Over the last decade, Ballard has been Seattle’s canary-in-the-mineshaft for registering change. As transformation came to Fremont and other places in the city, Ballard seemed safely ensconced in its seafaring, Scandinavian heritage and aging housing stock north of the canal.
Of course, development and an influx of newer, younger residents have changed all that.
Earlier this month, USA Today named Ballard one of the “10 Best Neighborhoods Tourists Haven’t Found Yet.” Ballard is hip.
In the early 1990s, the condominiums were few. Ballard’s downtown area boasted a commercial district with shops, restaurants and music venues, and still does.
But for many Seattle residents, Ballard remained a sleepy Scandinavian fishing village until the real estate boom in early 2000, and it hasn’t stopped growing.
An influx of the young
Incorporated into the City of Seattle in 1907, Ballard is deeply rooted in a Nordic culture of commercial fishing and manufacturing. Mills were built as the area became a central point for bringing in supplies and exporting lumber — at one point, Ballard was deemed the wooden-shingles capital of the world.
Since 2000, there has been a large increase in major private development projects in the once-sleepy Snoose Junction. Neighborhood district coordinator Rob Mattson compiled a list this year for the Ballard District Council comprised of 38 major development projects that have been built or are in the process of being built. Thirteen projects have been built to date; and 11 include residential homes, adding 1,604 units to Ballard’s housing inventory since 2001. The remaining 25 identified projects that have not yet been built but would add an additional 2,667 new housing units.
The report reflects development of more than 20,000 square feet in Ballard. If all of the 33 projects that involve residential housing are built, it would add a total of 4,281 units to Ballard since 2001. This includes 1,285 condominiums, 1,806 market-rate apartments, 146 senior-living apartments, 199 hotel guestrooms and 245 affordable apartments. According to Mattson’s report, the 37 projects will construct at least 919,931 square feet of new retail, commercial, office, medical, classroom and community center space, as well as on-site parking for a minimum of 6,332 vehicles. Much of the new development has occurred in Ballard’s urban village, which saw an increase from 2006 to 2012 of 1,500 residential units.
In the few blocks along Market Street and Ballard Avenue, the population has increased greatly in recent years, helping Ballard become one of the fastest-growing urban villages in Seattle, with about 3,000 new units. Young people between 20 and 35 looking for housing have flocked to the village, altering the demographic, according to Central Ballard Residents Association’s land-use and planning chairperson Ethan Van Eck.
“When I moved here in the mid-1990s, there were hardly any children; there were a lot of older Scandinavian people,” he said. “The demographics have changed: It’s gone from gritty, working class to a more urban, densely populated, young generation.”
Ballard is still a largely white area. The 2010 Census showed a population of 84-percent white. But in the three years since the Census, Eck said Ballard has seen the greatest influx of young people.
“Old Town” Ballard, from the top of Market Street and Leary Avenue to the water, still maintains its culturally historical image. Most of the homes were built in the 1920s, and Old Town has maintained its brick footprint for more than a century.
Ballard Historical Society president Mary Schile said housing prices have consistently increased since 2003, with people moving from Belltown and Capitol Hill.
“A lot of people have a dual income, and they want to start a family. Nine times out of 10, they come here because they want a bigger, more affordable place,” Schile said.
Schile bought a house in Ballard in 1994 because of its vibrant culture back then. She cited the music scene, with bands playing nightly at venues like The Tractor Tavern on Ballard Avenue. She attributes the influx of young musicians to the area to inexpensive housing: “Musicians follow affordable rent,” Schile said.
She doesn’t think the character of Ballard has changed much, pointing to old buildings that are still up and running. For her, it’s all a matter of perspective, she said.
Making way for the new
A major issue for Ballard residents is transit services. The unpopular Rapid-Ride has been criticized for not decreasing the time it takes to get downtown. During Mayor Mike McGinn’s recent visit to the neighborhood, he proposed extending the electric streetcar to Ballard, along with Fremont and Wallingford. Other proposals to help improve transportation services are the addition of a new bridge and a new route for the light rail that would come across from South lake Union.
The new developments have caused a number of marine-industry-related businesses to be pushed out, as well as a loss of older retail places like Olsen’s Scandinavian Foods. Residents like Eck are glad that Ballard has seen an immense growth, but he worries that it’s growing too rapidly.
“There is a concern that the incredible growth of the younger population will suck up commercial space,” Eck said. “We’re witnessing such rapid growth that we’re concerned we’re going to have a 21st-century village in a 20th- and even 19th-century infrastructure.”
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