The PTA press

School district arm-twisting fails as the City Council nixes new headquarters.

Prior to the official City Council rejection last week of the Seattle School District's mega headquarters plan, district officials rolled out their lobbying armada and gave an enlightening lesson about rules: They're for other people to follow.

School officials and supporters, including even Mayor Paul Schell (who should know better), repeatedly ignored a section of the municipal code intended to insulate council members during their quasi-legal review of the district's request for a zoning variance. The improper lobbying effort was so bald-faced that an opposition group called it "truly astounding."

The 90-day quiet period has been in effect since this summer, after district opponents appealed a hearing examiner's approval of a zoning variance for the $43.2 million central headquarters building in the Duwamish industrial area. The 12-acre Third Avenue South and South Lander Street site is currently occupied by the dilapidated former Terminal Annex US Postal Service mail center.

The council decidedly rejected the plan by a 7-2 vote last Monday on a technical and philosophical basis. Members were most worried about further shrinking the blue-collar zone with development of the 189,000-square-foot office-warehouse facility housing 735 mostly white-collar workers.

Though the project had also gotten a go-ahead from the department of Design, Construction and Land Use, council member Jan Drago said the district's zoning exemption actually failed the variance test on all four criteria—most importantly, the district's claim that a similar location couldn't be found elsewhere.

School officials had also claimed the new School Support Center was needed to centralize many far-flung school operations. But some services in fact would be less convenient and off-center if located in the south third of the city (see "Headin' South," SW, 9/16).

In July a council committee set the stage for last week's rejection by turning down the proposal 3-1. During the ensuing quiet period, council members are generally allowed to consider only issues of dispute contained in the hearings appeal record and are to reveal any attempts at outside influence. If prejudiced by such influences, they are to abstain from voting. As the record now shows, district and government officials along with the PTA were trying vainly to twist arms behind the scenes.

Council members Richard Conlin and Richard McIver both report being contacted by Schell about the proposal. According to a memo from Drago, "Mayor Schell asked Councilmember McIver why the committee voted as it had and told Councilmember McIver that he was in favor of the School District proposal." To Conlin, "the mayor mentioned his preference for the proposal."

Sue Donaldson, who along with Conlin supported the plan, revealed she was contacted by School Board president Barbara Schaad-Lamphere, who offered to provide additional information on the district's efforts. As council president, Donaldson ruled that "the communication will not influence my consideration of the facts, and I decline to recuse myself" from voting on the issue.

The Duwamish Committee, which has opposed the project in its industrial neighborhood, complained in a letter to the council that the "intensity of the direct and indirect organized lobbying and [lobbying] by the school district in what is supposed to be a quasi-judicial matter is truly astounding along with the amount of misinformation they [proponents] have managed to disseminate."

School officials in earlier interviews also told us that because of the quiet-period rules they had not contacted the council about a compromise offer they'd made to placate the Duwamish Committee over a parking dispute. But Duwamish members now say that during that period the district's attorney indeed informed council members about "language they would agree to" regarding the compromise. The committee sought to have the letter removed from the record, but Donaldson ruled the letter was "simply not an ex parte communication" and let it stand.

Council member Tina Podlodowski says she received an email signed by 13 state legislators, including cospeaker Frank Chopp and senators Pat Thibaudeau, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, and Adam Kline, urging approval of the variance. And Peter Steinbrueck said publicist/lobbyist Blair Butterworth asked him why he voted against the project.

That such a steamroller was stopped dead in its tracks—in stark contrast to similar crusades such as the convention center expansion and publicly financed parking garages—signifies an extraordinary council stand. But the council was also following established city code, which states "certain uses shall be prohibited to preserve land for industrial activity," such as when "the use attracts large numbers of people to the area for non-industrial purposes, or because the use would be incompatible with typical industrial area impacts (noise, truck movement, etc.)."

Undaunted, the district is moving ahead. It has exercised its $12.1 million option for the postal site and hopes its powerful lobby will convince the council to find a middle ground. Unlikely to alter its building plans—which could prove to be financially unfeasible if consolidation doesn't follow current design—the district may also seek approval through a council legislative exemption. If all efforts fail, the district says it will resell the postal property.

But will it get its money back? With more than $1 million spent on development, the district is into the project now for almost $14 million. And while the true value of property is whatever you can sell it for, the county assessor's office values the district's new $12 million, 44-year-old building and its land at $9.7 million. Oddly, however, the district thinks it can get a good resale price anyway. According to a Seattle Times editorial sent us by the district, "The post office has sat empty for three years. Factory owners are not clamoring to buy it." Seems no one else wants the place. Or was that yesterday's strategy?

 
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