Another garage scam?

Environmentalists spar with West Seattle over parking garages.

Dennis Ross (left) and other West Seattleites are pushing for parking.

Dennis Ross (left) and other West Seattleites are pushing for parking.

SEATTLE TAXPAYERS could build merchants two more parking garages. Only this time, Charlie Chong loves it.

Residents, business leaders, and neighborhood planners in West Seattle’s Admiral district are all singing the praises of a proposal to construct 160 spaces of public parking in two buildings planned for the heart of the neighborhood’s retail area. The new structures will be sited on paved lots that have traditionally provided parking for nearby businesses, including the historic Admiral Theater. But urban greens regard the project as a boondoggle giveaway to neighborhood businesses, all for the benefit of the evil auto.

Welcome to the next phase of the public/private partnership game. After all the storms surrounding the HUD/Nordstrom deal, city government set up a review process for projects that combine public and private bucks, so the Admiral garage will be scrutinized thoroughly. But, in a city that subsidized a parking garage adjacent to downtown’s Nordstrom flagship store to the tune of $24 million, it’s been hard to line up City Council votes in opposition to a small neighborhood project like this one.

The City Council is also well aware this scene is being played out in the heart of West Seattle’s secession country. The Admiral district is the birthplace of the Neighborhood Rights Movement and the home of fiery populist politician Chong. Admiral and its surrounding Southwest Seattle neighborhoods threatened to bolt Seattle during the early 1990s “urban villages” battle. “Throughout the process, many of us have transformed from naysayers to visionaries,” says Admiral Community Council’s Dennis Ross.

Of course, the naysayers in this scenario are folks who would generally claim the visionary mantle: urban environmentalists. Kathleen Sullivan, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, says her group opposes the project. “We are interested in working with folks in putting together plans that are pedestrian friendly, bicycle friendly, and transit friendly,” she states, not proposals to accommodate more cars. In a letter to the City Council, Sullivan argued that the garage project “contradicts the city’s transportation policy goals of encouraging higher use of [transportation] alternatives.”

But this argument has more than two sides. Council member Richard Conlin notes that the city’s transportation policies encourage centralized parking facilities for neighborhood business areas. “By the way,” he adds mischievously, “it doesn’t say the city should pay for them.”

Conlin, who is probably the council’s most outspoken proponent of transportation alternatives, says other factors are behind his support for West Seattle’s parking garages. The Admiral retail area, which serves much of West Seattle, is uphill from surrounding communities, which include a high percentage of elderly residents. “I don’t expect those people to walk,” he says.

Admiral is simply an auto-oriented shopping area, argue other supporters of the garage project. Don Wiseman, chair of the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce board, owns an appliance store in the neighborhood. “You don’t ride a bicycle by and decide to buy a range or a refrigerator,” he says.

THE ADMIRAL GARAGE soap opera is being played out just as the council is poised to sink millions into a far larger auto-related project: Immunex’s very own ramp off the Magnolia bridge. The so-called West Galer Street flyover is the result of the biotech company’s not-so-veiled threats to leave the city unless vehicle access was improved to their proposed new headquarters complex at Terminal 88. However, that project’s original $12.5 million budget has since swollen to $18.9 million. The city of Seattle will pick up $5.3 million of the increase—more than the entire budget of the Admiral garage. If big, rich companies rate a helping hand from the city, the Admiral project backers contend, neighborhood businesses should get similar consideration. After all, the city owes ZATZ A Better Bagel the same treatment as Nordstrom, right?

Admiral business owners claim they’re actually paying their own way. A preliminary financial plan prepared by proponents says that a combination of payments by business and landowners, plus parking revenues, could pay off the entire cost of the garage in 40 years. What’s more, the two landowners who are agreeing to expand their proposed underground garages to accommodate the public parking spaces aren’t making a penny for their efforts.

Contrast this with Immunex’s new ramp, which will be “paid for” by anticipated new taxes from the biotech firm’s expansion, not by any direct financial contribution from the company. The city has also accepted Immunex’s rosy growth estimates (including the creation of an estimated 620 new jobs in the next 13 years) and factored temporary construction jobs into its economic benefit calculations.

Of course, the Admiral garage project hasn’t escaped charges of voodoo economics. “They’ve assumed a lot of money from [parking] revenues,” says Aaron Ostrom, an important leader of the urban enviros. “You’ve got free parking within a block of that garage, 24 hours a day—why are people going to park there?” The project will also be fairly costly, as the extra level of parking is created through the expensive process of burrowing the garage deeper into the ground. The deep-underground construction means the new parking spaces will cost about $28,000 each to create (the market rate for building underground spaces is about $22,000 each).

In fact, the two sides can’t even agree if there is a demonstrated need for a parking facility in the Admiral neighborhood. The city conducted a study early in the process, which showed a significant parking crunch in the area only during the Admiral Theater’s Friday and Saturday night shows. “If we have potholes that we have to fill, it doesn’t make sense to be putting a parking garage in this neighborhood the city’s own analyst says doesn’t have a parking problem,” says critic Yoram Bauman, one of just two residents to testify against the Admiral garage project at a recent hearing. This isn’t his first garage fight, either—he also opposed the Nordstrom deal.

However, the city also paid for a study commissioned by the Admiral neighborhood planning group, which indicates that the parking situation in the central business area is bad and will get worse if the parking displaced by the new buildings is not replaced.

Neighbors argue that the city report recommended the business district’s parking shortfall be made up by loosening parking restrictions on adjacent residential streets—thus turning the surrounding neighborhood into an overflow parking facility. This approach in places like Wallingford has led to neighbors screaming bloody murder and demanding resident-only parking zones, much to the dismay of local businesses.

IF THE BATTLE SEEMS intractable, everyone can agree on one point—they’re all impressed with the Admiral neighborhood’s unanimous support for the proposal. Midge Batt and Al Rousseau, the co-chairs of the Neighborhood Rights Campaign, back the garage. Former City Council member Chong supports the proposal “without any reservations.” The West Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Admiral Community Council are on board. The neighborhood planning group has written the garage into its plan as a top priority.

The battle over the garage involves another important neighborhood issue—residents’ fear that, if the Admiral Theater loses its parking, the historic 1942 movie house could again be closed. Neighborhood residents rallied to obtain landmark designation for the Admiral in 1989, and two business leaders stepped up to purchase and reopen the theater. Observers also marvel that the original neighborhood opposition to a development project has coalesced into a positive plan. State Rep. Dow Constantine recalls the original public meeting, which was attended by 400 neighborhood residents—almost unanimous in their opposition to the project. “It’s hard to believe that we’ve gotten to this point,” he told City Council members at a recent hearing.

Even the project’s critics are impressed. “That [public support] is obviously the best thing this parking garage has going for it,” says Ostrom.

But opponents fear that granting Admiral a city-funded parking facility will lead other neighborhoods to wonder where their garages are. Bauman predicts a parking arms race among the city’s business areas. “Pretty soon the neighborhood plans are going to turn into neighborhood parking plans,” he says.

Both sides use the same language. The Transportation Choices Coalition’s Sullivan talks about bike lanes and better transit as “promoting livability” in the neighborhood; local merchant Terry Halvorsen says keeping business district parking plentiful and placing it in a garage rather than on neighborhood streets is “a quality-of-life choice” for the city.

And the entire process once again raises the question of neighborhood self-determination. If one neighborhood can petition the city for a community center and another wants a park, why can’t Admiral ask for a parking garage?

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