For tourists, the Ride the Ducks attraction offers a fun sightseeing tour through the city and a plunge into Lake Union, with a cruise past Seattle’s famed houseboats and the working waterfront.
But a request by the company to build a new launch ramp on property it purchased on the lake’s southeast shore has alarmed some neighbors, including residents of a large floating-home colony who worry about the noise, diesel fumes and safety of the World War II-era amphibious vehicles.
The company bills the rides as a “party that floats,” complete with a “crazy captain” who narrates the passing scenery through a loudspeaker and passengers outfitted with duck squawkers.
At the height of summer, the Duck boats enter and leave Lake Union 150 times a day, or about once every four minutes in a 10-hour day, according to company estimates and the neighbors’ calculations. Plans call for a ramp just south of a small street-end park and 100 feet from the nearest houseboats.
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“It’s like putting a truck route through a quiet, residential neighborhood,” said Dave Galvin, who has lived on a nearby houseboat for 26 years.
Seattle Parks Department commissioners have also raised concerns about the proposal.
But the owner of Ride the Ducks, Brian Tracey, said he plans to be a good neighbor. His boats currently share a public boat ramp near Gas Works Park that gets backed up in summer.
The construction of the new ramp would include beautifying what is now a derelict dock and overgrown street edge, he said. He’s met twice with neighbors to reassure them that the business will protect safety and continue the maritime industrial use for which the property is zoned.
“We’re trying to let the neighbors know we’re the good guys, not the bad guys,” said Tracey.
And while the neighbors are concerned about the impacts to their homes and the park, they are also dismayed at the assistance city staff has given to the Ducks’ owner to locate and permit the property, and at what they call a lack of outreach with the community.
The new ramp would be located on a piece of a former NOAA site that features almost 900 feet of prime urban shoreline. The property runs along Fairview Avenue East and the Cheshiahud Loop bicycle and pedestrian trail that the city plans to extend around Lake Union.
The privately owned site was leased for years by the federal government as the home to four research vessels that were relocated in 2011 to Newport, Ore.
Tracey purchased a part of the site in April 2012 for $1.5 million, according to county property records. He then resold a portion that included docks to U.S. Seafoods for $1.3 million in August 2012, keeping enough land for his operations.
U.S. Seafoods paid $7.5 million for the rest of the site, also in August 2012.
Knowing that a change in ownership of the property could significantly impact the neighborhood, the Eastlake Community Council wrote into its 1999 neighborhood plan that the city should give high priority to planning for future uses, including potential expansion of the existing park, recreational activities and preserving maritime industry.
In 2010 and 2011, after NOAA announced its plans to relocate, neighborhood leaders renewed their requests to the city to plan for the future of the site, said Chris Leman, president of the Eastlake Community Council.
Leman said they learned in May 2012 about the sale of the property to Ride the Ducks, “not from the city or the business, but from the Puget Sound Business Journal.”
Email exchanges among city leaders, obtained under the state Public Disclosure Act, show them assuring each other, and the attorney for Ride the Ducks, that no planning with the community was required.
Steve Johnson, director of the Office of Economic Development, alerted Mayor Mike McGinn in October 2011 and again two months later that the Eastlake Community Council wanted to be involved in planning for the former NOAA property.
In a second email, Johnson said he and the Department of Planning and Development, which issues construction permits, should work closely “so we can manage both the politics and the policy.”
“We know there is a lot of developer interest in the property so there might be a request that the City work with the current owner and prospective purchaser about community benefit in exchange for allowable uses,” Johnson wrote. “I doubt that discussion, if we even wanted to entertain it, would be in the manner that Chris Leman imagines.”
The email exchange ends in December 2011 with Roque Deherrera, a business advocate for the Economic Development Office, informing Jack McCullough, attorney for Ride the Ducks, and the Ducks’ owner that the city has “no interest in conducting a planning process for the NOAA site.”
Johnson was not available Friday to comment, but Deherrera said the office doesn’t have “the budget to do a planning process, and it’s not on our work plan.” He said he had worked with the Ducks’ owner, Tracey, for six years to try to find property for a new launch site.
“Having U.S. Seafood and Ride the Ducks at that site is a huge win for the city. We would argue that maintaining industrial uses at the NOAA site is consistent with the neighborhood plan,” Deherrera said.
Rob Widmeyer, a Seattle architect and houseboat resident, said he had worked in the past with the Parks Department to try to acquire a portion of the NOAA property to expand Terry Pettus Park. He was told money wasn’t available.
Widmeyer has also reviewed the email record on the NOAA site and the city’s involvement. “An aspect I find particularly frustrating is that Roque Deherrera has been actively assisting Ride the Ducks for years,” he said.
Leman, the Eastlake Community Council president, said the emails show that not only was his own involvement marginalized, but so was the role of the community as neighborhood stewards.
“This was the largest property on the lake for sale in generations. They not only didn’t involve us, it’s clear they did not consult with the Parks Department at all,” Leman said.
The Parks Board of Commissioners voted in February to oppose the Ride the Ducks’ permit for a new entry ramp. It cited the impact on the Cheshiahud Loop trail, pedestrian and bicycle safety on Fairview Avenue East, and the “quiet setting” of Terry Pettus Park.
The Department of Planning and Development said it is still gathering information on the permit application and doesn’t have a timeline for a decision.
Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story. Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes