The Battle of Roanoke Reef

Cropped image of petition form.

It is the Seattle land use fight by which all others are judged. Thirteen years. Dozens of public hearings. File cabinets of lawsuits. Victory for the neighborhood.

Since 1962, Lake Union activists had claimed that existing zoning loopholes potentially allowed huge office and apartment buildings along the shorelines of Lake Union – replacing houseboats and water-dependent businesses. State and city governments lent a deaf ear to the threat.

For most of the decade to 1967, Roanoke Bay contained dilapidated, but useful, moorages for a few pleasure craft – some covered, some not. It was a picture of marine tranquility.

Then came a building permit application for a seven-story condominium. This massive building was to be built on a 480’ x 100’ concrete platform located just north of East Roanoke Street – just above the waters of Lake Union. The “Roanoke Reef Condominium” was to be one story of concrete parking garage, then six stories of wood frame with stucco face and bronze-tinted glass. It boasted a heated pool, glass enclosed lanais, television security system, three elevators and 168 luxury units.

The activists’ nightmare had occurred. But the house-boaters and upland neighbors rallied and won.  The 1967 building permit for the Roanoke Reef Condominium was denied.

Early in 1969, at the foot of East Lynn Street, Fairview Boat Works was demolished and construction began on a five story, 98-unit over-the-water apartment house (now the 48 unit Union Harbor Condo).   Union Harbor was permitted and built before neighbors could organize meaningful opposition. Within months, five more proposals to build mega-unit over-the-water apartment houses along Fairview Avenue were announced. A speculative feeding frenzy had begun. The Roanoke Reef building re-surfaced as a five story, 112-unit condo.

Sales brochure for the over-the-water Roanoke Reef condos

But government – somewhat prodded by the newly formed citizens group CHECC (Choose an Effective City Council) – began to address the problem of Lake Union’s inadequate zoning. The loopholes were closed in such a way as to discourage four of the five over-the-water development plans. Roanoke Reef was issued a building permit just weeks before those loopholes were closed.

The Battle of Roanoke Reef centered largely on an illegal building permit. The permit application was submitted to the Seattle Building Department May 7, 1969. It was “conditionally issued” the next day.  Building permits are either approved or denied, this spread a strong stench of impropriety.

The community went to war. Upland residents joined Terry Pettis and the Floating Homes Association to eliminate the vested permit. But each time the building permit was set to expire, the city renewed it.

Enactment of the 1971 Shoreline Management Act should have killed the project outright. If construction did not begin before June 1, the SMA applied – a near-certain death sentence. 

“Construction” began March 15 with 10 concrete pilings driven into the lakebed. Although community SCUBA divers proved the 10 pilings were haphazardly placed and certainly only symbolic, the city again renewed the building permit. For a second time, Roanoke Reef had slipped through a rapidly closing loophole.

In July 1971, real construction began. The existing moorages were torn out (along with March’s pilings), the old Riviera Marina (which included the original structure for the Boeing Company 1916-18) was torn down and 250 legitimate concrete pilings were driven.

Artist sketch of condos.

With the start of construction, the community looked to legal action. The summer of 1971 was a summer of organizing and fundraising. Harold H. “Hal” Green of MacDonald, Hoague and Bayless offered his legal services “at cost” and by summer’s end $11,500 had been raised.

A first legal strategy was the creation of a non-profit community organization for upland residents: individual plaintiffs could be help personally liable for construction delays while officers of non-profit corporations were protected. The Eastlake Community Council, a non-profit corporation, was created.  On September 15, 1971, the lawsuit was filed in King County Superior Court on behalf of the Eastlake Community Council (ECC), the Floating Homes Association (FHA) and Phyllis Boyker – a directly affected upland resident.

Among the suit’s charges were 1) the city had issued an illegal building permit in 1969, 2) the city had repeatedly renewed the illegal permit, and 3) the developers were not in compliance with the Shoreline Management Act.

The developers, represented by Robert Ratcliffe of Diamond and Sylvester, quickly brought a counter-suit against Phyllis Boyker. Under the threat of financial ruin, Ms. Boyker was forced to withdraw. The developers then contended that the FHA and the ECC were not directly impacted by the proposal and thus had no right to sue.

Location of Roanoke Reef condos on the lake.

The ECC assumed that an ironclad legal case against an obviously out-of-scale, illegally vested and generally despised project guaranteed swift legal victory. Fueling the enthusiasm was the addition of the State Department of Ecology as a co-plaintiff on February 10, 1972. The trial began four days later.

After nine days of testimony, the introduction of 137 exhibits and ten minutes of consideration after final arguments, Superior Court Judge W.R. Cole ruled against the community on every count – including the very right to bring a lawsuit.

 Legal defeat struck hard, both the ECC and FHA were debt-ridden and leadership was exhausted. The task ahead was an estimated $8,000 to be raised for transcripts and court-ordered bonds. The appeal deadline to the State Supreme Court was only a few weeks away.

Meanwhile, back at the Reef, construction continued. A fully furnished model unit, stocked with sales brochures, was operating at the adjacent construction staging area. Down the road, a Roanoke Reef advertising billboard appeared at the corner of Fairview and Valley. Many participants credit lawyer Harold Green with rejuvenating and sustaining the community’s spirits during the winter of 1972.

“Save the Lake: Stop Roanoke Reef” button

The community raised money with dances, rummage sales, spaghetti dinners, boat outings, door-to-door solicitations and mailed flyers blaring inflammatory headlines.

On April 19, 1972, in a meeting with representatives for the Attorney General’s office, the earlier promise of state help was negotiated into meaningful support. That evening, the votes were won to commit the ECC and the FHA to appeal to the State Supreme Court.

 On September 6, 1972, the Attorney General filed papers with the State Supreme Court to halt construction. When work stopped, a significant portion of the cinder block parking structure had been completed. Construction never resumed.

Oral arguments were heard November 13, 1972 before the State Supreme Court. Joe Diamond (of parking lot fame) argued for the developers, Harold Green and Francis Hoague for the community.

On July 18, 1973, the State Supreme Court ruled for the community – the building permit was illegal.  

But victory in a neighborly land use uprising rarely can be declared simply by a “permit denied” ruling. The property and the developers do not go away. Particularly troubling was that the verdict did not include an order to remove the illegally constructed concrete platform.

Within four days, the developers submitted a new building permit application. The proposal had been reduced to 81 units, but remained 57 feet high. Within a few weeks, the developers petitioned for a re-hearing. And finally, in November 1973, the developers filed a $7,000,000 damage suit against the City of Seattle.

 Although the developers eventually won a $2,896,534 judgment against the city (check written July 3, 1976), they made little headway in securing permits for their condominium. The tide of the Battle of Roanoke Reef clearly had turned to favor the community. In December 1973, the State Supreme Court denied a re-hearing.

Just before Christmas 1974, the city denied a new building permit. The Roanoke Reef Condominium project was dead. During the next three years, occasional rumors circulated that a new condo building permit was soon to be submitted, but this talk was generally traced to negotiation posturing or unfounded speculation.

In the three years following December 1974, the Battle of Roanoke Reef degenerated into a stalemate.  The community was unyielding: remove the illegal platform. Removal was a non-negotiable for the developers. Further, sketchbook entrepreneurs kept offering ideas for a public park, marina or restaurant to settle the celebrated dispute. Each scheme rested atop the illegal concrete slab. Most met with initial public approval.

In 1976, ’77 and ’78, the developers submitted land use applications to establish marinas beside the platform. In each instance, the developers refused to state that further development would not occur.  Two of the three proposals met with initial government approval. An attitude of approve and move on seemed to be growing at City Hall.

But for the community, the platform continued to be illegal and developers refused to disclaim thoughts of future high-rise development. Each marina proposal initiated another round of public hearings. Each marina proposal was defeated.

Back on the Reef, like weeds through the sidewalk, the concrete slab slowly began to be absorbed into the neighborhood. An impromptu marine engine repair shop located there. Fishing boats tied up for off-season moorage. Some live-aboards took advantage of the $1 per foot moorage fees. Kids dove off it and canoes cruised under it.

Protest action flyer.

In 1978, the Roanoke Reef stalemate was broken and temporary truce declared. It was agreed that the city hire a consultant to conduct a study of the legal, economic and environmental ramifications of the concrete slab. The community supported the study only after demolition was included as an option.

Soon after the consultant’s report, Lucile Flanagan emerged with a viable Roanoke Reef plan. Ms. Flanagan would purchase the property for $500,000, demolish the concrete slab, construct and sell 20 condo houseboat moorages, plus nine townhouses at the site of the former construction staging area.    The sale was finalized in the summer of 1979 and the Environmental Impact Statement completed during the first months of 1980.

Sketch of Lucile Flanagan’s townhouses that were built on the former construction staging site of Roanoke Reef.

No single individual led the community’s efforts. Only house-boater Terry Pettis and uplander Victor Steinbrueck were intimately involved from beginning to end, but they thought it best that the Battle of Roanoke Reef be spearheaded by the ordinary neighbors of the ECC. Nine ECC presidents served during those years. The long list of cancelled vacations, untaken career opportunities and shattered personal relationships explains why only one (Anita Coolidge Clapper) willingly ran for re-election.

On a sunny Saturday – July 26, 1980 – the Battle of Roanoke Reef officially ended with a neighborhood party on the concrete platform. Food, music, beverages, skydivers, politicians and speeches accompanied a one-dollar-a-whack a cinder block fundraiser for the ECC Legal Defense Fund.

Neighborhood invitation to the demolition party.

A submerged reef is located somewhere off Blake Island – the concrete remains of the platform. For decades after, on a shelf in the Director’s reception area for Seattle’s Department of Construction and Land Use, was a small hunk of concrete with an engraved red aluminum label reading: “Roanoke Reef, 1971-1980.”


The “Battle of Roanoke Reef” has been reprinted several times, most recently in the 2014 and 2021 (50th anniversary edition) of The Eastlake News.

Full petition form

Written by Jules James

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