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Coalition says Convention Center expansion’s proposed public benefits aren’t enough

At a Thursday Seattle Design Commission meeting, Washington State Convention Center expansion project leaders presented the public benefits package proposed to justify the vacation of three alleys for the $1.6 billion downtown project. An exact value of the vacations hasn’t been determined, but a coalition of community groups has been leading the push to make sure the package benefits the surrounding neighborhoods.

Representatives with the Community Package Coalition, made up of nine community groups, argue that WSCC’s proposed benefits aren’t enough.

“The size of the public benefits package is nowhere near fair,” said Alex Hudson, executive director of the First Hill Improvement Association said Thursday.

The investments are “critical” to make sure the neighborhoods around the Convention Center are “improved and not degraded,” Hudson said.

“We have people that are asking that we do certain things for the neighborhoods, but we don’t have opposition to the project,” said Matt Griffin of the Pine Street Group, the development firm managing the expansion project for the WSCC.

WSCC’s proposed benefits focus on three areas — affordable housing, the city and Downtown Seattle Association’s Pike Pine Renaissance project, and community projects including a Lid I-5 Study, Freeway Park improvements and downtown bicycle improvements. For some of the projects, WSCC proposes proving funding for them, not heading the design and implementation of them. It’s a lengthy, detailed roster of potential neighborhood improvements from downtown up to Capitol Hill. We’ve embedded the full package proposal, below.

In a letter from to the commission, the coalition argues that the neighborhoods near the WSCC are already short on public space, transportation facilities, and affordable housing. “Needs for this facilities will grow acutely with the WSCC Addition project, and the WSCC leadership has an opportunity to make significant investments in our community.”

The Convention Center is asking for the city to hand over three alleys, and the land under two existing streets, Olive Way and Terry Avenue, for a total vacation of 47,985 square feet.

The requested vacancies haven’t been granted yet. If they aren’t granted, Griffin said he didn’t know whether or not the addition would still build at that location.

With the preferred design for the expansion estimated at $1.6 billion, the coalition estimates WSCC must offer a benefits package valued at least $79 million.

The commissioners said that how much WSCC should provide in public benefits is difficult to determine. While the price tag should be considered the lack of use of the alleys and the scale of the project should be too.

The coalition has proposed its own benefits package for adoption:

While the Seattle Design Commission didn’t take a vote or make a decision on the proposal Thursday, it did attempt to provide some guiding thoughts on the proposed public benefits.

For affordable housing, WSCC is proposing a $5 million contribution but didn’t provide many details beyond that. “Doing work for the housing crisis is important for us,” Griffin said. It is also something the commission strongly supports.

The Convention Center proposed contributions to the first phase of the Pike Pine Renaissance project focusing on the area from 9th Ave to Melrose Market seem like a more solid bet. The proposal includes improvements for Pike and Pine and 9th Ave as well as a mural and lighting for two historic buildings, the Paramount Theatre and the Camlin Hotel.

Griffin said the architects did consider improvements to Olive Way near the site but decided to focus on Pike and Pine.

“We were worried about spreading the peanut butter so thin you can’t taste it,” he said.

But some commission members noted they want to see Olive Way included.

When it comes to Pike and Pine improvements, the commission also would like to see WSCC work with the Seattle Department of Transportation and not just provide funding.

For all community projects, WSCC proposing providing funding for them, not leading the design or implementation of them.

The Lid I-5 group has been arguing that the freeway is destined, some day, to be redesigned. As part of that redesign, they suggest covering the freeway – basically turning it into a tunnel. What might go on top could range from park space to new development.

“It’s a very, very complex question about how to do it and what it is,” Mark Reddington of LMN Architects said about putting a lid on I-5, but said a study is a good place to begin.

The proposal to provide funding for a Lid I-5 study was met by some uncertainty by the commission.

Commission Chair Shannon Loew said it would be unreasonable for WSCC to create and evaluate the lidding, but “writing a check feels precarious.”

Other commissions also felt uncertain about the plan to fund a study. Commissioner Ross Tilghman suggested the that an owner, geographic scope, possible achievements for the study be defined before moving forward.

Construction of the estimated $1.6 billion Convention Center expansion project could begin next year and had been slated to be finished by 2020. The proposal calls for adding five stories above ground and two stories below ground totaling a little more than 1.2 million square feet of space, in addition to a 200,000 square foot loading dock and 500-800 parking spaces.Bringing thousands of truck trips to the area, most of the construction will go on what is now the King County Metro Convention Place Station, roughly bounded by Pine and Howell streets and 9th and Boren.

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Eric Bustad
Eric Bustad
5 years ago

Those alleys are public right-of-ways? The one to the West seems to be used as a private parking lot?!

5 years ago

Unfortunately the Pine Street Group is trying to pit affordable housing against a number of smaller projects – and then is barely providing any affordable housing funding at all. Capitol Hill Housing estimates a need for supporting 519 low-income families due to the WSCC project, and they are proposing funding 50 units.

The analogy of spreading peanut butter too thin across a number of other small parks and transportation projects is telling. They want to spread only a spoonful when they need to provide a full jar due to the scale of the project and the benefit they are getting. They said themselves that if they don’t get the vacations, they won’t build this project at this location. That’s a huge benefit to the developer, so they need to provide a huge amount of benefits in return.

The initial proposal does not come close to the Community Package coalition’s proposed $79 million value. The Pine Street Group has a long way to go and I hope they work with the community to expand and refine their proposal.

5 years ago

3 alleys and land under street space to be vacated and most people on this site are wailing about a small crooked path at Lowell School. Go figure.

5 years ago
Reply to  cloey

hmm, seems you’re having a hard time comprehending the difference. let me help explain.

here, the wscc is ASKING for permission to take over this public land in exchange for a public benefit (even if said benefit is lacking at this point. with the lowell school/path issues, a few parents decided to just close off a piece of public land without so much as a how-do-you-do? essentially, taking from the public without providing a public benefit. the public can still access the parcels of land the wscc is asking for. they cannot, however, access the path next to lowell school. can you see the difference now?

and there are people wailing about what wscc is asking for hence this post and the existence of the coalition mentioned above. the reason you don’t see the same level of discourse in the comments is, again, wscc is ASKING for something from the public; not just TAKING something away from the public.

5 years ago

“We have people that are asking that we do certain things for the neighborhoods, but we don’t have opposition to the project,”

There is definitely opposition to this project, but the WSCC has never had to address it. This project just steamrolls over any objection, then claims that there was no objection.

The property owners that had their parcels seized by eminent domain had objections.

Everyone who’s getting screwed by Convention Place Station’s early closure has objections.

There are definitely objections to the massive number of truck trips through South Lake Union and Downtown that this project is going to generate.

The WSCC doubled in size in 2001 and attendance has never topped what it was before the expansion. Expansion is a waste!

Opposition exists, but unfortunately, the WSCC doesn’t listen.

5 years ago

Why is the Convention Center basically unaccountable with a dedicated funding source? I wish Sound Transit was set up this way, not a Convention Center that basically only benefit hoteliers.

5 years ago
Reply to  Sloopy

Your point is well taken, but the convention center doesn’t only benefit hoteliers. Bars, restaurants, retail, transportation providers (cabbies, Über/Lyft drivers, airlines, etc), entertainment providers…. Conventions support thousands of jobs besides just hotels.