into the previous night.

As we’re noted many times before, good weather seems to prompt an increase in criminal activity in the neighborhood. We’re now at that time of year where we remind everyone that leaving windows open, ladders leaning against the house, and doors unlocked while you work in the yard is simply inviting trouble.

The best way to keep crime down is to be vigilant. Later this week we’ll recycle an anti-crime posting we did last year, one that contains some timely words to the wise.  In the meantime, here’s some scuttlebutt that we’ve picked up that may have some salutary value.

First of all, it appears that the Seattle Police have stepped up their routine patrolling in the neighborhood in the wake of the armed robbery incident last month.  We learned of this from another neighbor, have seen evidence of it with our own eyes, and have followed up with the police to confirm the story.

Officer Raymond Taylor, one of two officers who regularly cover our police beat (known as Charlie 3), reports, “My personal patrol focus has shifted more towards proactively enforcing public drinking and marijuana use by juveniles after the reported robbery behind the Tennis Club on April 29th. Street level drug use attracts small-time drug dealers who commit crimes such as armed robbery.”

With regard to crime prevention, Officer Taylor says “I give to the residents of Madison Park the same tips I would give someone living on Broadway: get to know your neighbors and REPORT SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY!!! When the police capture criminals, it is often because of alert citizens who see suspicious activity and call 911.

The hot crime in Madison Park seems to be nighttime car prowls as of late. Car break-ins are generally not random. Your basic car prowler will only target cars that obviously have loot to take. It is super easy to avoid getting your car broken into. DON’T LEAVE VALUABLES IN YOUR CAR!!! Sounds simple, I know, but I am always amazed at how many GPS screens I see visible on the dashboards of parked cars.” 

Officer Taylor also encourages everyone to check out the safety and crime-prevention tips available on the Seattle Police website.

Criminals are known to case the neighborhood, looking for vulnerabilities.  An MPB reader emailed us late last month about a suspicious evening visit to her house by someone claiming to be from ADT, the electronic security vendor.  She did not let the person into her house; and when she called ADT to ask about the solicitation, she was told it was unlikely that anyone representing ADT would be calling that late in the day.

Finally, just to make the point about vigilance being key, here’s a useful story from a resident of Montlake, who posted it to that neighborhood’s listserv:

“The police asked us to pass on information about a burglary at our home so that neighbors step up their awareness. On Saturday morning, 5/14 at about 12:15 am, our house sitters walked in on a burglary in progress in our home. 

The burglar(s) had entered our garage by a side door and used our ladder and emergency flashlight to checkout the house. They did this even though there were two cars parked in our driveway. 

All but one of our windows has stops on them so they only open a few inches. The one window without is hung in such a way that the stops cannot be installed. They used a screwdriver to open the window and entered the house-taking two TV's and a laptop before they were surprised by our friends.

In addition it appears they searched through our grill to see if we had a key hiding in there.

No one was hurt and they ran away as soon as they heard the house sitters come into the house.

This same type of burglary happened to our neighbors down the block about four weeks ago. They arrived home late at night and surprised the thieves as they were still in the house.

 We have neighbors in back of us and on either side of our home who can see into our back yard, but of course they were all asleep. Unfortunately, our dog was with the house sitters and not at home either. We have a “beware of dog” sign as well as an alarm company sign in the yard (but no alarm) and obviously they were not scared off by them.

The detective says [housebreakers] have been pretty brazen but run as soon as they are discovered. He suggested 1) locking garage doors and cars even if the cars are in your driveway, 2) make sure all windows have stops on them so they cannot be opened 3) not leaving electronics (i.e. laptops and IPhones) out where they can be seen.”

Live and learn.

[Morning-after car break-in photo by Graham Fernald, showing the scene at McGIlvra and Galer in late May.]

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Pit Bull "Honey" not dangerous after all !

This is a shocking story of which we were unaware until it was pointed out to us today by an alert reader.  It seems that back in February, the Pit Bull that attacked and injured three women on a Madison Park sidewalk last summer was declared not dangerous. The dog is therefore allowed to live with its owner inside City limits without restriction. When we last reported on the situation in October, the dog, named Honey, had been declared dangerous by the Director of the Seattle Animal Shelter.  As a result of that decision, her owner was required to either euthanize Honey or remove her from Seattle and place her in a secure facility.

Didn't happen.

The successful appeal by the owner of the Director's decision was reported by the Seattle PI this morning.  The website's story, actually, is not about Honey, but about another Pit Bull case involving a dog in Magnolia that  bit off the lip of its victim.  That dog, like Honey, was ordered banished from the City or killed, but the owner has appealed that ruling and apparently may win a reprieve.  The fact that Honey's owner was able to appeal and win is cited as a precedent for the Magnolia Pit Bull case.

According to the PI report, at issue is the City's dangerous-animal ordinance, which narrowly defines the term "dangerous."  Honey caused injuries to two of her three victims that were sufficient to send them to the Emergency Room.  Yet the examiner hearing Honey's appeal found that the injuries were not sufficiently serious to warrant a "dangerous animal" designation for Honey.   Hence she is free to be.

Last we heard, Honey was living in West Seattle.

[Upper photo:  Honey when captured by Animal Control officers in August.  Lower photo: injuries of one of the victim at three weeks after the attack.  More background on this story is available here.]