The outermost dock at the city-owned Leschi marina is sinking. A long row of finger piers where small sailboats and motor boats once moored is empty, the decking rotted and the underwater flotation broken away.
Tenants, many whose families have rented space monthly at the marina and the Lakewood moorage a mile south for several generations, say the city collected their moorage fees and diverted them to other needs in the parks system — for 30 years.
But a city plan to generate more revenue and make the needed repairs divided tenants, some who fear commercialization of the small marinas and a crowding out of their boats with big yachts that would pay higher fees.
So Acting Parks and Recreation Superintendent Christopher Williams approached Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn in August, and the mayor agreed to put $4 million in the 2014 budget to repair the most dangerous and deteriorated part of the south Leschi marina, which is home to sailboat races, dragon boats and a sailing club for people with disabilities.
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McGinn also agreed to stop the search for a private operator to take over both moorages.
“The community was rightly concerned that they’d been paying moorage fees all these years and haven’t seen repairs. The money is a good-faith investment that allows us to reset the discussion and have a conversation with the community going forward about a sustainable funding model,” McGinn said.
Boat owners, many of whom live in the adjacent Leschi, Mount Baker, Lakewood and Seward Park neighborhoods along Lake Washington, remain wary of the city’s intentions and doubtful whether Parks and Recreation, which has neglected the marinas for so long, can come up with a financial plan that doesn’t squeeze them out or commercialize the quiet setting.
And they reject the characterization that they are wealthy boat owners undeserving of public subsidies.
“We are not the 1 percent,” said John Franzen, a Mount Baker resident with a 25-foot motor boat at Leschi. “This is how regular people get access to the water.”
Franzen argues that marinas are as much a part of the city’s fabric, and as deserving of public support, as its golf courses, ball fields and community centers.
“I think if you ripped the marinas out, there’d be a huge public outcry. This is Seattle. We’re all about the water and boats.”
The marina tenants are critical of the current Parks agreement with an operator who gets 59 percent of the moorage fees, but under contract can’t do major upkeep. And they say that one repair Parks did undertake in recent years, replacement of a waterlogged breakwater, made conditions worse.
“They replaced it with metal floating tubes. The tubes bob up and down, but they don’t stop the wave action. The east part of the marina had to be abandoned because the dock got destroyed,” said Remmert Wolters, a former board member of the Corinthian Yacht Club, which runs twice-weekly sailboat racing competitions out of Leschi.
The deferred maintenance at Leschi is just the tip of the iceberg for Parks. Officials estimate more than $260 million in needed repairs to swimming pools, restrooms, community centers and ballfields. A committee is meeting to make recommendations for a Parks Legacy bond measure to replace one that expires in 2014. Preliminary discussions have identified the maintenance backlog as a top priority.
The Parks budget also was hard hit during the recession. Its funding dropped from $131 million in 2008 to $126 million in 2013. Over the same period, it cut staff from 1,003 full time employees to 854, and reduced hours of more than 140 more.
Superintendent Williams questions whether running two marinas is a core line of business for the department. He notes that the Leschi and Lakewood marinas are locked and don’t provide access to the general public. And, he said, they serve far fewer people and provide less of a needed public service than day care, youth and teen programs.
“That’s not to say water recreation isn’t a legitimate use, but if it has to compete with keeping open a community center or a senior center, it isn’t the highest priority,” Williams said. He also noted that the current moorage fee, $8 per foot of boat length, is well below the market average around the region of about $12.50 per foot.
The answer to why the moorage fees weren’t reinvested into maintenance and repairs at the marinas, Williams said, is that Parks was trying to keep the doors open at community centers, empty the garbage cans at parks, and continue to subsidize low-income families’ participation in popular sports and recreation programs.
With Parks facing increasing pressure to generate more revenue, officials released a request for proposals last spring to operate the two marinas for the next 40 years and generate enough revenue to make the estimated $8 million in repairs.
The process divided the tenants. Some at Leschi, where the deterioration is worse, welcomed a plan that promised to upgrade the facility. And they noted that some commercial activity wouldn’t be out of character with the small adjacent business district.
“In order for us to continue boating, we need slips we can rely on,” said Wolters.
But those at Lakewood, which has no commercial activity along the lake or in the surrounding residential neighborhood, feared that adding a restaurant or renting kayaks or paddle boards would result in an Alki-like summer invasion of cruising teenagers and personal watercraft.
What was certain was that the most ambitious proposal, submitted by Foss Waterway Management, which operates Elliott Bay Marina at the foot of the Magnolia bridge, would be to replace many of the small boat moorage slips with docks for boats up to 60 feet long.
After an angry meeting in August in which tenants complained they were shut out of the planning process and prepared to sue if a new operating contract was awarded, Parks stopped the process. In addition to the $4 million budget appropriation, the city agreed to create two Project Advisory Teams, one for each marina, that includes community members.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell, a Seward Park resident and former tenant at Lakewood (his boat is now in his garage), said he’s pleased the mayor is recommending funding for the most urgent safety concerns at Leschi. But he also thinks the city could do more to generate public uses and revenue at what he calls “some great real estate.”
“The tenants are right. They’re paying for a safe, reasonably maintained moorage and they should get that. But maybe we should get creative, think about some modest expansion at Leschi. At Lakewood, there’s no reason we couldn’t have a coffee shop or a burger bar.”
Right now, he said, “I’m not convinced we’re optimizing these locations.”
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes