TUKWILA — If a single parcel of land could tell a story of the Puget Sound region, and raise some of the biggest questions about its future, the Desimone Oxbow is it.
The developer sees a trash-strewn, skid-marked parking lot along the heavily industrialized Duwamish River waiting to be cleaned up and put to more profitable use. Dermody Properties inked a long-term lease last year and recently filed plans to build a modern warehouse here, perhaps for Amazon or one of its competitors seeking scarce space for their goods close to customers in a growing city.
Conservationists picture the land inside the oxbow as it may once have been — when the riversides were home to the Duwamish people for whom it is named — woven with side channels where the salt and fresh waters mingle. They have long coveted the property for its potential as a habitat for young salmon, and to help repair a fractured link in a food chain that has contributed to a perilous decline for southern resident orcas. Despite the priority placed on orca and salmon recovery, the means for such an ambitious restoration along an urban stretch of river are elusive.
The Desimone family, whose immigrant grandfather tilled the soil here, has owned this 40-acre riverfront land for decades. The wealth and influence held here contributed decades ago to Pike Place Market and the Boeing Company. Now the family trust wants it to again produce a financial return for another generation.
In 2017, Boeing tore down an employee activity center on the property, leaving a giant, empty parking lot. The company’s lease ended a year later. Negotiations have been underway between the owners, the Desimone Family Trust, and potential developers.
Joe Desimone III says the project is too far along to make changes now. A Dermody executive touts the plan for substantial shoreline restoration work with the redevelopment. But fish advocates are still hopeful more can be done on the site for endangered species.
“If you are going to do a restoration project for the Duwamish that has meaning, this is the place because it is so large, and there is no major development on it,” said Doug Osterman, a salmon recovery manager for the local watershed. “How do we make the case for salmon? These are the trade-offs and choices that have to be made and the stakes are really high.”
While it’s not much to look at today — just acres of asphalt baking in the sun, tangles of blackberries and trash on the banks — people still come here to fish. A man just off work walked over as Osterman spoke at the site last Thursday, a fishing pole over his shoulder, hoping to hook something.
The river is home to chinook salmon, which are the preferred food for endangered southern resident orcas, and the Duwamish-Green River salmon runs are important to their survival. The property fronts a transition zone, where baby salmon born upriver in fresh water prepare to spend most of their lives out at sea.
As valuable as the bend in the river may be for fish habitat, the acreage inside this particular oxbow of the Duwamish has a handful of attributes well-suited to the 21st century business of right-now consumer wish fulfillment. It’s a scarce swath of open land near major streets, airports and an affluent population center, and directly adjacent to an enormous mail-distribution center.
“It’s a parking lot. This is going back to the 1950s,” said Jeff Zygler, senior vice president with Reno-based Dermody.
Dermody, which has developed major projects for UPS, Amazon and other retailers, like Wayfair and Patagonia, filed plans with the city of Tukwila for a 202,500-square-foot warehouse and distribution center. An adjacent parking lot would have nearly 1,500 parking spaces, 300 loading and staging stalls and 14 parking spots for tractor trailers. It would see about 1,100 vehicle trips a day.
Immediately southwest of the property is a 500,000-square-foot U.S. Postal Service processing and distribution center, which handles truckloads of inbound and outbound letters and parcels for distribution to local post offices between Tacoma and the Canadian border. The Postal Service also handles huge volumes for e-commerce retailers.
Amazon recently confirmed it is leasing a portion of a new warehouse about 4 miles north. It’s the first in the U.S. built with a second story accessible to big rig trucks, a design decision reflecting the scarcity of close-in warehouse-development sites in major cities.
Amazon and retail competitors racing to match its speed need to stage their wares closer to population centers in order to make good on promises of one-day or even two-hour deliveries of online orders.
“We don’t comment on prospective tenants,” Zygler said, adding that without marketing the property, the company has received interest from several companies.
“We are evaluating multiple locations, including the Desimone Oxbow,” said Aaron Toso, a spokesman for Amazon. “We take environmental issues very seriously and will include these issues in our site evaluations.”
Zygler said the redevelopment plan requires environmental restoration work, including the removal of impervious surfaces and debris, extending native plantings 100 feet from the water’s edge, stormwater improvements and a publicly accessible walking trail.
“We are going to be restoring and improving the entire shoreline abutting the property,” Zygler said, adding, “It’s good for Tukwila and it’s good for the wildlife.”
Salmon advocates wish it could be even better. Despite the project advancing toward construction next summer, some are hoping the redevelopment could be altered to use more of the property for salmon habitat.
“We have to have places for fish to stay a while and grow and slowly change, it is a big biological change, and there are not very many areas left that are large where we can do something like this,” said Dennis Robertson, a Tukwila city councilman who also represents the city on the local fish and habitat restoration consortium called WRIA 9.
The longer baby salmon can have to make that transition, feed and grow, the more likely they will survive to return in a few years to the river to spawn as adults — or become a meal for an orca in marine waters.
Robertson said the development as currently envisioned meets land-use codes. “It is their legal right. But if I put on my other salmon restoration hat, representing the city on WRIA 9, this is such a missed opportunity,” he said.
Joe Desimone III said his family has no intention of selling the land, and instead sought a long-term land lease with a developer to generate revenue for the next generation of the family.
The family, he added, has done a lot for the community over the last 20 years. His grandfather Giuseppe “Joe” Desimone, a stowaway from Naples, Italy, came to Seattle’s South Park neighborhood in 1899, growing food for the city during another period of rapid population growth.
“He had great faith in the land, so when he got enough money, he bought one more acre at a time,” Desimone III said. By 1941, he had progressed from selling his produce at Pike Place Market to becoming its president and majority stockholder.
Desimone played an important role in keeping Boeing in Seattle during World War II, his grandson said, selling the expanding company several acres of his land for $1. Boeing opened its Plant No. 2 on the property, building B-17 bombers for the war effort.
The new warehouse also would create jobs in the local community — 325 to 425, according to the permit application — and more revenue for the city, he added.
He said he was not willing to entertain new plans for the property, and so far, none from environmental groups have materialized. WRIA 9 failed to get funding from the state Legislature to acquire the property in 2018.
“We are too far down the road; I don’t want anything to upset the apple cart at this point,” Desimone III said.
Josh Baldi, division director for King County Land and Water Resources, said the county hopes to work with the city to change that, and create a new vision for the oxbow land, not only for the warehouse development as planned, but for fish, too.
“This is one of the last best chances on the Duwamish,” he said. “These decisions that are made set the course of the river for the next generation.”
James Rasmussen, a Duwamish tribal elder who also runs the Superfund cleanup program for the Duwamish Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group, said the property offers a chance to make a bit of the river more like it used to be.
“This is on the river. What is the best use for this land? To build another warehouse, or for habitat to maintain a run of salmon,” he said. “That is the decision that we have.”