OUTSIDE CITY HALL | Sale of city properties must do more for Seattle's most vulnerable populations

What links the sale of a downtown parking garage, the sale of a 33-acre piece of city land in West Seattle, a new police station in the north end and funding for homeless programs? Let us explain.

This month Seattle City Council likely will authorize sale of the Pacific Place Parking Garage to a downtown developer for $87 million. [Editor’s Note: The City Council signed off on the sale on July 13] Readers may recall the controversy surrounding this facility when it was built in the late ‘90s.  

Meanwhile, over in West Seattle, neighborhood, parks, and open space advocates are rallying to save the Myers Parcel, perhaps the largest remaining undeveloped natural area in the city, for much needed park land. Without it, we fall further behind the city’s oft-stated goal to expand green space in Seattle. (Contrary to popular opinion we rank only eighth nationally and well behind Portland among the nations’ greenest cities.)

But Mayor Ed Murray says the city must sell the Myers Parcel (or at least 15 of the 33 acres at the heart of it) and use the proceeds to meet the city’s commitment under his emergency declaration to add $5 million for homeless programs. This is a false dichotomy, needlessly pitting priorities against each other: homeless advocates (like us) vs. parks and open space advocates (like us). [Editor’s Note: Since the writing of this piece, the Mayor has announced the property will be land banked and designated for open space or recreation purposes in the future]

Right now the mayor is also entertaining a grand plan to spend $160 million on a new police precinct station in Northeast Seattle. The project has attracted a slew of critics who say, rightly, that it’s vastly overpriced and, as designed, likely the most expensive (and pretentious) police station in the country. Some of the funding, according to the Mayor, would come from the sale of the downtown Pacific Place Parking Garage. In fact the Mayor has proposed using all of the $15 million that remain after outstanding debt on the garage is covered, for the new police station.

This parking garage was a boondoggle that cost the city millions. In 1998, the city paid a developer $73 million when it only cost $50 million to build. To help pay for it, then-Mayor Norm Rice argued falsely that downtown was “blighted,” enabling the city to secure a $24 million dollar federal 108 loan normally reserved for low-income and minority communities. On funding applications the city said the loan would help renovate the old Frederick and Nelson building but documents uncovered later showed it needed only a few thousand dollars in minor roof repairs. Instead, these dollars effectively wound up as extra profit for the developer.  

This scandal made national headlines and won the Seattle Times several news awards for its coverage. And it cost Norm Rice a job heading the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Displacement Coalition filed a complaint with Housing and Urban Development over this dirty deal that also made national headlines and led to reforms of the 108 loan program.

The garage was financed through a complex public-private partnership that required the city to take out long-term bonds while investors walked away with millions. The public was assured the bonds would easily be repaid and city coffers filled from all the parking revenues the garage would reap. But the facility has been running a deficit of $1-2 million a year since at least 2009. The city covered that deficit by borrowing from its own cash reserves or drawing directly from the general fund. 

Either way, these were millions that could have been used to expand shelter and transitional housing for the homeless. 

There are better ways to use the $15-17 million expected from the sale of the garage, helping save the Myers parcel and expanding funding for homeless programs.

Here’s how:

1. Redesign the grossly overpriced northeast police station and cut $15-20 million or more from its cost

2. Redirect at least $5 million from the Pacific Place Parking Garage sale proceeds for homeless programs as per the Mayor’s declaration of emergency. It was argued in the 90’s that the garage was needed to “revitalize downtown”.  Not true — downtown development activity was well underway before the garage was completed.  But since our leaders allege the garage spurred growth and that growth caused a documented net loss of 4,000 low-cost housing units over the 80’s and 90’s and corresponding rise in homelessness, it’s only fitting that any available sale proceeds now go for homeless programs. 

3. This does away with any rationale for selling the Myers Parcel. We retain city ownership of all 33 acres of land so that it can be maintained and dedicated in perpetuity for parks and open space, as it should have been all along.

The folks in northeast Seattle still get their police station but a reasonably priced one.  And we’ve found and committed at least $5 million for homeless shelter and transitional housing.  And we retain the Myers property to boot. 

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. More information on the coalition can be found at www.zipcon.net. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.