By Erica C. Barnett
After at least one formal complaint, the Seattle Department of Transportation has issued a warning—but no penalty—to Fremont Brewing, the company co-owned by city council member-elect Sara Nelson, for obstructing the public right-of-way around its Ballard brewing facility with massive concrete “ecology blocks.”
As PubliCola reported last summer, eco blocks—so called because they are a byproduct of concrete production that uses waste that would otherwise occupy landfills—are an inexpensive way for business owners to prevent people living in their vehicles from parking on the street next to their properties.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, when the city stopped enforcing a law requiring people to move their vehicles every three days, the blocks have proliferated throughout Seattle’s industrial areas, which are the only places where people living in oversized vehicles can legally park. Business owners say that the presence of RVs and other types of large vehicles, such as box trucks, discourages patrons, and that large concentrations of RVs can lead to health and safety problems that impact their customers and employees.
Obstructing public streets is illegal, but SDOT has treated eco-blocks differently than other street obstructions; instead of penalizing business owners for taking over public space that belongs to everyone, as they might if a random person set up a tire fort or craft fair in the middle of the street, the department has responded to the proliferation of eco-blocks by essentially throwing up its hands.
This is true not just of Fremont Brewing, which received a written warning, but of many other businesses around the city’s industrial areas as well as the US Postal Service, which surrounded its Ballard sorting facility with eco blocks way back in August 2020.
At the time, USPS spokesman Ernie Swanson told PubliCola that “USPS got the OK from the city to put in the concrete barriers” in response to a proliferation of RVs in the area. The Seattle Department of Transportation disputed this, calling the road-blocking barricades “unpermitted,” but took no action. They’re still there today, graffiti-covered and looking dingy compared to their more recently installed counterparts in front of a Bevmo!-anchored strip mall across the street.
Contacted for information about why the blocks are still in place more than a year later, Swanson said, “The concrete blocks were placed in front of the Ballard PO as well as other neighboring businesses as a response to a proliferation of needles, human waste and other hazardous materials being discarded on the property. As of this date, the blocks remain not only in front of the PO but also other businesses in the area. We have no knowledge that a permit was ever required.”
The city’s process for dealing with Fremont Brewing’s ecology blocks was typical. After someone filed an anonymous complaint about the blocks in September, SDOT performed an inspection “and observed ecology blocks” in the street around Fremont Brewing, according to a notice SDOT sent to the company September 17. “We do not allow this type of use in public right-of-way due to traffic safety concerns as well as transportation and utility access needs. Please remove these unpermitted encroachments from public right-of-way by the compliance date indicated below”—November 10.
November 10 came and went; the blocks remained. About a week later, the case was closed.
SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson told PubliCola the department followed “standard procedure” in responding to the complaint. “The first step in the enforcement process is to mail a letter to the adjacent businesses or property owners notifying them of their responsibilities to remove the concrete blocks,” Bergerson said. “The purpose of this letter is to initiate a conversation with the responsible party so that we can find a path forward leading to their removal of the unpermitted concrete blocks. To date, we have sent letters of this nature to property owners and businesses adjacent to concrete blocks left in about a dozen locations around Ballard, SoDo, and Georgetown. … Our approach [with Fremont Brewing] has been consistent with the other locations.”
Fremont Brewing owner (and Nelson’s husband) Matt Lincecum, who runs the company day to day, declined to comment for this story, as did Nelson.
SDOT has the authority to take enforcement action against any business (or government entity) that obstructs the public street with eco blocks or other objects that make it impossible for the public to access streets, sidewalks, or parking strips. To date, it has not done so, beyond warnings like the one it issued to Fremont Brewing.
As if to emphasize the city’s lackadaisical approach to enforcement, Seattle City Light has installed its own anti-RV fortifications at its Canal Substation, located two blocks away from Fremont Brewing and the rest of the eco-block-littered Ballard brewery district. In addition to eco-blocks in the street, the north side of the substation is walled off by two layers of fencing that completely obstruct the public sidewalk. A review of historical Google Maps reveals that the eco-blocks were installed sometime after this past August, when several RVs were parked along the south side of the substation. The fence, too, is new; as of June 2021, per Google Maps, several RVs were parked on that side of the substation, too. Since then, the RVs appear to have moved around the corner, to a narrower residential street on the east side of the building.
We’ve reached out to City Light as well as SDOT about the obstructions around the Canal Substation and will update this post when we hear back.
From the point of view of a property owner, ecology blocks solve an immediate problem—people living in RVs or parking large vehicles indefinitely in front of their business—that the city has failed to address. But the fact remains that even if the city continues to turn a blind eye to vigilante street obstructions, nothing will really change until the region stops ignoring the needs of people living in vehicles, who make up as much as half of King County’s homeless population. In the absence of “safe lots,” social services, and affordable, permanent housing, people sleeping in their vehicles will continue to take up space in public,
But no amount of semi-sanctioned street and sidewalk obstruction will fix the underlying problem: The city and county have dedicated virtually no resources to people living in vehicles, who make up as much as half of the region’s unsheltered homeless population.
18 thoughts on “Fremont Brewing Is Still Using Concrete Blocks to Prevent RV Parking. So Are the City of Seattle and the US Postal Service.”
I dont know why we are trying to accommodate people who don’t pay taxes or contribute to society in anyway. The eco blocks allow the actual public to use public space instead of giving a free place to live for drug dealers and abusers. It is public space not an alternative to paying rent or a spot for homeless to live. I personally live in Georgetown and am incredibly grateful for the blocks that have been put in because now I can actually park, dont have to carry personal protective weapons when leaving my house or worry about my vehicle or property being broken into or vandalized. We need more blocks not a clearing for degenerates
Erica, read these comments. You are the one out of touch here.
Clear the camps. Bulldoze the rest of the filth.
Thank god the eco blocks are there. Please do not remove them. It is sad AF that this is what it takes to reduce crime, needles and human waste from piling up and taking over what were once safe areas. Ballard has become an incredibly dangerous place to be, live, walk around in since the homeless population took over.
Amen to that! [To be clear, I mean this in response to certain comments left on this article (such as Nik @ Phinney Ridge Painting) and NOT the article itself!]
Speaking for myself only, (as a WA citizen who was homeless for a few years, just a few years ago) I am disgusted with the way a growing percentage of our current homeless population has treated the land on which they choose to set up their camps. The sheer volume of discarded needles and other biohazardous waste, in addition to the “normal” everyday trash they leave behind is astonishing and I simply cannot fathom ANYONE, EVER being so incredibly thoughtless and careless in regards to the space they currently choose to inhabit…It’s as if they have no respect, at all, for our state and the beauty of it’s natural landscape!
If more people within the homeless population would put just a small amount of time and effort into picking up, and then into maintaining, their campsites and surrounding areas, then the likelihood that other members of the community would be raising a stink about their presence alongside roadways would be FAR less…and there would be little to no need for local business owners to be installing eco blocks in public parking areas which are immediately adjacent to their facilities.
While I could certainly sit here and point out various flaws which I, personally, see in how Washington’s ever-growing homeless population is, and has been, being addressed/”handled” by both city and state governments, I, myself, feel that SO MANY MORE citizens AND government officials would be 1,000% more willing to spend their time trying to come up with some solutions or tactics which could potentially provide aid (or even permanent housing!) to individuals affected by this outrageous, absolute pandemic-level homeless problem if more of these affected individuals were to act in such a way that indicated they actually gave a shit about preserving what is left of the beauty of the natural landscape of our state! If even HALF of them cared for and respected the land they’re inhabiting and took a little time out of their day to improve some of their waste management methods to the point where they aren’t living in absolute SQUALOR [amongst their own urine, feces, discarded (and often uncapped!) used syringes, food and drink wrappers, half-eaten food, filthy shoes/clothing items, etc.] and leaving an incredibly disgusting mess behind whenever they relocate, then I would be willing to bet what little I DO have that more citizens of WA would show interest in finding some ways to help get people off the streets and KEEP THEM off the streets, which would OBVIOUSLY be in the best interest of EVERYONE involved.
I suppose I can only speak for myself when I say that I tend to be SO MUCH MORE willing to provide help to someone who puts some sort of time and effort into trying to help themselves than I am to help someone who continues to dig themselves deeper and deeper into the ground– and, coming from someone who has been there…it is 100% possible to be homeless and, at the same time, NOT leave all of your trash and waste all over the city. All it takes is a bit of desire and some minor effort.
They’re not here because they are. They’re here because you care.
Thank you to the other commenters pointing out the author’s blatant double standard on which laws she deems worthy/just to enforce.
Ballard resident here. What is the problem?? If the block were not there the space would be occupied by people living out of there rv’s dumping sewage into our streets and water ways.
Awesome I wish Olympia WA business and government will do the same
I work at a business in Ballard, and we along with many of our neighboring businesses have all put out ecology blocks. At $15 each, I wish the City the best of luck in removing and storing them. They are all paid for in cash, so I don’t know who they belong to and there is no paper trail to show ownership. I’m confident that until the City starts enforcing laws uniformly, they will be right back.
Until the 72 hour rule is enforced more power to the businesses.
The impact to businesses is huge & it shouldn’t be on the business to bear our societal failure.
That’s not thier burden to bare, its ours.
Your article is misleading. I’m not sure if this is due to your own bias or a lack of context. Rather than approach this strictly from a human-rights standpoint you might spend a little bit of time researching the impact that long-term RV camping has had on businesses like mine in the area. Trust me, nobody in the neighborhood wants to be gobbling up all of the useful parking with ecology block. This is simply a tactic that has been employed to mitigate the Intolerable impact and conditions that a handful of long-term RV inhabitants have had on our businesses and the surrounding area.
Matt may not be willing to speak with you but as an owner of an adjacent business I certainly am and would welcome a conversation with you about this topic.
For the benefit of your readership, I will make a very long story short, these ecology blocks have been used as a last-ditch effort to keep our physical business locations, the general public and our employees safe.
We have endured assaults, burglary, trespassing, constant vandalism, theft and disruption related specifically to the individuals living long-term in RVs near our businesses. Not to mention the prolific amount of garbage, needles, human waste and infestation of rats in and around our places of business.
Prior to these blocks going in we were dealing with a constant catalytic converter theft issue on our business vehicles and the vehicles of our employees. Since the blocks have gone in, that has completely stopped. The RVs are not just shelter for the unhoused. They also provide shelter for drug dealers, pimps, Culebra abusers and prolific criminals who have been stealing from law-abiding citizens/businesses and taking advantage of permissive law enforcement policies in the neighborhood for years and years.
Another issue which you completely failed to mention in your article is the fact that these RVs were parking on both sides of the street creating a massive safety hazard. The RVs were parked in a manner that narrowed the road to the extent that two cars traveling in opposite directions could not pass through 48th at the same time. This is an arterial. There have been numerous head-on collisions and T-Bone collisions caused by the sheer number of RVs restricting visibility and causing significant Hazard to pedestrians, cyclists and through traffic. I understand that multiple private citizens have filed lawsuits against the city after being involved in accidents caused by visibility restrictions from the RVs.
We have been asking SDOT for the past 7 years to provide speed bumps, better lighting, lit crosswalks and parking enforcement and have not received a single iota of attention or help. My employees have been the victims of Hit and Run, vehicular accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists as well as vehicle on vehicle accidents. All of these things could be prevented with some very simple Traffic Safety improvements. If Vision Zero is anything other than public spending PR, one would assume that these things would be important but apparently not.
At the end of the day, I guess we have to ask ourselves what the purpose of these parking spots is. Are the parking spots there for residents, employees, vendors and patrons of local businesses or are they there for people to live in on a full time basis to the detriment of all other activity in the neighborhood? You seem to suggest that these parking spots are public spaces which anyone should have the right to use however they would like. Personally speaking, I don’t understand that argument considering I can no longer safely access Woodland Park for fear of physical assault or exposure to hazardous materials.
You are a respected journalist in this city. As such, I feel you owe it to all of us to dig deeper. Seriously, why is it that only KOMO is interested in our side of things? Why is it that our needs and our requests are viewed as anti-homeless nimbyism? We have legitimate grievances and the only media Outlet interested is a subsidiary of Sinclair? Come on. I don’t want to speak to them but I would love to speak with you. Is it your intention to silence people like myself or are you actually willing to cover the entirety of the story by engaging with actual stakeholders and those most impacted?
I would love to tell you more about the history of the Leary triangle encampment, our interactions with city council member Dan Strauss, our involvement with Seattle Compassion services who have helped greatly at this location and the many challenges and complications this issue has created for my business and others.
Phinney Ridge Painting, Owner
Captain Brad here. I have lived in my RV in Ballard a year now. I have taken the time to talk to the neighbors who walk and live close to me. They all but one have said they understand my situation. I lost my charter boat business due to lack of business . They have thanked me for keeping nothing out side and keeping the parking strip picked up from others. I think if people talk to the others living in the vehicles they might find and problems with their differences could be resolved. Three yes ago I was designing a business to propose to the city council when I was a live a board on my boat to suggest my service to of pumping out the city’s RVs. Before I know it I am in a RV living and a knock on the door comes. The city hired a vendor to pump out the rvs . I am retired a vet and now have been rescued and moving the rv to storage and moving into a beautiful apartment. The holy spirit does exist.
Do I get this right: You are ok if there is no response to addressing very real safety, health and crime issues associated with a subset of RV campers, but you complain that SDOT isn’t fast enough in removing eco blocks? This kind of double standard is precisely what got Bruce Harrell elected. Folks want collaboration, not finger-pointing. Maybe I recommend you read and follow the advice given by Norm Rice in his recent book on the subject? But wait, I forgot that you live in your own bubble and can’t deal with anything being said outside that bubble. Never mind.
If the city is going to allow certain activities that are technically against the law (such as parking on a public street for over 72 hours, camping on sidewalks or parks, shoplifting, possessing heroin/meth/fentanyl), then the city has a pretty weak case as to why it should be able to come down against property owners who have eco blocks place in front of their plots.
When a property owner sees all these instances of the city ignoring laws, or electing not to enforce them, the property owner clearly think to themself “if the city is going to allow illegal act X, Y , or Z… it stands to reason they will allow me to install eco blocks”. Which is the situation where we find ourselves now.
My preference would be for the city to enforce all laws, not to pick-and-choose, but the city has chosen a salad bar approach to enforcement. It only makes sense that residents will pick and choose which laws to follow, and which to conveniently ignore.
Instead of barring parking encourage awareness and fundraise for the rv population and help them repair and move them.
James Dillard: Yes please try that so I can make fun of you when another stupid idea fails. Just one quick example: You mean all I need to do to get my RV repaired for free is park it on a Seattle street? Count me in on that one. Please reply so I can give you a dozen other examples. HA HA. Steve Willie.
4th paragraph feels misleading. SDOT is treating eco blocks no different than it treats lawn mower man who has taken over public right of way and terrorizes neighbors up the block.
Also I speculate SCL is attempting to protect critical infrastructure from the numerous RV/encampment fires that have plagued the area. A substation fire could be a catastrophe.
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