When the days are long and the sun burns hot, crowds descend upon Alki Beach.
Joggers, speed walkers and dog walkers cruise along the boardwalk, outpaced by long-boarders and pedi-cabbies, cyclists and rollerbladers. Cars circle again and again, in search of elusive parking.
Children drag driftwood sticks in the sand, racing past the sun worshippers, the volleyball players and the families that have been there since morning to stake out barbecue grills.
Out on the water, sailboats tilt in the wind, a lone paddle boarder makes his way along the coastline, a man roars by on a Jet Ski wearing what appears to be a shark fin on his head.
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There’s something so magnetic about being where the saltwater meets the sun and the sand that each summer Alki transforms into the Venice Beach of the Northwest.
But when the rains return, the restaurant patios clear out, the beach is again deserted, and the locals breathe a sigh of relief.
Alki turns back into what it has been all along: a quiet neighborhood surrounded by water at the northern edge of West Seattle.
Lisa Del Rosario moved to Alki four years ago from Ellensburg and before that from Graham, because she liked its familiar small-town vibe.
“I never have to leave. I try not to leave. Everything I need is here,” Del Rosario said, in between explaining a “dirty Chai” (“chai with a shot of espresso”) to a regular at Pioneer Coffee, where she is the manager. WalkScore, a Seattle company that provides automated walkability ratings, considers this slice of town“somewhat walkable” and gives it a rating of 61 (out of 100).
She shares the $1,800 rent on a four-story house on Beach Drive Southwest with three friends, a house with balconies on every floor.
For her, “the chaos on the beach” during summer is the only downside, she said. Trash cans fill to overflowing. Crime goes up. There have been shootings. Last summer, her housemate was attacked at night walking to a bar along Alki Avenue Southwest. But she’s willing to put up with it.
“I’ve tried moving to other places,” she said, citing short stints in Lower Queen Anne and Northgate, “but I moved back. No other place in Seattle had this feeling.”
It was the miles of uninterrupted sidewalk, from the promenade to Duwamish Head, that first brought Bill Goto to Alki.
While going through a painful divorce over 11 years ago, he took to driving to Alki every day after work to rollerblade for hours.
“It was my therapy,” Goto said. “I was in really good shape.”
Three years ago he stopped into the Cactus Restaurant on a Monday night. A friend at the bar introduced him to Jennifer Leach, who loves to salsa. Goto, who is originally from Cuba, is an excellent dancer. The couple now shares the top floor of a 1904 house on 55th Avenue Southwest, where Leach works from home as an environmental consultant.
“I like to tell people we met the old-fashioned way,” said Leach. “So many people meet online.”
Despite the hassle posed by summer crowds, the locals work to protect access to the beach for everyone. Neighbors rallied when, in 2008, the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department tried to ban bonfires on the beach.
Longtime Alki resident Richard Lee organized a petition, gathering 2,500 signatures within two weeks, he said.
“People are united in their concern for the beach,” said Lee, who runs a landscaping business.
He wrote letters, and walked along the beach every night for 90 days surveying the people using the fire pits. Besides families and groups of friends, he also found Boy Scout troops earning fire-building merit badges, church groups and youth groups and people from all over, coming to sit by the fire on Alki.
Lee himself will soon have to leave the home he rents a few blocks from the water, and which he shares with his daughter, a student at the University of Washington. The property is slated for demolition, along with adjacent homes, to make way for a row house development.
It won’t be the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last.
The transition of Alki from modest beach bungalows to more densely packed town houses, apartment buildings and luxury condominiums has been under way for decades, leaving the few remaining waterfront cottages sandwiched among six-story high rises.
It was during the 1990s that the growth took off at Alki, said Tracy Harris, a real- estate agent with Prudential Northwest Realty Associates who has been negotiating sales along the waterfront since retiring from his first career as a minor league baseball player, a draft pick for the Mariners in the 1970s.
“I sold Duke Duke’s’,” Harris said, in reference to the property where the popular chowder house restaurant now sits.
While sales have been slow at Alki since the market crashed in 2007, things are beginning to pick up, he said.
A single luxury condo on a property he assembled at 1226 Alki Ave. S.W. sold for $845,000 in April, according to Zillow.
Waterfront-property homes targeted for their development potential can go for anywhere from $450,000 to $800,000, Harris said, depending on the zoning restrictions and whether adjacent properties are also available.
“It’s been slow, but it’s starting to come back,” he said.
According to Zillow.com, the median price of a single family home was $460,500 last month, up 5.4 percent year-over-year, and up 0.7 percent from the previous month. That’s significantly higher than the city of Seattle’s median home value of $384,300.
Renters are paying more, too. Median rent in the area is $2,058, according to Zillow’s Rent Index. For Seattle, median is $1,871.
Harris’ own father was once pushed out of a rental bungalow on the Alki waterfront during the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Dick Harris, now 91, can speak to a time when the piers at Alki included the Black Ball Ferry landing and Blackie’s Boathouse. He took his rowboat out in the mornings to fish for trout when he was 6 years old, and he took the Alki streetcar to school. Once he saw a woman burst out of what is now the Alki Tavern wearing nothing but shoes, a vision burned vividly into his memory even to this day.
It was a different era, but in some ways, things were the same. The bank owned the home he lived in with his mother and stepfather, and when the bank decided to sell it for $380, they couldn’t afford to buy. So they moved.
But Tracy recently persuaded his father, a retired lawyer, and his mother, Bea Harris, to move back to Alki, into a home on 64th Avenue Southwest, blocks from where his childhood home used to be.
Ever since he got his first bike at 9 years old, Dick Harris has liked to ride. Concerned for his safety, last year his children persuaded him to trade in his two-wheeler for an adult-sized tricycle, which he now takes out on most mornings for a four-mile ride.
He rides past the house where his mother lived until she was 105, past where the old community center used to be.
Being back on Alki, he said, “is very nostalgic.”