Joel Horn and the other boosters behind plans for "the Commons" were so sure their grandiose project for the neighborhood between downtown and Lake Union would fly that they spent $20 million to buy property there. Unfortunately, the money was borrowed. So when the public shot down the fantasia of an upscale public-private residence-cum-office park once and for all in May 1996, the Commons found itself owner of acres of run-down office and commercial space, no plan or resources to develop it, and no money to pay back the guy who had bankrolled their play: Paul Allen.
Now it's looking like their bad luck may have been the best thing to happen to the much-abused neighborhood in 30 years. Property owners and residents of the hundred-year-old Cascade and Westlake communities had been jacked around by a series of half-baked traffic and development plans going back as far as the "Bay Freeway" (meant, believe it or not, to link I-5 and SR 520 to the Alaskan Way viaduct). The Commons debacle for the first time gave them the chance and incentive to take charge of planning their own futures.
But it also introduced a new and unknown player to the game. The Commons team paid off its debt to Allen by turning over the motley scatter of properties they'd assembled in the area to Allen's investment firm Vulcan Northwest. What kind of role would the Northwest's second most celebrated billionaire want to play in the future of their neighborhood?
Initial indications weren't good. Aggressive minions of Wright Runstad & Company, the property management company tagged by Vulcan to manage its inadvertent new investment, got some longtime residents' backs up with unannounced inspections, strict new security measures, and insensitive responses to questions about maintenance, rent raises, and lease renewals.
It wasn't until this January, at a meeting to present the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan, that Vulcan property manager Larry Miller publicly declared the company's determination to work with longtime residents in support of the plan, which explicitly swears off the kind of overreaching grand planning that has destabilized the area for decades in favor of modest changes designed to enhance the existing character of the neighborhood. Neighborhood activists were delighted by what Miller had to say, and with his follow-through. Vulcan personnel have proved good listeners—forthcoming and sympathetic with tenants, cautious yet imaginative in seeking new development.
The most significant project so far—a 50,000-square-foot remodel to house the University of Washington's Institute for Molecular Systems Analysis—fits right in with the neighborhood plan ratified by the mayor and City Council in March, which maintains the area's present commercial/light industrial zoning pattern. But the developers haven't been afraid of experiment, either. If all goes according to plan, a 30,000-square-foot warehouse at 400 Terry North will be demolished early next year to make room for yet another UW Med School biotech spin-off. But until that happens, the facility's three huge rooms have been leased to serve as art gallery, film theater, performance space, and lecture hall for the initial season of avant-impresario Matt Richter's multimedia production company Consolidated Works.
The city is poised to make its own contribution to neighborhood enhancement. The city and US Navy have agreed on a price for the land, piers, and buildings that occupy the southern tip of Lake Union, and the Parks Department has already earmarked $150,000 for cleanup of the site: a first step toward turning it in into a maritime park. The area could be open to the public as early as next spring.
Getting to it, of course, is another question. The whole Cascade/Westlake area is badly underserved by public transit. Parking is already at a premium, and the disappearance of pay lots through development will only make matters worse. And once you find parking, there are still eight lanes of heavy traffic between you and the water: Mercer Street eastbound to the freeway, Valley westbound to Westlake and the Center.
The neighborhood plan recognizes at last that there is no definitive solution for the so-called "Mercer Muddle." It contents itself with a number of ameliorative fixes: smoothing out the tortuous dog-leg intersection between the I-5 off-ramps and surface streets, a new Aurora underpass at Roy Street allowing westbound access to Seattle Center garage, and landscaping and public art to beautify the present Mercer/I-5 interchange and Aurora underpasses.
But for residents of the area, the best thing about the plan is simple security: the knowledge that after three decades waiting for the Engineering Department's next megaproject or outside developers' latest get-rich-quick scheme, the future of their neighborhood is now officially acknowledged as rooted in its past.