Over the objections of maritime unions, the Port of Seattle yesterday chose a mixture of industrial and commercial development for its 57-acre...

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Over the objections of maritime unions, the Port of Seattle yesterday chose a mixture of industrial and commercial development for its 57-acre Pier 91 area between Magnolia and Queen Anne.

Port commissioners voted 3-2 to move forward with what will undoubtedly be a lengthy and contentious fight over the future of the mostly vacant land.

Under the plan adopted yesterday, the Port would seek zoning changes to allow a wider range of development, such as biotech research and manufacturing. Then the Port would use $25 million from King County taxpayers to develop roads and utilities before leasing the land to developers.

Supporters of the plan say it could bring 10,000 jobs to the city and help invigorate the region’s biotechnology industry by providing sorely needed space for biotech labs and manufacturing. It would support Pier 91’s tenants now, large fishing and seafood-processing operations that employ more than 1,000 workers.

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The plan was a compromise: Commissioners had previously backed away from plans to allow residential development on a portion of the site, and the retail portion of the project is said to be the minimum needed to provide restaurants and shops for the planned work force.

Commissioners Bob Edwards, Pat Davis and Paige Miller voted for the plan, while Alec Fisken and Lawrence Molloy voted against it.

“Nothing’s finished with this,” Edwards said. “We’re just opening up to some possibilities.” He noted the Port will have to go through a lengthy process to change city zoning, and later commissioners would have to vote on each deal to lease North Bay land.

Davis and Edwards said they based their votes on the potential jobs. “We have an obligation to put public assets to work for the public,” Davis said. “We have a mandate to create jobs, in my opinion.”

Fisken questioned the $25 million investment, predicting a “large loss” if the Port went ahead with the plan. “I think we’d be better off if we just gave the land to the parks department,” he said. “We’d lose less money.”

Maritime unions and the King County Labor Council argued the Port is obligated to preserve the land’s designation for maritime-related industrial uses.

David Freiboth, president of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, said the potential for a cargo port at the site would be “destroyed” by the development plan. “When it goes away, it’s going to be gone,” he said, to make room for commercial- and light-industrial development that doesn’t need the waterfront site, he said.

The Port acquired much of the North Bay area from the Navy in the 1970s.

For years, state apples were exported through Piers 90 and 91, and Nissans were imported from Japan on their way to U.S. dealerships. Nissan moved out in 2000, apples a year later.

But John Munson, representing the International Longshoremen’s Union, said container traffic with Asia has grown and Terminal 91 might be needed once again to handle container traffic.

“To rezone the North Bay property is squandering an irreplaceable public asset,” Munson said.

Miller disagreed, saying the Port 15 years ago concluded that Terminal 91 didn’t have a future as a container port because of its location. Trucks transporting containers have to navigate the “Mercer Mess” to get to Interstate 5, she noted.

Miller said Terminal 91 houses some of the largest North Pacific fishing vessels, and the Port has invested $100 million to continue it as a maritime facility.

If the Port’s development plans are successful, it would create 3.75 million square feet of industrial and commercial space, more than twice as much as Seattle’s largest skyscraper, the Bank of America Tower.

Built over 25 years, the development would turn what is now mostly a wasteland of vacant parking lots into factories, offices, research labs, retail stores and restaurants.

The Port needs city approval to go ahead, and it’s not clear how Mayor Greg Nickels and City Council will respond, especially since the city is contemplating big investments to develop a biotech research-heavy neighborhood in South Lake Union.

Tom Boyer: 206-464-2923 or tboyer@seattletimes.com