A fishy legislative stew is cooking up at city hall

Things are heating up down at city hall. Our column this time is an attempt to give readers a heads-up on key issues our city leaders will be addressing over the coming year. Call it our hit parade of what really matters to the neighborhoods, particularly communities often left out when city resources are distributed.

Renovation of Key Arena

Only a decade ago the city floated $74 million in bonds to renovate Key Arena, at the request of the Seattle Sonics. One official boosting the deal was a guy named Terry McLaughlin, then Seattle Center deputy director. The Sonics promised to cover half the cost of the bonds while McLaughlin assured city leaders this arrangement would return revenues to an ailing Seattle Center. Despite loud warnings from community watchdogs, the city bowed to the Sonics' threat of leaving town.

Now, after several years of sagging ticket sales, a dismal win-loss record, soaring player salaries and a looming arena deficit that in future years could tear a hole in the city budget, the Sonics are again threatening to leave unless the city coughs up more public subsidies: over $200 million that, with interest, could climb to as much as $400 million. The dollars would be used for a still fancier renovation the team insists will solve both its, and the arena's, economic woes.

If rationality reigned at city hall, our leaders would tell Sonics owner Howard Schultz to take a hike. A just-released city study shows that for $20 million, Key Arena could be renovated for concerts and other sports events and turn a good profit for the city.

But rationality in this town too often gives way to the clout of special interests, especially when it comes to professional sports. And guess who's back to assure us the deal is OK? Terry McLaughlin. No longer a city official, he's now a Sonics vice president.

Paul Allen and the mayor's South Lake Union agenda

In the coming months, the council must give final approval for a streetcar at a cost of $47.5 million. While about half of the cost will be covered by South Lake Union property owners, taxpayers will foot the rest. However, our just completed review of city planning documents obtained through public disclosure requests indicates the project may now be at least $5 million over budget. This casts to the winds promises that no more city general funds, or our limited transportation dollars, will go for this boondoggle.

Later this spring, the council will decide whether to move ahead with Mayor Greg Nickels' Mercer Corridor plan. The mayor's office insists the cost of redoing Mercer would run about $200 million and ease traffic woes in South Lake Union. But according to documents available through King County Metro, the price tag for the Mercer plans has skyrocketed to over $350 million.

It's hard to find these budget numbers, though, because city planners have buried much of Mercer's costs in the mayor's preferred option for the viaduct. The costs are now called "north portal improvements."

Also, city studies released last year show that the mayor's Mercer plan actually will increase traffic congestion in the area when compared to a "do nothing" alternative.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct

Right now the city has enough money from state, federal, and regional sources - about $2 billion - to rebuild the ailing viaduct.

What stands in the way of such a fix is a mayor determined to replace the structure with a tunnel under Elliott Bay. Driven both by a need to leave his mark on Seattle's physical landscape and by downtown developers' desires to reopen the waterfront, the mayor has held up this solution in hopes of scraping together the extra $2 billion needed for his tunnel.

In effect, the safety of thousands of commuters must wait along with the rest of the region's transportation needs. Critics of the mayor's tunnel compare it to Boston's "Big Dig," where cost overruns exceeded $10 billion.

Revisions to the Downtown Land Use Plan and the call for more density in our neighborhoods

The mayor is proposing rezones in downtown to accommodate the equivalent of another 12 Columbia Towers over the next 20 years in the urban core - another 17 million square feet of office space. His plan lacks adequate measures to ensure close-in residential development for all those new downtown workers. Therefore, many of these workers will live on the eastside, clogging our freeways with more cars and commuters, while most of the remainder will seek housing in our neighborhoods, driving up housing costs and accelerating the demolition of existing lower-density affordable housing.

The mayor's idea of mitigating these impacts is to up-zone many of Seattle's neighborhoods, which will only accelerate gentrification, displacement, and the loss of our neighborhoods' traditional character. Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck is seeking additional measures that would require developers to pay more into a housing fund in exchange for the right to build taller buildings. But even this effort is running into stiff opposition from an unholy alliance of non-profit housing developers and downtown interests.

Right now, there is an identified backlog of over $600 million in deferred street maintenance projects in our neighborhoods. By the city's last count, there are 39 bridges in Seattle deemed in poor condition, with several bordering on unsafe. Over the last year, housing costs skyrocketed while real wages for the average worker fell in Seattle. Just last week, housing and homeless advocates held a "die-in" at City Hall to protest pending cuts in funding for area shelters, despite campaign promises to the contrary from the mayor.

Somehow those of us who are still rational have to figure out a way to redirect the attention of our city leaders away from downtown and special interests. Failing that, we must find new leaders who will help us find solutions to these real problems in this city rather than simply making them worse. How our elected officials respond over the coming year will dramatically affect the distribution of wealth and resources in our community and play a large role in determining the future character of our city.

Carolee Colter and John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition may be contacted through the address and e-dresses below.[[In-content Ad]]