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THE NATION

Port of Seattle Cruising Into the Future

As shipping interests exit, the facility has been rebuilt to cater to the luxury vessels.

November 29, 2002|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — The future curls around this city's waterfront.

The once-dingy commercial fishing pier at the northern end of Elliott Bay has been scrubbed and now accepts yachts. The crumbling piers at the foot of Bell Street, near the famous Pike Place Market, have been rebuilt for cruise ships and small conventions. And at the southern edge, on the far side of the Seattle Aquarium, port officials are laying plans to reconfigure yet another cargo pier for more cruise ships -- part of the continuing evolution of the Port of Seattle from shipping hub to tourist center.

While officials here insist that shipping remains a priority, several large port users have decamped in recent years -- in many cases for Southern California. And last year, the Port of Tacoma at the southern edge of Puget Sound for the first time surpassed Seattle in the number of containers handled, statistics from the American Assn. of Port Authorities show.

As business exited, a game of musical chairs was spawned on the Seattle docks, with the remaining tenants moving from older piers to more modern facilities as they become available, spokesman Mick Schultz said.

The port is in the midst of investing about $600 million to upgrade container docks, Schultz said, even as it makes way for more cruise ships -- envisioning the future as a mix of shipping, tourism, commercial fishing and pleasure boating.

Over the last three years, cruises through Seattle have grown from negligible -- six ships and 6,600 passengers in 1999 -- to substantial, with 80 stops and 250,000 passengers this year, port officials said. Nearly all the ships are bound for Alaska, ferrying tourists through glacier-lined fjords along the Inside Passage and Glacier Bay National Park.

Next year, officials expect 100 cruise ship dockings, with as many as 400,000 passengers. That projected surge in traffic led the Port of Seattle, which has the authority to levy taxes, on Tuesday to increase the local property tax rate for the first time in a decade, hoping to raise $18.2 million for improvements.

Key among them is about $12 million to convert Pier 30, in the heart of the port's active shipping docks, for use by cruise ships.

The erosion of shipping business through the Seattle port has cost jobs. Faced with a $20-million drop in revenue, the port underwent two reorganizations this year and cut about 200 jobs, most in warehouse operations.

Rudy Finne, spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 19, said the union's ranks have decreased from about 600 just a few years ago to 485 today. Cruise ships, he said, are a ray of hope.

"We're embracing it," Finne said, explaining that a cruise ship generates work for about 80 union members each day it's in port. "It makes a huge difference for six to eight months of the year."

Many forces have been at work in changing the port.

The region's population grew in the 1990s along with the high-tech boom -- rising about 20%, to 3.56 million people -- which increased competition for prime Seattle waterfront. As bay-view condos and apartment buildings have gone up, so too has residential opposition to port expansions, said Marc J. Hershman, director of the University of Washington's School of Marine Affairs. That in turn has led to higher port development costs.

"Everybody looking down on the port is affected by the noise, the glare and the traffic," Hershman said. "I give the port credit: When they've developed new terminals, they've done everything humanly possible to mitigate the impact." He cited one project that had $30 million for noise and light barriers. "It gets expensive," he said.

Yet ports in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland are farther away from residential areas and, facing less local opposition, have been able to grow more cheaply, he said.

In the meantime, shipping companies and importers have been consolidating to cut costs in markets that are increasingly competitive -- giving up regional hubs in places such as Seattle for larger population centers.

Toy maker Hasbro, for example, is bringing its West Coast warehouse and distribution operations to Southern California, trading the Port of Seattle for L.A. and expanding its distribution center in Ontario. Nissan has made a similar shift, as have some smaller, independent shipping companies.

Tourism already has changed the face of the waterfront. Over the last decade, renovation projects have reclaimed blighted and underused sections. The stretch of docklands near Pike Place Market, for instance, has given rise to antique shops and restaurants, kitsch stalls and launch points for boat tours of Puget Sound.

While reinventing the port in some ways means leaving the past behind, even some local historians applaud the changes; in them they see economic vitality replacing an irrecoverable way of life.

"The central waterfront has been obsolete as a cargo handling center since the '70s," said Walter Crowley, the director of Historylink.org, which traces Seattle history. "Bringing in cruise ships has been a very important strategy for port properties and the downtown economy. I think it's a good thing, and long overdue."

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