Thursday, October 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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One-time foe sells Paul Allen key land near South Lake Union

Seattle Times staff reporters

Paul Allen's newest acquisition in the South Lake Union neighborhood may be his shrewdest yet.

The $21.25 million purchase yesterday of 3 acres at the intersection of Mercer Street and Westlake Avenue North secured some of the most visible land for his burgeoning biotech hub and bought out one of the few property owners who might have stood in the way of efforts to redevelop the neighborhood.

Mike Foley has been one of South Lake Union's key players since leading the opposition to the Seattle Commons park a decade ago. But the sharp-tongued critic who helped stop that controversial project said Allen's company, Vulcan, made an offer he couldn't refuse.

"When you look at the price per square foot, the decision to sell speaks for itself," he said.

Vulcan paid about $187 a square foot for the land, among the highest prices the company has paid in the South Lake Union neighborhood.

The deal gives Vulcan control of all but a handful of properties along Mercer Street and brings to 53 acres the amount of land it owns in the South Lake Union neighborhood. "We consider this purchase to be a very strategic addition to our South Lake Union real-estate portfolio," said Ada Healey, Vulcan's vice president of real estate.

The company said it has no immediate plans to redevelop the property, home to Jaguar and Land Rover dealerships.

But Vulcan is pushing forward with projects that are transforming the lakefront neighborhood of mostly small businesses and low-income housing into a center for biotech research. Construction has started on two research buildings and an apartment complex.

Vulcan plans to begin renovating the former Washington Natural Gas building on Mercer Street later this year, the first phase of the University of Washington's South Lake Union research campus.

The company says it can build up to 10 million square feet of labs, offices, apartments and stores on its property.

Foley's decision to sell disappointed neighborhood activists who are fighting Vulcan's plans in the South Lake Union area.

"It's a domino that has fallen," said John Fox, coordinator of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. "(And) also conveniently gets rid of one of Mr. Allen's major thorns."

Foley was not opposed to Vulcan redeveloping its South Lake Union property.

But he was one of the more outspoken critics of the city's proposals to rebuild Mercer Street and run a streetcar through the neighborhood, two projects that are key to Vulcan's vision for the area.

In all, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has proposed about $500 million in public improvements to the South Lake Union neighborhood, including a new electrical substation and waterfront park. He hopes the investments would help attract 20,000 jobs to the neighborhood, many of them in biotech.

But Foley has hammered the city over the $75 million-to-$95 million proposal to widen Mercer Street into an eight-lane, two-way boulevard, a plan that would have required some of his property. He argued that the plan was a waste of money that would do little to ease traffic on the street.

Vulcan has lobbied for the idea as a way to improve Mercer Street, move most travel farther from the lakefront and make the area more pedestrian-friendly.

Foley proved himself a powerful organizer when he took on the fight against the Commons.

Despite support from the city's top business and political leaders, voters twice rejected the plan to build a central park connecting Lake Union to downtown through the middle of the South Lake Union neighborhood.

"He started knocking on doors and reminded people that, hey, we are part of a neighborhood, which is something people had kind of forgotten," said Jim Klinger, a real-estate broker who worked for the pro-Commons campaign and later with Vulcan to purchase South Lake Union property.

Allen, too, supported the Commons, providing most of the money to begin buying property for the proposed park. He took control of that land when the proposal failed.

Foley said the property, which was passed down through his wife's family, was not on the market when he received an offer to buy it earlier this year.

It wasn't Vulcan that wanted the land, but another buyer Foley declined to name. A purchase agreement signed in February fell through, clearing the way for Vulcan to step in and close the deal, Foley said.

While some might find it strange Foley would sell to Vulcan, he said he was comfortable with the deal, even though it means he will have less influence in a neighborhood that has looked to him for leadership.

"I can easily say that the neighborhood and the area has matured from a development standpoint," Foley said. "It is time to move on."

J. Martin McOmber: 206-464-2022 or

Bob Young: 464-2174 or

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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