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Thursday, August 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Developer proposes new plan to save sanctuary

Seattle Times staff reporter

Another plan has emerged to save Seattle First United Methodist Church's historic Fifth Avenue sanctuary, but it depends on the city picking Sabey Corp. to develop the site of the former Public Safety Building a few blocks away.

Jim Kneeland, spokesman for Sabey, said the development firm would buy First United's half-block downtown and construct an office tower that would cantilever over the existing sanctuary, thus maintaining the dome structure's architectural integrity.

The congregation would move to Fifth Avenue and Wall Street in a new building that Sabey would develop to replace the one it owns there now — the former home of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Kneeland said the deal is contingent upon the city selling the old Public Safety Building property to Sabey at a fair market rate and then giving the firm concessions to build a tall office tower at that site "in a manner suitable to house the corporate headquarters of a leading Fortune 500 company."

Any deal also would hinge on approval from the congregation of First United, which has yet to be briefed on the Sabey proposal. Church members previously voted to let their leaders move forward on a property-exchange agreement with developer Martin Selig, whose plan is to demolish the sanctuary and replace it with a skyscraper.

In return, the church would receive an undisclosed amount of money, believed to be $18.1 million, and a half-block in Belltown owned by Selig where a new church would be built.

The Rev. Kathlyn James, First United's senior pastor, said the church is considering Sabey's proposal but negotiations are sensitive and therefore "we're not ready to talk about this publicly yet. At this point, our leaders are working very hard to find a viable and exciting future for our church that will also be good for the city."

She said the congregation would be briefed on the Sabey proposal "if enough of it comes together." The Selig offer remains an option.

Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said several issues still need to be resolved for the city, such as whether the public benefit in saving the sanctuary outweighs what the city would be giving up in allowing Sabey to exceed height and other development restrictions at the Public Safety Building site.

"Sabey would need to develop it in a manner that produces sufficient value so that it can afford to buy and preserve the church sanctuary for the public's benefit," Ceis said. "The details of how all of that occurs is what we need to work out to see if it can really happen."

Another developer, Nitze-Stagen, floated its own proposal a month ago to preserve the sanctuary. King County Councilman Dow Constantine, who was brokering the deal, said it totaled $30.8 million, including a $6 million contribution from the city and King County. The Sabey proposal would require no direct public investment.

The Nitze-Stagen proposal is now on hold and the Sabey proposal has moved to the forefront.

"We've come from having no options a couple months ago to having two viable offers from community-oriented local developers that would save the historic sanctuary and provide for the needs of First United Methodist Church into the future," Constantine said. "That's all good and very encouraging."

Kneeland said city officials approached Sabey about helping them come up with a plan to preserve the 96-year-old sanctuary, which is exempt from landmark protections because it is a religious building.

The Sabey property at Fifth and Wall that would be cleared to make way for the new church is a renovated classic art-deco building that once housed the P-I and now is an administrative headquarters and conference center for Group Health Cooperative.

Sabey owns and controls that property, Kneeland said. The Nitze-Stagen plan, on the other hand, calls for moving the church to two adjacent parcels in Belltown, neither of which the developer owns.

The Public Safety Building, which has been demolished, used to house Municipal Court and the Police Department. The full block is bounded by Third and Fourth avenues and James and Cherry streets. Ceis said several developers along with Sabey have expressed interest in the site.

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Staff reporter Bob Young contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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