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Monday, September 11, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Voting On A Vision -- A New Urban Park Would Be Only The Start Of A Bigger Redesign For South Lake Union -- Q&A

EIGHT DAYS FROM NOW, Seattle voters will decide if they want to invest millions of dollars in one f the boldest proposals this city has seen in 20 years: the Seattle Commons, $100 million of the levy money would create a park that one day might become the center of a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of shops, businesses and urban housing. Here are some questions frequently asked about Seattle Proposition I AND THE Commons visions -----------------------------------------------------------------

Q: What is the Seattle Commons plan?

A: It begins with building a 61-acre park and making street improvements around it, including a partially covered thruway for Mercer Street.

The park, two blocks wide and centered along Westlake Avenue North, would stretch northward from Denny Way to Lake Union, with Terry Avenue North as the east and Ninth Avenue North as its west boundary. Denny Park, situated between Ninth and Dexter avenues north and Denny Way and John Street, also would become part of the Commons.

Estimated cost: $312 million, for buying land, business relocation, rerouting and widening streets, park development, preserving low-income housing and a proposed fix for the "Mercer Mess." Most expenses would be paid directly and indirectly by taxpayers.

The real goal goes far beyond building a park. Commons supporters and city officials believe a large park and other public improvements would spark more than $2 billion in private investment - new housing, stores, and businesses - in the South Lake Union area over the next 20 years.

Q: So what are we actually voting on next Tuesday?

A: A property-tax levy worth $111 million. Of that, $11 million would renovate and create 28 sports fields throughout the city. The $100 million for the Commons would be a down payment to begin the South Lake Union redevelopment plan. The city would rezone areas around the park to encourage private development. A public-development authority or nonprofit group would use the property-tax money to finish acquiring property, relocate businesses and begin clearing land for the park.

Q: What kind of park would this be?

The park would be more meadow than forest, an open playground with an emphasis on activity. The city wants public input on a specific design if the tax measure is approved, but there is early consensus that the park must be visually open, well-lit and heavily used in order to be popular and safe.

Features might include children's playgrounds, ball fields, grassy areas, picnic areas and gardens. Water features would also be considered, such as a fountain, ponds and running stream.

Q: What would happen to the businesses there now?

A: The city would spend almost $7 million to relocate about 130 businesses that sit in the park's path or would be affected by street improvements. This includes up to $10,000 for removal and re-establishment of each business. If property owners refuse to sell, the city could use its power of eminent domain.

Some business owners fear that there won't be enough money for relocation, or that businesses will fail when moved to new locations. Market pressures and rising property values might cause other businesses outside the park to relocate over time.

Q: Doesn't this mean taking jobs out of the city? And losing revenue from business and property taxes?

A: In the short term, jobs and some tax revenue could be lost if businesses move outside Seattle. About 1,730 jobs would be affected, and many involve people working for small businesses. City officials believe jobs and businesses could be moved to new sites within Seattle but acknowledge that may not be possible for everyone.

Planners and economists predict that - if the Commons is built - in 30 years, there will be 16,500 new jobs in the area between Interstate 5 and Seattle Center, the northeast corner of downtown and Lake Union. That's 4,500 more jobs than would be expected without the Commons. These would be mostly in white-collar industries, such as high-tech, biotechnology, finance, real estate, retail and commercial services, bringing $108 million in additional tax revenues to the city (property taxes, sales taxes and business and occupation taxes).

Q: What happens to the people who live there?

A: There are 1,700 housing units, none of them in the park path. About 1,200 are considered low-income units, and Mayor Norm Rice and the Commons Committee promise to replace or preserve this number. But some residents will need to move as development proceeds. Also, rising property values and attractiveness of the area could lead to higher rents.

Q: What's the plan for new housing?

A: City goals call for 5,145 new multifamily housing units north of Denny, situated mostly around the park. (They could be town houses, apartments and condominiums but not single-family homes.) The assumption is that sites affording the best park and water views would have more upscale housing. The city hopes incentives will persuade developers to make 20 percent of all new units "affordable" housing. City guidelines are aimed at modest-income families - those earning up to 80 percent of the median income. (A family of four making $40,200 a year would qualify.) However, there is no legal requirement that low-income housing be built.

Q: What's the proposed solution for the Mercer Mess?

A: Mercer Street would be changed from a four-lane, one-way street into a two-way street with six lanes, giving motorists more direct access between Seattle Center and Interstate 5. Mercer would also be lowered about 7 feet, to cross under Ninth, Terry and Fairview avenues north. (Ninth would be renamed Westlake Boulevard.) Traffic signals would be removed, and motorists would no longer have to use Valley Street to head east toward Queen Anne and Ballard.

Q: How much would it cost to fix Mercer? Is it part of the ballot issue?

A: The estimated cost is $93.8 million. This money is not yet in hand and would not be financed by the property-tax levy. City officials say voter approval of the $111 million levy would strengthen their efforts to secure state and federal money.

Q. Would this solve the "Mercer Mess?"

A. Yes and no. Transportation planners say traffic would move more smoothly along Mercer and that travel time would be reduced by six minutes between Seattle Center (5th Avenue N.) and ramps leading to and from I-5. The overall design would separate the noise of traffic from development of a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood and park. And a major bottleneck at Mercer and Fairview would be eliminated entirely.

However, state transportation officials who have reviewed the design plan point out that the east-bound backups on Mercer will continue even after the proposed changes are made. That's because I-5 can only accommodate a certain amount of traffic, and the plan would not change that. As a result, people would probably get backed up near freeway entrances rather than at traffic lights dotting Mercer.

State officials also note that the "Mercer Mess" plan would not affect the so-called "Mercer weave" problem, in which motorists must cross several lanes of traffic trying to get from the Mercer Street, to I-5, to the 520 (floating) bridge, and from 520 to the Mercer Street exit. City officials hope that improvements to local streets would provoke state action to address concerns about the freeway.

Q: What kind of neighborhood would border the park?

A: The plan and proposed rezoning call for a mixed-use, residential and commercial village. Storefront shops, tree-lined streets and apartments and condominiums would border the park and encourage more walking and a small-town feel. Supporters and city officials view the park as a catalyst for development and for luring more families and workers into the city. They also envision the park as a shared "corporate campus" for nearby high-tech and biotech companies.

Q: What about parking and transportation?

A: The city would urge developers to include parking but would not require it for housing. The intent is to reduce the cost of housing development. The city also would encourage more bus use, car-pooling and walking. Supporters hope Metro will add bus routes, and there's some talk of extending the Monorail or the trolleys that transport tourists on the waterfront. There are no current plans to add special parking for the Commons, but supporters hope to make an underground garage part of the park design.

Q: Who came up with this Commons plan and vision, and who's supporting it?

A: The Committee for the Seattle Commons, a nonprofit group of about 50 civic leaders and 200 volunteers, developed it. John Hinterberger, then a full-time columnist for The Seattle Times, inspired the movement in April 1991 when he wrote a series of columns about Seattle's lack of a downtown-area park. (He now writes a weekly food column for Pacific Magazine.) The city had no official role, but people at City Hall nurtured public interest, and the City Council and Mayor Norm Rice have been very supportive.

Key people leading the Commons Committee are Gerry Johnson, a partner in one of Seattle's prominent downtown firms; Joel Horn, former owner of a software company in Bothell, and former City Councilwoman Phyllis Lamphere. Developers and property owners, architects and community activists also have been involved. Billionaire Paul Allen lent $26 million so the group could start buying property for the park.

Campaign endorsements have come from the Municipal League of King County, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters of Seattle, King County Democrats, Seattle School Superintendent John Stanford, U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, former councilwoman Dolores Sibonga, as well as several other individuals and organizations. Major campaign contributors include The Boeing Co., Seafirst bank, Microsoft, Key Bank of Washington and the Space Needle Corporation.

Q: Who are the opponents of the plan, and why don't they like it?

People whose property would be acquired for the park are the most outspoken critics. They include Mike Foley, who manages the family-owned land inhabited by Pacific Lincoln-Mercury-Nissan on Mercer Street, as well as housing and community activist Matthew Fox.

As leaders of the Seattle Commons Opponents Committee (SCOPE), they argue that the region has more important priorities and that the Commons plan would unnecessarily displace a viable working-class community. They say the public shouldn't finance the groundwork for private development, and that a 61-acre park isn't needed because there are other downtown parks. They also are skeptical that the city and Commons can secure the additional $212 million needed for the project and the Mercer Street fix.

Other architects and urban planners question the need to jump-start growth and sound neighborhood planning with a 61-acre park when other cities, such as Portland and Vancouver, have encouraged it with zoning policies and tax incentives.

SCOPE endorsements and major contributions have come from the Washington Libertarian Party, United We Stand, West Seattle chapter, the Seattle Displacement Coalition, Operation Homestead, former councilwoman Virginia Galle; Folke Nyberg and Ronald Kasprisin, professors in architecture and urban planning at the University of Washington; Smith Trading Co./Antique Liquidators, Hugh McNiven Co. and Shirley Jarnig, owner of A-One Ornamental Ironworks.

Q. What's the financial advantage to the city?

A. An independent economic analysis and the city's environmental-impact report predict that construction of the Commons would lure more private development in the South Lake Union area than would occur without it. Over 30 years, the city would see an estimated $108.1 million in additional tax revenues with the Commons. Without it, the area would generate $78.5 million in new tax revenues.

However, city expenses - mostly in park maintenance and police - also would be higher with a new park and large residential neighborhood. Given these higher expenses, the bottom-line advantage would be $54 million at the end of 30 years. That's $5 million less than the $59 million the city would take in (revenues minus expenses) without the Commons. None of the Commons figures account for park construction and revamping Mercer Street.

Q: Who's going to make money in the private sector?

A: Over time, property values in the area would rise as land was developed, and property owners, many of whom invested in the area long before the Commons plan surfaced, would make money. Among the largest property owners in the South Lake Union area, north of Denny Way, are The Seattle Times Co., Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Washington Natural Gas, PEMCO, the Lea Family and the Tomlinson Family.

Q: I don't live near the proposed park, so what does the Commons offer me?

A: Supporters say this is probably the city's last chance to construct a large downtown-area park. They also point to the economic development and 16,500 new jobs that would help buttress Seattle's economy. More generally, supporters and city officials see an opportunity for Seattle to create a well-planned neighborhood that would emphasize open space, less driving and a sense of community.

Q: Wouldn't this kind of redevelopment eventually happen anyway?

A. Economists say development would occur at a slower rate and would not produce as many jobs or as much housing. Natural development would result in 2,700 dwelling units, compared to 7,600 with the Commons. The job base would be smaller, too, creating 12,000 positions compared to the estimated 16,500 with the Commons.

Q: How long might all this take?

A: Twenty to 30 years. Commons supporters point to specific examples where private development is under way but say voter approval of the park plan is critical.

Q: How much would the proposed $111 million levy cost me?

A: Beginning in 1996, the owner of a $150,000 Seattle home would pay an average of $48.12 a year in additional taxes for eight years. Under the taxing schedule, the extra property tax (for a $150,000 home) would start at $71.30 in 1996 and decrease to $26.66 in 2003. (City officials expect to collect the taxes in eight years but could extend them over a total of nine.)

Q: What's the plan for the athletic fields, and why are they part of this levy?

A: Twenty-three fields would be built and five others would be renovated for soccer, baseball, softball and football throughout Seattle. Locations include Sealth High School (seven new fields), Rainier Beach High School (five new), Judkins playfield (three renovated), Queen Anne Bowl (two new and one renovated), Magnuson Park (one new), Ingraham High School (two new), Jane Addams School (six new) and Lower Woodland Park (conversion of one field to a better all-weather surface).

Hours before their vote to put the levy on he Sept. 19 ballots, City Council members added $11 million for the ball fields after expressing concern that residents would not support the Commons if there was nothing else being directly offered for other neighborhoods

Q: If only $100 million from the levy goes to the Commons, where's the rest of the $312 million supposed to come from?

A: A variety of local, state and federal sources, along with some private donations that city officials and Commons backers hope to tap. Civic leaders already have started lobbying for money to fix Mercer Street.

Here's the breakdown on sources of money:

-- City property-tax levy, $90.9 million. (This is the estimated value in 1996 dollars of $100 million collected between 1996 and 2004, taking inflation into account.)

-- Federal and state transportation funds: $93.8 million.

-- Private contributions and funds from other governmental agencies: $70 million. Supporters hope to convince the Port of Seattle and King County that there are economic-development reasons for them to invest in the Commons. Private donations are expected to contribute up to half the $70 million.

-- City bonds not needing voter approval: $22 million, in 1996 dollars. (Because of inflation, the actual bond issue is expected to be $25 million.) These would be issued by the City Council in 2000.

-- A local improvement district: $11.3 million. South Lake Union property owners would be asked to help pay for the Commons as part of a special taxing district.

-- Federal and state low-income-housing funds: $17 million.

-- Federal and state transportation funds, $2 million.

-- City real-estate excise-tax funds for low-income housing: $5 million. In 1994, the city issued $7 million in bonds backed by this tax and earmarked the money for low-income housing.

Q. Does this cover all the public costs for this new park and neighborhood?

A. Not all of them. The annual cost of operating and maintaining the new park would be about $530,000 a year, while police and fire services would be $2 million once the area is fully developed. The city expects to cover new expenses with tax revenue generated by development. The economic analysis notes that it would be several years - 2010 - before revenues exceeded city expenses.

The city also has set a goal of adding 1,700 low-income-housing units, which would cost $78.8 million. This is not being calculated in the price tag of the Commons project.

Q: What's the timetable for creating the park?

A: Commons backers hope to dedicate the park on July 4, 2000. But if funding is sporadic, or the city and Commons are unable to get money for Mercer Street, park development could be delayed another 10 years. The plan is to build the park block by block, beginning with its south border at Denny Way and moving north to Lake Union, so that there aren't gaping holes.

Q: What are the terms of the loan by Paul Allen? Would any of the levy money be used to pay him back?

A: In 1992, billionaire Paul Allen lent the Commons Committee $20 million to buy land for the park from willing sellers. He expects to be repaid, but Commons supporters say there is no schedule for when that would happen. Allen is not charging interst.

Commons leaders say they would sell the land, which is now held in trust, to the city for an appraised market price. Depending on the timing, some of that money might come from the levy, from private donations or from other government sources. The Commons Committee has not yet decided whether to forgo any profits or to use the additional money for a park-maintenance endowment fund.

About 60 percent of the land in the park path is now controlled by the Commons and the city in land, streets and right of way.

Allen also has lent the Commons Committee $6 million to acquire property just outside the new park. None of the money to repay that loan would come from the $312 million Common project.

Q: What if there are cost overruns?

A: The project would probably be delayed, but there no plans to scale down the scope. The $20 million in public funds earmarked for park development - which includes landscaping and sports facilities - would probably be trimmed. The Commons Committee would be urged to raise more money from private sources.

Q: What will happen if the levy fails.?

A: Commons Committee, which has already begun buying land for the park, would decide what to do next.Commons Committee Board President Johnson said he doubts the group woul seek another levy vote. If so, the committee would sell its property and repay its loans to Allen.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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