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Wednesday, May 22, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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No Third Try For Commons -- Park Backers Call It Quits After Voters Say No Again

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

Seattle Commons supporters today were blaming anti-tax fever, little time and voters' lingering doubts for the defeat of a major park project in South Lake Union.

Meanwhile, billionaire Paul Allen was preparing to take control of 11.5 acres of land as payback for the $20 million loan he provided to help get the project off the ground four years ago. It remains unclear what he plans to do with the property, which now sits in one of the hottest development areas of the city.

The immediate land transfer comes as the result of the Seattle Commons' defeat yesterday at the polls, its second in eight months.

There won't be a third try.

"It's over," declared a deeply disappointed Joel Horn, Commons project director who, along with other key backers and volunteers, had devoted the past five years to crafting and promoting the park.

Another 11,500 absentee ballots must still be counted in the next week, but election officials said this morning that there is little chance they will change the outcome. The proposed $50 million property tax levy needed a simple majority to pass but had gained only a 46 percent approval rate.

This morning, Commons supporters were beginning to reflect on what went wrong with a campaign that generated 1,500 volunteers and more than a half-million dollars in contributions.

"We think we did things right," said campaign spokesman Bob Ratliffe. "We did everything we could have possibly done given the

time constraints . . ."

One of those constraints came from Allen, the Microsoft co-founder and Mercer Island billionaire, who had set a June 1 deadline for return of his $20 million loan. The money was used to buy 11.5 acres of land scattered throughout South Lake Union.

Had the property-tax levy been approved, Allen would have forgiven the loan and established a $7 million maintenance endowment for the new Commons park.

"Although I am disappointed this measure did not pass, I respect the voices of the voters who have defeated the Commons," Allen said today in a prepared statement. "My loan to the Seattle Commons will not be renewed, and I will be moving ahead with other projects and investment for those funds."

Allen, who owns a number of companies exploring the potential of multimedia digital communications, did not say what his plans were. Part of the 11 acres includes a 2-acre playfield just developed at Denny Way and Ninth Avenue.

Supporters had focused their campaign message on the value of the park, unlike last fall's campaign, which promised a complex package of low-income housing, transportation improvements and a well-planned urban neighborhood.

They also appealed more directly to senior voters - among the staunchest opponents of the project.

But Ratliffe said holding a special election soon after two Seattle schools property tax ballot measures in February and March probably didn't help their request for more money.

He also pointed to increasing publicity and public debate about the need for money to repair and improve the Kingdome, as well as Allen's desire for a new football stadium for the Seattle Seahawks.

Voters got nervous

Put all those factors together, Ratliffe said, and it starts to make voters nervous about being approached for more public funding for open space.

"I don't think what people said was, `We have other priorities,' " Ratliffe said. "I think people said, `I don't want to pay any more and I don't want to give govenrment more money.' "

They also faced a well-organized opposition.

"I expected it to be a longer and harder fight, and I'm surprised that it went this quickly," said Leslie Foley, a South Lake Union property owner who worked for the Commons' defeat.

Measure failed at polls

Unlike last fall, when the Commons lost among absentees but came out slightly ahead at the polls, yesterday's returns show the proposal narrowly lost at the polls as well, garnering a 49.9 percent approval rate.

As of last night, the levy was going down hard among absentees, with only a 36.5 percent approval rate.

The issue apparently didn't excite voters as much as last September's ballot, which also included a measure on publicly funding a new baseball stadium. Between 39 and 40 percent of the city's registered voters cast ballots yesterday, compared with 58.2 percent last fall.

Opponents outspent

As before, opponents were outspent, this time about $560,000 to roughly $91,000, with backers channeling significant money into a last-minute media and mailing blitz.

"We are facing acceptance of the reality that this dream, this opportunity, is not going to come to pass," Commons board president Gerry Johnson told volunteers moments after the first non-absentee votes were released last night. "This is not to say that the dream was wrong."

But to opponents, the dream was wrong - a "curse," they called it, saying it did worse at the polls this time around in part because voters were outraged that local leaders didn't listen to them when they said no the first time.

"A lot of people were offended by putting this back on the ballot," said Matthew Fox, a leader of the Seattle Commons Opponents Committee. "Hopefully, this time the mayor and members of the City Council that voted to put this back on the ballot will take no for an answer."

The park would have dislocated about 95 businesses in its path, and would have served as the center for a new residential, office and business community in the South Lake Union area.

Area still an `urban center'

But even with the park now out of the picture, the South Lake Union area remains a so-called "urban center" under the city's Comprehensive Plan for growth. That means "we'll still try to have a mixed-used, residential and employment center there," to help absorb population growth over the next 20 years, Deputy Mayor Anne Levinson said last night.

But the defeat of the park will likely mean less residential growth will occur in the area, which in turn will mean other city neighborhoods will have to soak up newcomers.

City Hall insiders expect a cooling off period for weeks - if not months - before the City Council takes up a new, detailed approach to replace the Commons as a planning centerpiece for the area.

The council could dust off a resolution it adopted in 1991 to develop a park on 5.5 acres the city owns along the southern shore of Lake Union near the Center for Wooden Boats, and integrate it with maritime interests.

"But funding was very minimal," Pete Marshall, a parks department planner, recalled recently. "There was some work carried out at the very beginning. They put in a little grass and some parking. But it was not fully funded," he said. "That will be a key question."

An important element of that plan involves the transfer of 5.5 acres of federal land - the Naval Reserve Center on the south shore - that the city expects to get. The Navy plans to vacate the property.

Gone with the Commons is a $25,000 grant that the Kreielsheimer Foundation had conditioned on the measure passing yesterday. The money would have helped to fund design ideas for a new Maritime Heritage Center, also on the lake's south shore.

Even as they were enjoying their victory last night, opponents spoke of building pocket parks in the neighborhood, and of creating a link between the Seattle Center and the city's park land at the lake.

Fox said he also would be pleased if Allen chose to forgive the loan that paid for the new 2-acre playfield just north of Commons campaign headquarters at Ninth Avenue and Denny Way. "I think that would be perfectly appropriate," he said.

"Let's develop a nice park down there (at South Lake Union) connected to the Seattle Center via the bus barn," said Carl Smith, a business owner who opposed the Commons. "Let's have a park that can be used by the people, not a park for . . . developers."

Seattle Times staff reporter Richard Seven contributed to this report.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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