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Mountlake Terrace -- Thumbnail History
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Mountlake Terrace -- not to be confused with "Montlake" and no longer to be simply called "Terrace" -- began life as a speculator's dream. In 1949, developer Albert LaPierre and his partner, Jack Peterson, bought an abandoned airstrip on logged-over land about 12 miles north of Seattle, just over the Snohomish County line, and began filling it with 640-square-foot cinder-block houses, priced at $4,999 and aimed at World War II veterans with young families. They named their development Mountlake Terrace because from some parts of the property they could see both Mount Rainier and Lake Washington, and the old runway looked a little like a terrace. Buyers snapped up the modest houses as fast as they could be built. By 1954, when Mountlake Terrace was incorporated, it was one of the fastest-growing communities in Washington state. The growth stalled in the late 1970s, however. A quintessential suburb, designed for the automobile, Mountlake Terrace has struggled to redefine itself in recent years, with controversial efforts to create a more centralized, pedestrian-friendly "downtown."
Mountlake Terrace lies within the traditional homelands of the Snohomish people but the Indians spent most of their time in cedar longhouses along Puget Sound and the Snohomish River, to the west, at what would become the cities of Edmonds, Mukilteo, and Everett. The future site of Mountlake Terrace was in an area that tended to be used only for summer forays to hunt, gather berries, and dig roots.
The land was still thickly forested when it was acquired by the Puget Mill Company, a division of the Pope & Talbot Company of San Francisco, as part of a 17,000-acre purchase in 1862. Puget Mill eventually became one of the largest landowners in the Puget Sound region, controlling nearly 150,000 acres of timberlands and operating large sawmills at Port Gamble, Port Ludlow, and Utsalady.
By the early 1900s, most of the land in south Snohomish County had been logged off. Instead of letting the "stump ranches" revert to the county in lieu of taxes, Pope & Talbot subdivided it into 10-acre "chicken ranches." A few farmers moved into the area to raise chickens, minks, and chinchillas. The completion of the interurban rail line between Tacoma and Everett in 1910 encouraged settlement by people who could commute to jobs in Seattle, to the south, or Everett, to the north, while raising livestock and produce at home. However, many of those small farms failed during the Depression of the 1930s. The abandonment of the interurban in 1939 brought a temporary end to any further development.
Jack Peterson (1904-1996) and his partner, Albert L. LaPierre (1907-1989) went into business together in the late 1940s. Peterson, a native of Saskatchewan, had moved to Detroit, Michigan, at age 16 to build Model Ts. Later he learned the bricklayer’s trade. He brought those skills with him when, in the early 1930s, he hopped a freight to Seattle to find work. An innovative builder, he eventually formed a partnership with LaPierre, described as an imaginative developer and organizer. "Neither seemed to know or care much about the other’s specialty, but together they made a formidable team as Peterson-LaPierre, Inc.," Allan May wrote in Snohomish County: An Illustrated History (298).
The two completed a few small developments in north King County after the end of the war, but the increasing cost of land and building permits drove them north, into Snohomish County. In 1949, they bought land just north of present-day 244th Street SW and east of today’s I-5, named it, platted it, and began building simple, two-bedroom houses, on concrete slabs, measuring 20 by 30 feet.
Peterson developed a construction model that resembled an assembly line. One crew prepared the site, laid the foundation, and put in the plumbing (which was embedded in the houses’ concrete floors); another put up the exterior concrete-block walls; a third did the interior walls and put on the roof. Interior painting and landscaping was left to the new homeowners. A row of houses could be completed within a few weeks. They were tiny, even by the standards of that era, but "they were warm and dry and much better than the garages and basements where so many of the veterans had lived while they hunted for something better" (O’Donnell et al., 299).
With the economy booming and the demand for housing soaring, the houses sold faster than they could be built. Peterson-LaPierre bought more land and started building somewhat larger houses, but assembly line techniques and economies of scale kept their prices lower than those of their competitors, and buyers snapped up those houses, too.
By 1954, there were 5,104 people living in a square-mile area bounded by 244th and 216th Streets SW and 48th and 68th Avenues W. The average age of the adults was 26 and nearly all of the families included preschool age children. The rapid growth had overwhelmed the development’s infrastructure. People had to wait a year to have a telephone installed, and then it was on a party line, shared with nine other families. There were no paved streets, no sewers, an inadequate water system, only a volunteer fire department, and the nearest police department was in Everett, 15 miles away.
For Patrick McMahan (1930-2013), a young firefighter with the Seattle Fire Department who lived in Mountlake Terrace, the final straw came one summer night when someone tried to break into his house while he was on duty in Seattle. His wife called the sheriff’s office. No one responded until 4 p.m. the next afternoon.
McMahan eventually organized the Mountlake Terrace Study Committee, which led a campaign to incorporate the community. The issue was a contentious one. Opponents included developers, who objected to the prospect of tougher building codes, and homeowners who were worried about higher taxes. "We were just afraid it would cost us more money," recalled JoAnne Gossett, who with her husband Bill, bought the third house to be built in what became Mountlake Terrace’s first neighborhood, in 1949 (The Seattle Times, December 3, 2003). The Gossetts were among the 483 people who voted against incorporation, in an election held on November 23, 1954. They were outvoted, by a margin of 34 out of exactly 1,000 votes cast.
Voters chose a five-person city council at the same election. The council had its first meeting on November 24 and selected Gilbert "Gil" Geiser (1919-1897), a 35-year-old hardware store owner, as Mountlake Terrace’s first mayor. Geiser had to lend the new city $5 so the incorporation papers could be filed. With the filing, on November 29, Mountlake Terrace officially became a third-class city.
Good Times and Bad
Mountlake Terrace’s population doubled between 1950 and 1960 and then nearly doubled again by 1970. Small businesses flourished in two strip-mall-type shopping centers located in the middle of town, on land donated by Peterson-LaPierre. The developers also donated land for several churches, including the parish of St. Pius X, which celebrated its first mass on June 22, 1955. By year’s end, five masses were being celebrated each Sunday to accommodate the growing number of young families drawn to the area by the inexpensive housing.
Cheap land also drew a few employers, such as the John Fluke Corporation, which moved its large electronics facilities from Seattle to Mountlake Terrace in 1959. Two years later, voters approved a bond issue to build a City Hall in the fledgling town center. Washington Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983) attended the dedication ceremony, which then-Mayor Frank Hammer described as "a big event and a proud moment for the community" (City of Mountlake Terrace website).
In the 1970s, however, the growth stalled. Like the rest of the Puget Sound region, Mountlake Terrace was impacted by the "Boeing Bust," in which three out of four Boeing employees lost their jobs. The local business district, already economically wobbly, lost further ground after the opening of Alderwood Mall in neighboring Lynnwood in 1979. The 1980 census showed that Mountlake Terrace’s population had dropped by almost 5 percent in 10 years. Then, in 1981, the Fluke Corporation relocated to Everett. The city budget was trimmed and trimmed again and even so, Mountlake Terrace entered 1989 with a $1.3 million deficit.
An additional blow came in 1990, when arson fires severely damaged the two shopping centers in the heart of Mountlake Terrace’s business district, at the intersection of 56th Avenue W and 232nd Street SW. A local resident, James Schmitt, later confessed to setting those fires and 11 others, during an arson spree that began on July 30, 1990, and didn’t end until April 25, 1991. West Plaza, built in the early 1960s and home to four businesses, reopened 20 months later. But East Plaza, which had housed seven businesses, was demolished and replaced with a gymnastics center. The Summers Plaza Drug Store, the Ben Franklin five-and-dime, and Wilner’s department store -- local enterprises that had contributed to Mountlake Terrace’s small town ambience -- were among the victims. "It took the pizzazz out of the downtown corridor," Councilman John Zambrano said (The Seattle Times, April 7, 2006)
Finding a Footing
Mountlake Terrace struggled to find a footing in the years after the fires. Residents valued the community’s largely residential character, but declining business-tax revenues left the city chronically strapped for cash. With neither the shopping amenities of Lynnwood nor the tourist attractions of Edmonds, city officials tried to sell the convenience of Mountlake Terrace’s location, tucked next to I-5 in the heart of the Puget Sound region. But there was little agreement on the best path to the future.
City council meetings became so contentious that there was talk of hiring an expert on parliamentary procedure to try to ensure that council members treated each other with a modicum of civility. Several of them sued each other. One particularly outspoken member of the council, restaurant owner Angela Amundson, finally quit in 2008, midway through her second term, saying she was tired of "personal attacks" that included a temporary restraining order filed against her by Councilwoman Michelle Robles. In her resignation letter, Amundson took a parting shot at her council colleagues, saying "Your desperate, petty, most of the time unethical and probably illegal efforts to stop my legislative efforts have left me feeling embarrassed by you and ashamed of you" (The Seattle Times, January 30, 2008).
Council members argued about everything from the management of a teen center to the number of cars that could be parked in residents’ yards, but the most divisive issue involved the city center. A product of the automobile age, Mountlake Terrace had never had a traditional "downtown," with busy sidewalks lined with shops. What it had instead were strip malls and parking lots. In the years after the arson fires, some members of the council began pushing for zoning changes to encourage a more urban, pedestrian-friendly city center. Several consultants’ reports were debated and shelved; a number of plans were considered and rejected.
Mountlake with a "U"
Meanwhile, in one effort to "improve the image of the town," the council approved a resolution that all elected officials and employees of Mountlake Terrace pronounce and spell the city’s name correctly: Mountlake, with a "u." And definitely not simply "Terrace." (Headline writers, especially in sports sections, tended to ignore the edict, and Mountlake Terrace High School remained widely known as "Terrace High.")
In 2006, the council again took up the issue of the city center. As a first step, it unanimously approved design standards requiring that new developments be built with wide sidewalks, lots of windows, awnings, and interesting architectural details. In November, it began considering a more controversial proposal, to rezone a three-block area to permit mixed-use buildings up to 10 stories tall, a dramatic increase over the existing three-story limit.
Councilman John Zambrano, who favored the plan, said a consultant had predicted 870 new jobs would be created if building heights were raised to 10 stories. Critics, including Angela Amundson, said residents had never asked for such large-scale change. After months of stormy debate, during which the council officially reprimanded both Zambrano and Mayor Jerry Smith for "negative actions," a compromise was adopted. A new city center plan, adopted in February 2007, allows mixed-use buildings of up to seven stories in the central block and up to five stories in surrounding blocks.
City planners do not anticipate that Mountlake Terrace will grow much beyond its current population of about 20,800. The comprehensive plan forecasts that the city will use up its remaining residential space by 2012. But a new Community Transit center, to be completed by the end of 2009 at Mountlake Terrace's entry to I-5, will make it easier for both visitors and residents to reach the city.
Mountlake Terrace today bears little resemblance to the housing development that was planted by Peterson-LaPierre in 1949. The community has grown from one square mile to four; and from an exclusively white suburb into one in which one-quarter of the population is black, Asian, or Hispanic. Premera Blue Cross has replaced the Fluke Corporation as the town’s largest employer. More than 2,400 people work at Premera’s headquarters in Mountlake Terrace -- nearly half the total number of people living here when the city was incorporated. The septic tanks are long gone, and the city is proud of its 262 acres of parks and recreational areas. But some of the original, two-bedroom cinder-block houses still exist, clustered around the 236th Street exit from the freeway, modest testimonies to the dreams of an earlier generation.
David A. Cameron, Charles LeWarne, M. Allan May, Jack C. O’Donnell, Lawrence O’Donnell, Snohomish County: An Illustrated History (Index, WA: Kelcema Books LLC, 2005), 297-306; Table 5, "Population of Places," 1980 Census of Population (CPH), and Table 1, "Summary of General Characteristics," 1990 CPH Report, U.S. Census Bureau website accessed April 2008 (www.census.gov); "History," City of Mountlake Terrace website accessed April 2008 (www.ci.mountlake-terrace.wa.us); Lynn Thompson, "Mountlake Terrace prepares for its 50th-birthday party," The Seattle Times, December 3, 2003, p. H-1; "St. Pius X Parish Grew with Fledgling City of Mountlake Terrace," The Catholic Northwest Progress, June 23, 2005, Seattle Archdiocese website accessed April 2008 (www.seattlearch.org); "Terrace Council Faces Lean Times in Wake of $1.3 Million Shortfall," Everett Herald, November 7, 1989, p. 1-B; Jim Brunner, "Traffic, Business Dominate Election -- Big Issues In Mountlake Terrace," The Seattle Times, October 29, 1999; Diane Brooks, "Big Plans for Mountlake Terrace," Ibid., April 7, 2006; Lynn Thompson, "Cordiality a Casualty at Meetings," Ibid., February 19, 2003; Lynn Thompson, "Controversial Member Resigns from Council," Ibid., January 30, 2008; Diane Brooks, "New Rules: No Parking in Your Front Yard," Ibid., April 26, 2006; Ignacio Lobos, "Mountlake Terrace Makes Name For Itself," Ibid., April 20, 1994; Diane Brooks, "Is the Future of City Going Up?" Ibid., December 13, 2006; Naila Moreira, "Mountlake Terrace Mayor, City Councilman Reprimanded," Ibid., February 2, 2007; Suzanne Monson, "Recreation, Affordability Reward Mountlake Terrace Residents," Ibid., January 6, 2002 (all Seattle Times articles accessed in March 2008 at www.seattletimes.nwsource.com).
Note: This essay was updated on September 24, 2013.
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New Mountlake Terrace councilmembers H. Scott Wilson, Harley McFarland, Gilbert Geiser, Lester Steele, Patricia Neibel, November 1954
Courtesy City of Mountlake Terrace