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Sunday, January 10, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Strategy For South Lake Union -- Seattle Commons: More Than A Park -- City Has Unprecedented Opportunity To Respond To Some Crucial Needs

THREE weeks ago, the Committee for the Seattle Commons released its draft plan. The draft plan marks a milestone in the evolution of the Seattle Commons project. What began as simply an idea for a magnificent urban park is now our proposed plan for a vibrant new urban neighborhood with new housing and thriving businesses anchored by the park.

The draft plan represents thousands of hours of volunteer time and a year of hard work by hundreds of Seattle citizens. Those involved include South Lake Union business and property owners, neighborhood representatives, planning and transportation experts, architects, open-space proponents, housing advocates, lawyers and interested citizens. People normally on opposite sides of the fence have come together to work on the realization of this vision. This was, and truly is, a group effort from the grass roots. The breadth of support we have received so far suggests to us that we are headed in the right direction.

The history of this project has been one of listening to and incorporating the comments of the many diverse people who are interested in the Seattle Commons. By releasing our plan in draft form, we are inviting and expecting further and more extensive comments, criticism, and even skepticism. We welcome the hard questions, because we did not get this far without asking them of ourselves. And we know we can only move ahead, and improve the plan, by continuing to work together with the entire community, skeptics included.

We started a year ago with an idea - a vision - for a major new park. Our vision was originally inspired by John Hinterberger's series of columns in this newspaper in 1991 that suggested a large park linking downtown to South Lake Union. Hinterberger reminded us that this long unfinished piece of business had been on the city's agenda for nearly a century, and that an historic opportunity to actually achieve it might soon evaporate in the face of development already evident in South Lake Union.

As we began to work on the idea in earnest, our vision evolved. From the hard work of all our volunteers and through in-depth conversations with city officials, we learned a lot about the city's needs and goals. What we learned is that this project is more important to the city than just a beautiful park.

We learned that a revitalized, thriving urban neighborhood and a large urban park support each other and provide greater benefit to the city than either can provide alone. And we learned that this is a truly unprecedented opportunity to respond to many of the city's and the region's growth and budgetary needs. Our thinking crystallized around the mayor's vision for "urban villages."

So we broadened our plan to include an economically and culturally diverse neighborhood for up to 15,000 residents, with housing for people of all income levels. We expect that many residents will work at nearby businesses and easily commute to downtown jobs without congesting our freeways. We envision a healthy mix of new and expanded businesses, together with transportation improvements to make it easier to get in, out, through and around the area.

By expanding our vision, the Seattle Commons draft plan reinforces the vision for our region and our city set forth in the 1990 Growth Management Act (GMA) and Seattle's Comprehensive Plan Framework Policies. In adopting the GMA, the state Legislature recognized that people will move to Puget Sound in large numbers in the next decade - 430,000, by conservative estimates. The GMA requires communities to plan how they will accommodate that growth. The city's recently adopted Framework Policies are part of Seattle's response to the GMA.

Many of you may have seen the recent article in Time magazine that lauded Seattle's Framework Policies as one of the best urban design efforts of 1992. These policies embrace the mayor's urban village notion of high-density, mixed-use urban neighborhoods, with jobs and housing close together so residents will be less dependent on their cars. South Lake Union was identified as a site for one of these urban villages.

Several South Lake Union business and property owners are part of our planning team and helped create our plan. In working with them it became clear that South Lake Union is already in transition. In recent years, many of its older industrial operations have relocated.

Now, part of the South Lake Union waterfront has been transformed into a busy commercial area with restaurants, shops and public walkways. Other areas of South Lake Union have changed, too, though not in the same way or as quickly. In many cases, as businesses have relocated, land has been left vacant or turned into parking lots awaiting redevelopment.

Recognizing that enormous change is, and will be, sweeping over South Lake Union whether the Commons succeeds or fails, we saw the fleeting opportunity to preserve the important qualities of the area while harnessing the power of growth and change.

The Seattle Commons plan is an attempt to guide, accelerate and harness this transition in a positive direction, making our city more beautiful, more livable and more prosperous in the process.

Our proposed neighborhood will accommodate and channel some of Seattle's inevitable growth and will provide people with a new opportunity to live close to their jobs and close to downtown.

The Commons also represents a unique chance to revitalize Seattle's urban core by bringing new customers to existing businesses and attracting new businesses to the area. We learned from local business people that one of the best ways to improve the local business climate is a steady flow of people through the area. With new residents and employees and the attraction of the park, the Seattle Commons will generate tremendous new activity.

With the park serving as the magnet for new business activity, we expect a revitalized South Lake Union to add to our city's tax base. The new tax revenues generated will benefit not only the Commons, but other city neighborhoods.

We are proposing to pay for the park and public improvements through a method called community redevelopment financing. With this kind of financing, the park is essentially paid for by the increased economic activity in the area. The project is therefore an investment, rather than an expenditure, that should not compete with or detract from other city priorities. Community redevelopment financing has worked well in other states but has yet to be implemented in Washington. We see this project as a terrific opportunity to prove the merits of redevelopment financing for other public projects in our state, as well as to pay for the Commons park.

All this will not happen overnight. We have just completed the first phase of what we fully expect to be a 10- to 20-year effort. Many changes will be made along the way. As I remarked when we presented the draft plan to the mayor and city council, the only thing we know for sure is that our current plan is not what will ultimately be implemented. As the evolving plan is achieved over time, we hope it will inspire and validate other citizen initiatives to improve other areas of our city.

We started with a beautiful vision. But we did not get this far on wishful thinking. We have been asking our volunteer committees the hardest conceivable questions from the beginning, and we know that many of these tough questions still need answers. We invite the entire community to join as partners in this exciting effort and help us build consensus toward a better South Lake Union and a better Seattle.

Gerry Johnson is president of the Committee for the Seattle Commons' all-volunteer board of directors. He is a partner in the regional law firm of Preston Thorgrimson Shidler Gates & Ellis.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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