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Tuesday, November 26, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bellevue council OKs Qwest building purchase, setting stage for debate on city's plan

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

The Bellevue City Council approved the $29 million purchase of a downtown office building yesterday to serve as a new police and fire department headquarters, and possibly a new city hall.

The council's unanimous vote ended weeks of delays and behind-closed-doors negotiations involving city officials, council members and Qwest Communications. The telecommunications company owns the building at 450 110th Avenue N.E.

"I think this represents a very good deal for our city," said Mayor Connie Marshall, shortly before the vote.

It also sets the stage for months of public debate over exactly what the city should do with the massive, seven-story, concrete-and-glass building.

The building was first presented to the council as a potential city hall with a price tag of as much as $105 million. But the council, concerned about the cost and looking for more public opinion, has promised extensive discussions before deciding what will become of the entire building.

Deputy Mayor Grant Degginger suggested the city establish a review panel that includes citizens to take a detailed look at the project.

The purchase, set to close by the end of the year, could still be scuttled if inspections turn up a fatal flaw. City officials say they have found no problems, so far, and expect none to turn up.

Qwest has already signed the agreement.

At a minimum, the building will be home to public safety operations such as police, fire, dispatchers and emergency operations. The city has been trying for years to find a centralized facility for those functions, now scattered around the city.

"This is a great first step. But it's only a first step," said Police Chief Jim Montgomery, referring to the planning ahead.

The price tag is estimated at $62 million for the building and renovations. An earlier study concluded it would cost $70 million to $90 million for a new public safety building at the current city campus.

Several council members said the purchase came at an opportune time, with interest rates low and commercial real-estate prices depressed by high vacancy rates.

"It's a no-brainer," said Don Davidson. The phrase was used repeatedly by council members.

The purchase will give the city a new, major presence in downtown. The current City Hall sits on the outskirts of the commercial district, separated by Interstate 405.

Under the deal, the city would pay Qwest $28 million for the 329,000- square-foot building, plus another $1 million in the company's moving costs. Qwest would lease back the building for nine months for $1.55 million, and then move out of all but a small space on a basement floor.

An earlier tentative agreement had Qwest paying $2.13 million for the lease. But Qwest decided to reduce the space it would use after the one-year lease, and the city agreed to reduce the rent to help cover Qwest's additional moving costs.

The city would initially pay for the purchase with a bond anticipation note, essentially a short-term loan, until officials decide what to do with the building, and how much they want to spend.

Those decisions will hinge on public discussions about "whether we want a Chevrolet facility or a Cadillac facility or something in the middle," said Councilman Mike Creighton.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com.

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