Yes for downtown, no for West Seattle
Seattle Times business reporter
ADMIRAL residents pushing a public-private parking garage wonder why the city is willing to help retailers across the bay but not them. ---------------------------
Seattle officials have been patting themselves on the back because a higher-than-expected demand for downtown parking has made their decision to publicly finance the Pacific Place parking garage a sound investment.
But in West Seattle's Admiral District, city officials have repeatedly blocked a public-private partnership - similar to the one for Pacific Place - to build an underground parking garage across from the historic Admiral Theatres on California Avenue Southwest.
For neighborhood activists, the downtown deal has only reinforced a long-held perception that downtown retailers receive preferential treatment over outlying areas of the city.
In the Pacific Place deal, the city sold $73 million in bonds to finance the garage and to help Nordstrom move to a new flagship store adjacent to the mall. Strong parking revenue is now helping pay off the bonds faster than expected - and could even bring a future profit to the city.
But that success hasn't helped the West Seattle project gain city approval.
The original plan
Under the original Admiral District plan, two developers had agreed to donate the land beneath the residential and commercial projects they are building for the parking garage. Area merchants and commercial property owners had agreed to tax themselves to help cover a majority of the cost of a $4.5 million, 160-vehicle underground garage to replace surface parking being lost to development.
Within city government, the proposal was opposed by environmentalists who argued the city shouldn't participate in a project that encourages people to drive their cars. Also against the plan were some key city staffers, who concluded public funds couldn't legally be spent on a garage unless it was a city-owned, public-works project.
To further bolster the case against building the garage, the city did a parking study - conducted on a rainy, Super Bowl weekend - that concluded on most days the Admiral District had adequate parking.
Local residents and business owners say that conclusion is simply wrong.
"People usually fight local-improvement districts tooth and nail, yet these people are willing to tax themselves for 20 years or more," said Midge Batt, a longtime community activist. "If parking isn't needed, why would they voluntarily do that?"
Project delayed, scaled down
The city's opposition delayed the project long enough that developer John Stone withdrew his offer to donate the land under his assisted-living apartments, so he could proceed with construction.
When that happened, Admiral community activists returned to the drawing board and produced a scaled-back version of the garage. Merchants and property owners have again agreed to tax themselves, this time by creating a business-improvement district.
The $3.5 million, 120-car public garage would be built under a proposed condominium development one block east of the theater. Over the life of the bonds, parking fees and the taxes paid by businesses in the improvement district would cover up to 65 percent of the debt service on the garage. City funds, already targeted for neighborhoods, could cover the rest.
In January, the Seattle City Council stopped short of completely nixing that deal, demanding a more definitive parking study and further public review of the proposed partnership between the city and Admiral District businesses.
Community activists suspect the city intends to kill the proposal by once again delaying a decision past the point when construction must begin. And they have found a surprising ally in one of the city's own employees.
"This is an example of a project that should be successful," said Roger Valdez, neighborhood development manager for Southwest Seattle. "We should be encouraging the effort. It has all the elements we ask from neighborhoods, and it's no different than deals that go on all over the place. And that drives people in West Seattle crazy."
Detractors decry city role
Like Pacific Place, the Admiral District project has its detractors. Dan McGrady, an aide to Councilwoman Jan Drago, chairwoman of the Finance, Budget and Economic Development Committee, said the Pacific Place garage was studied extensively before it was approved and that the city went into the project knowing it would pay for itself.
Unlike Pacific Place, the West Seattle garage would require some annual city subsidy, which Admiral District businesses have offered to eventually repay.
At this point, said McGrady, the city isn't ready to set a precedent for a type of project that other neighborhoods might then demand.
Councilwoman Heidi Wills, who has told Admiral District activists she will oppose the project, echoes McGrady's concerns. She said passage of Initiative 695 has put a strain on transportation spending, and that two other neighborhoods - Wallingford and Capitol Hill - have even greater parking needs.
"The council has said it wants to make an informed decision and not be overly rushed," said McGrady, ". . . and the city, on a whole, hasn't figured out what it wants to do about parking."
Debate extends beyond parking
Batt contends opposition to the Admiral District project is being driven by a relatively small number of environmentalists who, for years, have managed to persuade council members to waive parking requirements and approve policies that encourage public transportation.
"There is a small, hard-core group of city staffers who have great influence with the City Council," said Batt. "They are bicyclists and they have no children. They don't have to deal with getting a child to day care at 6 o'clock in the morning. They don't have kids to take to football and soccer. And they must not have mothers and grandmothers who have arthritis and heart problems. They don't have a clue how the majority lives."
"A year ago I had never had to deal with taking a kid anywhere," he said. "But I recently have been in a situation where I have to take care of a 6-year-old. Suddenly, the idea of always being on a bus or a bike is just not possible. The idea of putting everyone on a bike or a bus, particularly when service is being cut by I-695, is not practical.
"Unfortunately, some in the city became fixed on the parking aspects of this project. There's a very cultural argument going on here. That's unfortunate. Here's a neighborhood with a proposal to address one of its central problems. They're asking for the city's help. They're not asking the city to solve the problem."
McGrady said the debate goes beyond how a few "bus huggers" want people to live their lives and to the question of whether the garage makes financial and environmental sense.
"The problem is, there is no set policy," he said.
Beyond asking for a decision, Admiral District activists have asked for little help from the city. When the Law Department stopped advising the project, they went out and hired their own attorney. They even commissioned their own parking study when a city study offered two parking solutions residents found unacceptable: opening both sides of West Seattle's narrow residential streets to parking and converting a portion of LaFayette playfield to surface parking.
"That's not acceptable for our neighborhood," said Dennis Ross, president of the Admiral Community Council. "Those residential streets were never designed for commercial parking."
West Seattle's worsening woes
West Seattle residents have long felt neglected to the point there is occasional talk of seceding from the rest of the city. The neighborhood has, however, embraced the city's comprehensive plan and accepted the growth and higher densities called for in the state Growth Management Act.
But as the Admiral District has grown in population, its parking problems have worsened. When construction began in late October on the assisted-living project, the 850-seat Admiral Theatres lost 60 of the 100 parking spaces the city had long required. Steve Garrett, general manager of the theater, said business is down 23 percent since the day the lot was closed.
While Seattle's code requires that parking be included in the development of new housing and businesses, the city has routinely granted exemptions that worsened the Admiral District's parking problem, including exemptions for the West Seattle Library and West Seattle High School.
Advocates for the garage point to an irony they see in the opposition to the garage. If the Admiral District loses too much parking to high-density growth, they say residents will simply get into their cars and drive up Interstate 5 to a mall.
"Years ago I was a supporter of the Growth Management Act, but I wouldn't vote for it now," Batt said. "We're chasing people away by making it so difficult to find parking. We're putting more traffic on the roads."
Robert T. Nelson's phone message number is 206-464-2996. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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