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Saturday, January 29, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle City Council debates placement of planned homeless facility

Seattle Times staff reporter

A key Seattle City Council member wants to put a proposed downtown homeless hygiene and service center in the Pioneer Square neighborhood rather than on the edge of the Chinatown International District as Mayor Greg Nickels has urged.

Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the council's human-services committee, said yesterday that locating the new homeless service center in the old Morrison Hotel site near the corner of Third Avenue and Yesler Way would "serve more people sooner and cost less" than the mayor's plan to build a center on city-owned land at Fourth Avenue South and Yesler Way.

Rasmussen's recommendation has sparked a City Hall debate. Nickels continues to favor his proposal, and the Pioneer Square Community Association adamantly opposes any new social services in its neighborhood.

"We feel very strongly about the Fourth and Yesler site. We think it gives us the most flexibility and certainty," said Nickels' spokeswoman Marianne Bichsel.

The Downtown Emergency Service Center owns and operates the Morrison Hotel. It has 190 apartments, a shelter that has served up to 500 people a day, and a staff of mental-health and chemical-dependency counselors. It is undergoing a $28 million renovation that is scheduled for completion in November. Even after the renovation, space would be available for a hygiene center.

Nickels wants to build a $3.2 million South Downtown Service Center for homeless people on a block between Fourth and Fifth avenues and Yesler Way and South Washington Street. A new fire station and public-safety communications center would also be built on the parcel.

City officials have long maintained that homeless men, in particular, need a facility in south downtown where they could shower and wash clothes. That goal has evolved to include a meal program and counseling services.

Nickels and City Council President Jan Drago, a Pioneer Square resident, have argued that putting the homeless facility on city-owned land would be the best way of ensuring the center is built and operated for a long time. But Chinatown International District activists objected to the proposal.

The council approved financing for the center late last year and gave Rasmussen three months to explore alternatives to the Fourth and Yesler site.

He received competing proposals from the Downtown Emergency Service Center and the Low Income Housing Institute, which proposed a facility in Belltown.

Rasmussen said the Morrison Hotel site is the "wisest use of taxpayer money." He stressed that the downtown service center has established a record of helping homeless people over the past 25 years. Its facility would be larger and cost $1.1 million less than the mayor's proposal. It would also open about a year sooner.

More important, Rasmussen said, it could link people who come to the center for showers to an array of services already provided at the Morrison. "That would be a significant step in getting people into counseling and back on their feet," he said.

Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, a passionate advocate for the homeless, supports the Morrison Hotel proposal. Rasmussen said he was confident that other council members would follow.

Rasmussen and downtown service-center director Bill Hobson both praised the mayor for his commitment to building a new center. "We're regretful that we're causing our good friends in the Mayor's Office any problems," Hobson said.

Rasmussen notes that because the Morrison plan is less expensive, the city's savings could be used to finance a "courtesy patrol" in Pioneer Square that would report illegal behavior to police.

Putting the new center in the Morrison Hotel site would require a zoning change because the city restricts how much street-level space on a block can be dedicated to human services. The Morrison proposal would exceed that limit.

Bichsel, the mayor's spokeswoman, said "zoning issues and community opposition present a real challenge to the Morrison Hotel site."

The Pioneer Square Community Association sent a letter to the council Jan. 12 saying the neighborhood is "already plagued with numerous public safety and security issues" near the Morrison Hotel.

The association said it would fight the Third and Yesler proposal "with every resource we have available to our organization and community."

Bichsel also said the Fourth and Yesler site would provide a long-term home for outdoor meal programs, which the Morrison site would not.

Rasmussen's committee is likely to vote Feb. 15 on a site recommendation. The full council must decide by the end of next month under the terms of a budget agreement with Nickels.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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