Green space proponents say ‘build parks’ on vacant substation lots rather than develop


TreePAC in the News:

Ballard News Tribune


Green space proponents say ‘build parks’ on vacant substation lots rather than develop

By Shane Harms


North Seattle residents could start seeing more old utility substations developed, which is spurring some citizens to ask the City to think green.

The vacant lots are a way for the City to recoup financial losses due to budget cuts, and there is a history of the sites being sold to the highest bidder.

The properties are vacant land that used to be substations in the 50’s and 60’s and owned by Seattle City Light (SCL). As technology changed, fewer substations were needed. They are recognizable by small concrete surfaces where electrical equipment used to be. In 1968 there were 150 of these properties.

26 years ago, Cass Turnbull, founded Plant Amnesty, a green space advocacy group. Turnbull is a life long gardener and says that the City needs to prioritize green spaces, and that substations are an obvious choice.

“In my heart I get a lot of comfort from trees and green spaces, but I also know they serve a good utilitarian purpose. There is a suite of benefits from green spaces that the City desperately needs more than ever. They are a place to go for the public. They provide tree canopy and prevent runoff…selling them would be irresponsible.”

The sites are about the size of one or two house lots (5,000 square feet) and scattered throughout the city. There were nine in the Ballard area, but now two remain vacant (Sunset Hill: 3209 NW 65th St. and in Ballard: 6730 24th Ave. NW). Some were turned into parks and the rest were sold.


There are eight remaining vacant substations in the broader north Seattle area that are owned by the City and some of those properties are up for sale.

“The sites should be retained as green spaces. Instead they will most likely be sold for development – sold to the highest bidder… It rubs me the wrong way. These are perfectly good spaces that are going to developers, but they could be kept for public use,” said Turnbull.

One site that is in the process of being sold is the Green Lake substation at 949 N. 80th. The City approved the sale of the site last year. Bids are due November 14th.

Turnbull believes the site should be a vegetated buffer between the commercial area on Aurora and the neighboring residential building.

“The agent is collecting bids for the Green Lake Surplus Substation property now, but we are trying to stop this sale from happening and in the future.”

PlantAmnesty is working with the Green Space Coalition to turn other vacant sites across the city into green spaces for public use before the City sells them.

Turnbull has been monitoring the use of vacant substations for a long time and says she can “spot one going 40 miles.” She is watching 10 to 15 more potential City owned sites that will likely become surplus in the near future. Developers are likely doing the same. According to her notes, in 2002 SCL owned 53 surplus properties and so far, seven turned into parks, six went to public housing and three were put on hold for future use by SCL. Eight sites were sold to the highest bidder.

What about the neighbors?

Penny Barker has been living next to the substation in Sunset Hill for over 18 years. The vacant substation is directly behind Ristorante Picolinos, but unsuspecting citizens probably wouldn’t know it’s there unless they are looking for it. The substation is hidden from the street, accessible by alley only and vegetation riots around it.

“It’s really just fine the way it is. It’s becoming quite the green space with all the trees growing over it. Who needs to do anything with it? It could be a P-patch, or something quiet and green,” said Barker.

Barker is not optimistic about the fate of the substation.

“I do think the City will sell it to developers, and I know that the neighbors would be up in arms about it and feel strongly against it.”

Barker reported that in the past the City appraised the lot at $425, 000.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone would want to build something there unless it were really tall.”

Currently, there are no plans for the substation. At one point Ground Swell NW submitted a proposal for a solar panel station and park. SCL deemed the proposal “complex,” and tabled it.
Sunset Hill substation. Shane Harms

So how are substations sold?

During the official disposition process, before the properties are put on the market, the City offers to sell the land to other departments. They also look for potential buyers like the businesses next door. If the properties don’t sell, the City notifies the neighborhood. Sometimes with enough momentum, neighbors can lobby the Seattle City Parks Department to purchase a few of the properties if funding allows. If no takers, the properties are sold to the highest bidder. A similar scenario played out in Northeast Seattle in 2013 and is currently in the works in Southwest Seattle.

In 2006, Matt Rosenberg — founder and editor of Public Data Ferret — reported that SCL had 212 excess properties worth $35 million.

“ I get it. It makes sense that the City would want to sell lots to make up for cuts, but people are freaking out about development. I’m all for density, but responsible density; you need a giant park to go with giant buildings. I don’t know where these people are going to go.”

So why cant the City just hand over the sites to the Parks Department?

Washington State has laws that prevent one public agency from handing over property to another, which is an indirect result of laws set to prevent the public offices from getting into murky land deals with the private sector.

Turnbull, however, thinks there are ways to make the law work for green spaces.

“It looks like it’s impossible to save the lands based on the laws we have, but there are ways to work around it.”

In Turnbull’s eyes, one way to look at the substations is that they are energy-conservation sites; substations could be made into City managed tree banks. Turnbull says that trees conserve energy, especially in the summer, providing a cool place for people to go rather than turning on air conditioners, saving the City and citizens money. She also said green sites act as the lungs of the city and cut back on carbon emissions and also filters runoff. Seattle Public Utilities is already building rain gardens all over Ballard to prevent runoff from overwhelming the sewer system.

“The tree banks could turn the vacant lots into a park or an orchid or a garden — anything really.”

Furthermore, Turnbull thinks that if a developer wants to develop a potential site that has the capacity for saving the City and citizen’s money and protecting the environment, they should have to pay impact fees to develop.

As for the substations in Ballard, they are not for sale yet. However, there is talk that the Northwest substations are up for disposition as soon as the Southwest dispositions are finished in later 2015.

“We have enough development and not enough green space. We are well on our way to meet development goals than we are for green space. It’s easier to retain land rather than turn it into a green space after its been developed.”