'Palm Bloke' gives Fremont street a Florida feel

Alain Lucier tried to explain his passion, this passion that takes up three hours of his life every evening. How do you explain that, in the double-lot yard of your Fremont home, you have 600 palm trees?

As people drive along the 4200 block of Third Avenue Northwest and look at the front of the stately 1906 home, they cannot help but slow down. Crammed together facing the street are 125 palm trees, from 7-footers all the way down to 1-footers.

"Yes, they're pretty much like my kids," Lucier said. He still loves the 600 kids, but they're wearing on him. Recently, he took a day's vacation just to catch up on watering.

He could have taken the day off for his hobby of photographing high-rises and homes in Seattle. But you can't take pictures when you're watering, or cutting away palm leaves so they don't block the path to the door.

Of course, he said, he has learned the spirituality of watering plants. "You're dealing with something man can't create. We can only be the stewards," he said.

How it all came to 600 palms isn't something Lucier planned out. He added palms because, well, he could.

Lucier, 52, a buyer for an aerospace company, searched for an explanation for how he got this passion. Maybe it was the years traveling in Australia, France and Israel. They all have palm trees.

He remembered being a kid in those lands. "It was neat. You could put your arms around the trunk of this huge thing. It didn't cast a lot of shade. It was just tall and looked neat."

Maybe it was how palms make him feel. They're always green and, especially in the dreary Seattle winters, he finds joy in coming home to 600 palms.

"People always want to go to Hawaii or a tropical island. Seeing a palm brightens up your outlook," he said. "I might be talking on the phone (to people) in Chicago, and they're saying it's snowing and almost zero. I say it's 45 here and the palms are blowing in the breeze."

Then Lucier ran out of explanations. Sometimes it's hard to articulate them.

It was 1997 when his palm floodgates opened.

"I was sick and tired of that 'Seattle' look. I ripped out all of the rhododendrons, the junipers, the dogwoods, a bunch of other plants everyone in Seattle has. I suppose with the whole idea of palms in Seattle, you're kind of testing the limits," he said. About the only plant that stayed was a huge monkey tree.

The neighbors could only watch in awe. Paying $120 per foot of trunk, Lucier planted 4-foot and 6-foot palms (mostly windmill palms, which grow well here), adding banana, ginger and other tropical plants. Within a month, the Palm House was born.

But Lucier's passion was unending. Now he had this other vision, and it was of palm trees on the grassy sidewalk strips of both sides of the entire 4200 block of Third Northwest.

"In 10 years, there would be these palms with 10 feet of trunk. Oh, it'd look fabulous!" he said.

A couple of neighbors didn't react well. Lucier thinks maybe they didn't want anything that reminded them of California. If only they knew, Lucier thought to himself: The windmill palms he was going to plant didn't even grow in California.

But most neighbors went along, and Lucier planted 40 palms at his own cost, only asking that the neighbors water the plants.

"It's a fine enthusiasm," said one of the neighbors, John Burke. Another, Paul Bieker, said, "If he wanted to do it, that was fine with me." He remembered some neighbors, who initially had turned down the palms, changing their minds after seeing how they looked.

Meanwhile, Lucier kept buying palms. He figures he has spent $30,000 on the trees, now worth $90,000.

His dreams continue unabated. Why can't Seattle have streets lined with palms? That's what Vancouver, B.C., is doing, he said. "In winter, they're green and they're clean. Instead, we have deciduous trees that are messy, clog up the storm drains fall and winter, and they're just sticks," Lucier said.

Those are the dreams, but then there is the wearing reality of those 600 palms. Lucier figures his summer water bill at $250 a month. He thinks in maybe three or five years he'll start selling the palms to developers or condo builders, and move to Vancouver or Australia. They appreciate palms there.

So the Palm House will stay the Palm House for a while, and so will the Palm Bloke, as some neighbors call him.

In the sitting room of his home, surrounded by palms, in his own rain jungle, Lucier remembered something he had read about palms.

He paraphrased what is now his philosophy: "If you can't grow palms where you are, it's not fit for humans."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com