A strong sense of community is what draws mountain biker Tracy Erbeck to the dirt trails of North SeaTac Park every week. On Wednesdays, the Seattle resident races with fellow enthusiasts, weaving through tight technical turns, past rock gardens and over dirt jumps nestled in a pocket of forest.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in shape or not in shape, if you’re out there and you’re on a bike, you feel like a kid and you have so much fun,” Erbeck said.
From April to August, the Wednesday Night World Championships race hosted by Northwest Mountain Bike Series is a chance to bond for Erbeck’s family and the many others who congregate at the park. Located in the southern portion of North SeaTac Park, the area remains the closest mountain bike trails to Seattle that can host large events, Erbeck said. Armed with rakes and shovels, the Erbecks helped carve out some of the mountain biking trails and hauled away trash in the surrounding forest about seven years ago.
Now, Erbeck and other recreationists worry that the expansive trail system’s days are numbered. The Port of Seattle, which owns the over 44-acre parcel of land where the trails sit, has proposed that 11 of those acres be used for Port of Seattle employee parking.
A part of the Sustainable Airport Master Plan — a blueprint for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to meet the demands for a projected increase of 1 million people in the region by 2035 — the project is one of two Port of Seattle-owned lots that are being considered as potential parking lots. The other land under consideration is vacant and sits adjacent to the airport’s current North Employee Parking Lot.
The master plan has drawn the ire of community members and city of SeaTac staff who consider it an affront on the city’s limited green spaces. It has resulted in a petition that garnered over 1,200 signatures by July 1.
But it’s also unlikely that North SeaTac Park will be uprooted any time soon. The Port of Seattle says the project still requires lengthy environmental review processes with plenty of opportunity for public comments.
The plan is currently undergoing a federal environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act, with a draft from the results expected within the next few months, said Clare Gallagher, the Port’s director of capital project delivery. Next, the plan will go through an environmental assessment under the State Environmental Policy Act, followed by the Port of Seattle commissioners’ review when they will decide which projects to approve.
Even if the park is chosen as the site for employee parking, it is likely years away from construction, Gallagher said. The parking lot project is one of more than 30 projects in the master plan that are set to be completed or begin construction by 2027.
“When we have more activity, we expect we would see a demand for more employee parking,” Gallagher said.
To reduce the use of private vehicles, the Port currently subsidizes transit passes for its employees. The agency is creating a Transportation Management Association for all airport employees to access shuttle services, transit subsidies and carpools.
Still, the proposed project has sown further distrust for the Port of Seattle among airport communities already concerned about aviation-related pollution.
“The Port of Seattle has lofty pronouncements about being the greenest port in the country, environmental justice, listening to community,” said Burien resident Noemie Maxwell, who started the petition. “If what they’re doing with this parking lot is any indication, those are all just hot air.”
“It’s not only contradictory, but it seems like a breach of trust.”
When the Port of Seattle commissioners approved a controversial third airport runway in 1996, it was followed by several years of community meetings with affected residents and property owners near the airport whose lands needed to be purchased. Before the runway finally opened in 2008, there were public hearings about the project’s impact on wetlands. Then a state audit that alleged the Port wasted public money led to a federal criminal investigation for fraud that lasted until 2010, but did not lead to charges.
During that lengthy and contentious process to build the third runway, the Port of Seattle learned that it’s important to balance concerns from the airport community while meeting demand for airport services, Gallagher said. So, this time around, employee parking is only being considered on land that the airport already owns.
“For this master plan, knowing that we needed to provide more capacity at SEA but knowing how controversial and difficult the previous expansion of the physical footprint of the airport was, we had deliberate instruction to work within the existing three runway system, so that people would have confidence that we were not physically expanding the airport again,” she said.
At the end of the day, the Port owns the approximately 45 acres of land, said city of SeaTac spokesperson Kyle Moore. When city staff first learned about the parking lot plan three years ago, they expressed concern to the Port during a public comment period. The city held an open house at the SeaTac Community Center that was well attended by residents and the City Council.
The airport communities aren’t going into it alone. SeaTac, Des Moines, Burien and Normandy Park hired an outside aviation consultant, Primary Strategy Group, to review the draft environmental scoping and impact statement documents.
“We want to make sure that we’re able to advocate on behalf of our cities,” Moore said.
SeaTac Deputy Mayor Peter Kwon worries the potential project would lead to a loss of recreational and open green space, and an increase in traffic in a residential area. In the long term, he believes it will cause an increase in the area’s ambient temperatures due to the removal of trees.
“There’s a lot of noise, pollution and traffic, so we really need a place where people can get away, especially outdoors, and don’t have to drive too far to try to appreciate nature,” Kwon said.
The city and Port of Seattle are in an ongoing discussion around SeaTac assuming ownership of North SeaTac Park, Kwon said.
Since the 1990s, the city has leased more than 200 acres under 50-year agreements for $20 a year altogether, according to the Port of Seattle. Gallagher was unaware of any discussions around SeaTac purchasing the land, but added that it would be sold for market value.
The area that makes up North SeaTac Park has long been intertwined with the Port of Seattle. Originally, the park land was a residential area that was cleared of houses beginning in the 1970s due to aviation safety regulations. It remained abandoned for about 20 years until it was reborn as North SeaTac Park in 1998.
A well-used space
Maxwell, an employee at a Burien library, volunteers at North SeaTac Park as a forest steward and walks through a part of the green space every day. When she learned about the project last winter, she shared the news with her neighbors on Nextdoor and later created a petition in late May.
It’s unfair that an airport community, which had lower tree canopy coverage at 25% than the national average of over 33% in 2017, would lose more trees through the development, she believes. Light pollution from the parking lot would disturb residents in the area, and construction would destroy wildlife habitat, Maxwell added.
“It’s like a giant foot coming out of the sky and crushing the community. It’s horrible,” Maxwell said.
In the petition, city and county officials, residents and recreationists pleaded with the Port of Seattle to find another location for the lot. One petitioner expressed concern that people who live in apartment buildings without yards will lose access to an outdoor space that provided respite during the pandemic.
“There’s thousands of users throughout the month. Our presence there — the riders, mountain bikers and hikers — we keep the place clean, intact and functional,” said Russell Stevenson, an event promoter who hosts the Wednesday mountain biking races at the park. Stevenson is concerned about the impact that the proposed development would have on his business, as well as the environment.
Mountain biker Joseph Tucker was disappointed to learn about the proposal from Stevenson at the start of a race last month. As the director of Tahoma Youth Cycling Development Club, a nonprofit that teaches students how to mountain bike and build trails, Tucker often takes the group to the North SeaTac Park’s trails to learn how to race for the first time.
The welcoming environment of the Wednesday Night World Championships provides an inclusive space for them to learn, he said, and the consistency of the races reinforces the payoff of regular practice.
“It would definitely leave a hole in what is now a seven-year summer tradition,” Tucker said.