True, it looks bad. But officials insist that a new $3 million infrastructure, composed of pedestrian bridge, elevator, and stairways, to be built next month linking Union Station to the Kingdome, really won't be another taxpayer gift for multibillionaire private businessman Paul Allen. It just happens that when the decorative skybridge, stairs, and surface crossing are connected up in January, they will link Allen's $250 million Union Station redevelopment and new 1,100-stall parking garage with the Kingdome, home of Allen's $200 million Seattle Seahawks football team and site of a new $300 million football stadium that Allen will build using mostly public funds. Tying in several other Allen condo and office projects in the neighborhood as well, the quarter-mile crossing will span what's becoming a sort of Paul Allen theme park where folks will live, travel, work, and be entertained via the mogul's assorted enterprises, which are underwritten by a quarter-billion dollars in taxpayer funds.
Despite appearances, county and city officials claim there's nothing unseemly going on here. "The stadium will be losing the south parking lot [due to construction of an exhibition hall preceding the new stadium project], and the bridge is a way to get people from the Dome to the Union Station garage the next two years," says Joe Beck, one of the skybridge project directors with the King County Department of Transportation. Adds his co-director, Ron Posthuma: "The project actually predates any Paul Allen involvement. We began working on this late in 1995." Allen didn't announce, with developer Nitze-Stagen, the historic train-station restoration and office-tower development until 1997 (when completed, the Union Station portion will be sold to the rapid transit authority, Sound Transit, eventually becoming the city's light-rail hub). "Originally," adds Jim Kelley of Allen's First & Goal stadium-building company, "the bridge was planned as a connector from Union Station to King Street. This is all just an expansion of that."
Of course when he made his moves, Allen was aware that the project was on the boards and would tie his entities together nicely: To the east, a skybridge will link to the International District at Weller Street, with covered walks across the station's transit bays connecting also to Allen's office projects. A surface crossing with a new stoplight is already in place at Fourth Avenue, at the entrance to Allen's parking garage. The western skybridge will connect there with King Street's Amtrak station, the Kingdome, and various other environs owned by the world's fourth-richest human.
Seen as the ribbon that wraps up Allen's earlier taxpayer presents, the long connector does little to alter the belief that, in Seattle, public skyways tend to be the province of the wealthy. Footbridges are rarely built so schoolkids can safely cross a busy arterial; yet without showing a serious need, the rich and well-connected can take to the skies with reckless abandon. Nordstrom, for example, was granted a skybridge for its upscale customers to cross Sixth Avenue into its new downtown store. The Seattle Times Co. (which editorially supported the controversial Nordy bridge since it was "designed with sensitivity") plans to begin building its own skybridge to enable employees to cross Thomas Street from a new parking garage to Times headquarters. A skybridge has been approved for the former Bristol-Myers Squibb office building between First and Western avenues, and Seattle University will add a skyway over James Way and Cherry Street—one of three planned by the school. Airborne Express has a bridge across Elliott Avenue W, the Port of Seattle has a new footbridge across Alaskan Way to its Bell Street Pier development, the biotech company ZymoGenetics has applied for a skybridge at its south Lake Union headquarters, and Interpac Development wants a bridge to connect its expansion at the Camlin Hotel along Pine Street. Nearby, the expanding Washington State Convention & Trade Center will erect three view-obstructing skybridges across two streets—one half a block long, another so encompassing they're calling it a tunnel, and a third just for trucks.
Counting Allen's new crossing, that will bring to at least 30 the number of skyway connectors in the central business district. This in a city that in 1982 approved an ordinance "to limit the proliferation and adverse effects of skybridges." Though some find the foot spans to be convenient pedestrian links, critics see them as visually polluting gerbil bridges sapping life from the streets. The burst of new applications and approvals indicates City Hall no longer frowns on such blight. "While it is the intent of the City Council" to limit skybridges, says Liz Rankin, spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Transportation, which regulates skybridges, each project "shall also be reviewed with regard to how well they serve the public interest and their relationship to the cityscape."
Translation: The '82 ordinance is history.
The Allen skyway breezed resistance-free to approval. "The pedestrian bridge has had a lot of support from existing residents and businesses in the area," says the county's Posthuma. It will be funded by federal, county, and city money and will cost an additional $100,000 yearly to maintain. "That will be for security, elevator maintenance, that sort of thing" on the bridge and around the station, says the county's Beck. Allen will be paid $20 million by Sound Transit to repair and restore the neoclassical 1911 Union Station. When the terminal is completed in 1999, Allen will sell it for $1 to Sound Transit, which will make its headquarters there. Allen will still own the land below and around the station, including the new underground parking garage already operating. His plans for the 7.5-acre site—which he bought for $11 million—include, on the south end, four office towers (one of which is to become the 11-story home of his Vulcan Northwest investment-development company), to be erected within five years. On the other side of the
Kingdome, he is renovating a six-story warehouse into what some predict will be the first of several Allen condo developments there. Allen also owns Merrill Place, a three-building office/residential complex in Pioneer Square.
"It just works out that all the transportation improvements made the area an attractive place to locate," says Allen spokesman Kelley. "I think it's a confluence of a number of things, the skybridge among them." Adds Posthuma, "There are many beneficiaries and supporters of the bridge." The biggest just happens to be the richest, getting richer.