by Guy Oron
On a small sliver of land in South Park along the Duwamish River, there once sat eight affordable houses. Now only five remain. Over the past few months, the new owners of these properties, National Products Inc. (commonly known as Ram Mounts or NPI), have begun demolishing these cottage-style houses.
Ram Mounts purchased the lots — known as the South Park triangle — through a shell company in 2019 for $2.5 million. The company is a plastics manufacturer that owns multiple warehouses and facilities on the block across the street to the south of the triangle. It hopes to replace the houses with a “park-like setting, with a noise abatement wall” to serve as a buffer between its facilities and the rest of the neighborhood. The company also plans on using the adjacent right-of-way for more parking.
However, some residents fear that Ram Mounts is simply using this new purchase to continue to expand their footprint in the area. Jennifer Scarlett, a neighbor who lives one block away from the triangle, sees the recent purchase and demolitions as part of a larger pattern of industrial expansion. “Yeah, they’ve already expanded twice … they’re an industrial company, they’re not on industrial zoning, and they keep expanding,” said Scarlett.
The triangle lots are zoned as residential, while the nearby Ram Mounts facilities are located on lots zoned as Regional Business. Further complicating matters is the fact that these lots are part of unincorporated King County, which means residents and companies are not subject to the same regulations as the rest of South Park, which is part of Seattle.
Community members and the company seem to be conflicted as to why the property was purchased by Ram Mounts in the first place. Minutes recorded during a community meeting in October 2019 note that initially, when Ram Mounts purchased the properties, they believed the land was zoned as industrial due to a mislabeled map. However, Ram Mounts Chief Operating Officer Chad Remmers says that the company decided to purchase the land after a townhome developer approached the previous property owner with plans to potentially redevelop the site.
The South Park neighborhood is located in the traditional heartlands of the Duwamish people’s territories. After white settlers arrived, the area became a town before being annexed into Seattle proper at the turn of the 20th century. However, this “sliver by the river” has remained outside the city, in part due to the potential costs of expanding the city’s sewer network to service the area. In the ensuing century, many companies have moved into the Duwamish Valley, setting up factories and other industrial sites.
According to the American Community Survey, the neighborhood is 46% Latino or Hispanic, with nearly three-quarters of residents identifying as not white. South Park is home to more working class and poor people, with median residential income at least $20,000 lower than the city average. Along with other Duwamish Valley communities, South Park has been disproportionately affected by industrial pollution and contamination. According to the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map, the area ranks a 10 (the highest on a scale of 1 to 10) for environmental health disparities in the categories of environmental exposures, environmental effects, and socioeconomic factors.
Throughout the Duwamish Valley, there are numerous toxic cleanup sites listed under both state and federal jurisdictions. Some of the Ram Mounts facilities sit on top of a Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA) contaminated site. While previous property owners participated in a Voluntary Cleanup Program, the project was discontinued in 2006. Since Ram Mounts became the owner of the site, it has not restarted participation in the program. Washington Department of Ecology spokesperson Larry Altose said in an email to the Emerald that the department “can’t force liable parties into the Voluntary Cleanup Program, but while the site is contaminated, MTCA liability is still a factor for potentially liable parties.” Altose added that the site still needs to be cleaned up.
In addition to concerns of industrial expansion and pollution, community members like Scarlett are concerned about the tenants of the eight houses and the destruction of the relatively affordable homes in a time of housing scarcity. “Some of the tenants have been there for like 30 years or more living in the houses,” said Scarlett. “So, I mean, they’re displacing people that have been part of the community for decades … Nobody wants these houses, except for poor people. People like me, we want these houses, you know, because they are affordable. So, we want to keep them. We wanna do whatever we can to, you know, stop the demolition of the houses, because they are kind of permanently affordable housing, which is rare, which is really rare,” said Scarlett.
According to Scarlett, in September 2019 residents began to organize soon after a tenant posted on Facebook that they all received eviction notices requiring them to move out of their houses by the upcoming February. Scarlett says that the community was able to pressure Ram Mounts to extend the tenancy for an extra 6 months. Remmers says that after COVID-19 hit, the company decided to delay their plans by an additional year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ram Mounts cannot legally evict people until the eviction moratorium expires.
So far, tenants of the three houses which were demolished have moved out, but remaining residents are fearful of what to do. Scarlett says “they are really stuck on whether to fight, or ‘play nice,’ hoping NPI will extend their tenancy at least a little longer.” The tenants were unable to be reached for comment for this story.
One of the demolitions resulted in a septic tank system being partially exposed, leading to it being taped off by public health authorities. King County Public Health spokesperson Kate Cole wrote to the Emerald, “We’d heard reports of children playing on this lot and were concerned that if they put their hands down the septic tank transport pipe (the pipe that connects the tank to the building), it could pose a health hazard.” However, Cole confirmed that as of April 6, the septic system had been properly taken care of.
Despite resistance from South Park neighbors, Ram Mounts’ plans for the triangle appear to be proceeding unabated. The purchases and demolitions are entirely legal, and the King County Local Services department has granted demolition permits without objection. However, if the lots were located within the City of Seattle, this might not be the case. This is because Seattle has special rules requiring houses to not be used as rental housing for at least 6 months before they are demolished. Because Ram Mounts is located in this special sliver of unincorporated King County, it is exempt from Seattle’s land use regulations as well as other laws such as minimum wage and labor rights laws.
King County Councilmember Joe McDermott shared his concerns with some South Park community members about the loss of affordable housing in the neighborhood. He called Ram Mounts’ plan to erect a barrier and create green space in the triangle “really a sad replacement for affordable housing” and wished the company had more robustly engaged with South Park residents. McDermott also expressed frustration surrounding the issue, claiming that he can’t do much to prevent the demolition of the remaining five houses.
Scarlett and other residents plan to continue to organize in defence of houses such as those in the South Park triangle. “We have power as a community, you know, to say that we planned this area for residential development, and our zoning says that,” said Scarlett. “This is an industrial company operating outside of industrial zoning. This shouldn’t be happening here.”
Scarlett hopes that the attention around these issues she and others have built will convince Ram Mounts to change course. “We’re hoping that [the attention] pressures NPI into giving these tenants more time,” said Scarlett.
Guy Oron is a Seattle-based writer and journalist. His writing has been featured in the Nation, South Seattle Emerald, Seattle Globalist, and the UW Daily.
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