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Monday, April 23, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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James Vesely / Times editorial page editor

Can you see Sugarloaf from Four Columns Park?

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Which view do you like - the one from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain in rural King County, or the one of the Space Needle from Seattle's Four Columns Park?

The two are linked with a sturdy chain; one that binds the region as surely as the mountains are linked to the sea. There's lots of legal jargon about how the two views are bound together - I'll try to wade through that in a minute - but start by acknowledging that what happens to buildings and viewscapes in Seattle automatically becomes part of a larger argument about saving open space from development somewhere else.

The Bentall Company of Vancouver, B.C., wants to build office and residential towers in the Denny Triangle - large buildings that would rise higher than buildings around them and block views for residents of the Pike/Pine neighborhood and visitors to the gritty little city park. Obviously, the people who oppose losing their view have a point.

But the developer has done what King County and anti-sprawl advocates have been begging developers to do - buy rural land credits which preserve acreage on a rural mountain and secure land from development in perpetuity.

I've been to both recently, to Four Columns Park and to the rural mountains of Eastern King County, and I have to tell you, the view from a high, misty hillside beats the heck out of the view from Four Columns.

Of course it's unfair to compare the two, but the city and the region must weigh both if the idea of rural land credits has any hope of becoming achievable public policy.

"Rural credits" is an idea that's been around a while. It's a simple swap in which a developer buys rights to build on farmlands and forests but relinquishes those rights in exchange for bigger, taller buildings in cities. The credits have been sitting in King County offices with few takers until this one - a big one - came along.

Keith Dearborn, a planner and attorney who represents Bentall in their Denny Triangle project, said it would be hard to find another deal like this one.

"I did the first transfer rights law in Island County in the 1980s," Dearborn said, "and there were few takers. What had to happen first is that cities had to become denser to make the logic of transferring land rights work. It's been tried and dropped, tried again. This time, thanks to King County, it will work."

The symmetry of swapping rural land for greater density in Seattle depends on a certain willingness to go along on the part of the recipient. But the Denny Triangle would seem the right candidate.

In another dozen years, that neighborhood could be the next Belltown - about 5,000 housing units of mixed income levels, offices and street retail. The old bus terminal and other buildings will be long gone, replaced by offices and residential towers to support a daily work force of 45,000 people.

But accepting high density brings some pain. The rural land credit deal allows the Denny Triangle project to exceed usual height limits. The developer gets a sweeter deal in exchange for buying rights that will never be used on Sugarloaf Mountain in South King County, near Ravensdale, and for most of Seattle, on another planet.

Bentall gets to build higher, but there will always be critics who will say that's wrong, wrong, wrong. Urbanites always fight for the cities of their imagination.

"I think the Denny Triangle is our last, best hope," Dearborn said. He was talking about the lack of places within the city and the county where more dense, urban development can go. "This is one of the rare times under rural credits where the economics make it attractive enough to work. This time, because of the county's enthusiasm, there's enough oomph behind it."

Next is Seattle City Council approval and the broad question of whether the neighborhood up the hill should pay a penalty for a bigger, higher Denny Triangle office block.

If the views from Four Columns Park are irreplaceable, what do we say about the views from Sugarloaf Mountain? Seattle is a place that's very good at working in abstracts and saying rural lands in King County must be protected as part of the region's heritage. Now someone laid a bill on the table. The bill is taller buildings on two acres of urban land in exchange for 46 acres on Sugarloaf. Is that a fair price to pay?

Since we live in the Age of Mitigation, a deal may be in the works. The developer can spread around about $1 million to pay for street amenities and other sweeteners. Some of that could go to the neighborhood near Four Columns instead of the sidewalks on the Denny Triangle. There could be other deals and promises leading toward the inevitable.

Four Columns Park is a nice enough place, although it could be a lot cleaner. Its importance has just skyrocketed the way any large land speculation improves surrounding properties. If the views from that park on the edge of Capitol Hill stop rural credits from land banking acreage on Sugarloaf, it will be a very precious park indeed.

Jim Vesely's column appears Mondays. His e-mail address is jvesely@seattletimes.com.

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