Photo by Brian LeBlanc

21st Century Viking: What happened to Sunset Bowl?

By Brian LeBlanc

In February 2013, the first residents started to move into the AVA Ballard complex on NW Market St and 14th Ave NW where Sunset Bowl once stood. Back in 2008, there was hope that the Sunset could be saved and moved to a new location in Ballard or that a new bowling alley would open in the new building. What happened to those ideas? How are we going to create similar communities in the Ballard of the future?

In early 2008, the owners of Sunset Bowl sold the property to AvalonBay for $13.2 million and the bowling alley closed later that spring. AvalonBay Communities, Inc. is a publicly traded corporation that, according to their website, “is in the business of developing, redeveloping, acquiring and managing high-quality apartment communities in the high barrier-to-entry markets of the United States.”

Ballard resident Jim Bristow saw the 24-hour bowling alley as a vital part of the neighborhood and started the “Save Sunset Bowl” campaign. He gathered over 4,000 signatures and offered to put up $100,000 of his own money to step in and purchase the Sunset Bowl. AvalonBay offered Bristow a one-year lease on the building while he tried to find another location in Ballard or Interbay. At the same time, the economy was tanking and taking over a bowling alley was going to be a big risk. A contractor by trade, his goal wasn’t to manage a bowling alley but to keep one in Ballard and “hand over the reins.” Alternate sites were considered, including the old Nelson Chevrolet building (now the Hilliard’s brewery) on NW 49th St and the property next to the Hjarta building on Market Street, but unfortunately nothing materialized. “If the economy hadn’t gone the way it did at the time, I was 80 percent sure something would have happened,” Bristow said.

Bristow also talked with AvalonBay representatives about designing a bowling alley that could operate in the AVA Building, and even talked to architects about the idea. While AvalonBay representatives verbally promised him -- and the News-Tribune -- that they would consider the idea, Bristow is not sure how serious they were. Bristow said he understands that AvalonBay is a business that builds high-end apartments and that having a bowling alley in the building might have been a concern for potential renters. His intent was never to disrupt the project but to work with them to keep a bowling alley in Ballard.

I contacted the AvalonBay to ask what retail stores were scheduled to open in the AVA building and whether a bowling alley was ever considered but was unable to talk with any representatives on the record before this piece was submitted.

Now, where a uniquely Ballard hangout spot once stood is an apartment and retail complex that is not much different from the others that have sprung up along Market Street in the past five years. I don’t begrudge the owners of the Sunset for selling their land nor AvalonBay for building their newest complex on what is now prime real estate. The question now is how and when are we going to create a similar community resource for Ballard in the 21st century?

The opening of the AVA is the sign that the Ballard of the future is already here. Ballard is no longer a quiet Norwegian fishing neighborhood, but rather it is rapidly becoming part of Downtown Seattle. Part of this rapid change means that a lot of things that used to make Ballard unique are passing from the scene. At the same time, the fact that our community is changing means it is still alive and evolving!

In the end, you can't wait for someone else to create the next Sunset Bowl. You need to put yourself out there and make an impact on the Ballard community.

We also have to welcome our new neighbors who live in places like the AVA and get them to fall in love with this neighborhood like I did when I first arrived. We can forge the Ballard community of the 21st Century together.

With some luck, maybe we’ll get to talk about it someday after we bowl a couple of frames.

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