In a rush against time and the looming Republican evisceration of federal tax credits, the City of Seattle will enter into a 55-year lease for the continued operation of the Seattle Asian Art Museum and an agreement that paves the way for a needed $54 million upgrade of the 84-year-old building its calls home in Volunteer Park. The agreement will come even as the City Council parks committee shepherding the agreement is asking for more from the deal.
Park committee chair Debora Juarez outlined the next steps in the long process to move ahead on construction in a meeting Thursday as the clock ticks before the likely expiration of some $6 million in Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit officials expect to utilize on the project. In the “ratify and confirm” procedure, the city will move ahead of the lease to beat the December 31st deadline — but Juarez and other members of the committee say they want to see much more from the Seattle Art Museum’s end of the agreement.
“It’s not that I’m not in your corner, I just want it to be done right,” Juarez told museum and city officials Thursday.
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Though public comment on the legislation to ultimately authorize the agreement was dominated by neighbors from the Protect Volunteer Park speaking against the SAAM project and expansion, Juarez and City Council President Bruce Harrell said they support the plan but want to see better documented and more quantified public benefits. After Protect Volunteer Park speakers questioned whether the building should be continued to be used as a home for the museum at all, Harrell said he believes the around $20 million in city money earmarked for the project will ultimately be a good investment in an environment where schools continue to cut arts education.
Protect Volunteer Park folks speaking against Seattle Asian Art Museum expansion — “private glass cocktail party venue that is encroaching on our green space” pic.twitter.com/zOWCiCPLD5
— jseattle (@jseattle) December 7, 2017
Financial terms of the lease agreement lay out an escalating payment plan.
SAAM is will also be “solely responsible for regular and routine maintenance of the building throughout the term of the lease.”
Though the city and the museum are authorized to enter into the new lease before the council committee will meet again, the legislative process will further shape public benefits such as free admission days and school programs at the museum. Technically a private project run by the Seattle Art Museum nonprofit, construction of the building’s expansion and new features including a climate control system will be done under the city’s Social Equity Program and Community Workforce Agreement as contractors are selected.
In 2018, the council will continue work on the legislation confirming the final agreement with SAM. It will also hold a January hearing on another bill required before construction can begin that will modify city code to allow the expansion of a museum within a city park. With those bills in place, construction on the project could begin as early as February.
With city council approval of the two bills, the Seattle Asian Art Museum should return in full glory — with 13,000 more square feet of space and with important climate control system and seismic upgrades — by October 2019.
UPDATE 12/12/17 10:00 AM: The Protect Volunteer Park group has posted an “important message” calling on Mayor Jenny Durkan to intervene in the “ratify and approve” framework for the new lease and stop City Hall from signing the new lease that will drain “our public wealth for generations, in exchange for a quick financial rush of $6 million in tax credits.” The full letter is below.
From: Protect Volunteer Park
To: Mayor Jenny Durkan
Seattle City Council
Parks Superintendent Jesús Aguirre
Deputy Parks Superintendent Christopher Williams
Date: December 11, 2017
Important Message from Protect Volunteer Park
Dear City of Seattle decision makers,
Based on the Parks Committee meeting on December 7, we understand that the City plans to rush to sign the Asian Art Museum lease before year-end, prior to Council’s votes on the two enabling ordinances CB 119150 and CB 119146. Council will then later vote to “ratify and approve certain prior acts”.
We appeal to you not to go forward with this plan, because the public costs strongly outweigh the public benefits.
This lease is a 55-year ironclad commitment to pay operating support payments to Seattle Art Museum (SAM), lease SAM a City-owned building for zero monetary rent, and for the City to remain liable for major capital repairs to the building.
The 55-year term secures historic preservation tax credits, which require that investors get an “ownership relationship”. A 55-year commitment is considered equivalent to an ownership relationship. In other words, the City is quite literally giving away the building.
The City is to receive nothing for giving the building away. To the contrary, astoundingly, the City is to pay $19 million for renovations for the benefit of SAM, its new effective owner. The City also takes on for 55 years the duty of making operating support payments to SAM, and funding all major capital repairs to the building, including all work on its historic facade. Together with the failure to charge any monetary rent, these provisions represent a cost to the City of millions of dollars per year, over the entire 55 year term.
This unbalanced deal is not in the public interest. City government does not owe SAM anything in exchange for SAM fulfilling its mission. SAM is already required to be operated for an educational purpose, as a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation whose donors receive tax breaks.
City leaders say they want to resist President Trump. It takes money to resist a federal government that is threatening withdrawal of grants. This deal weakens the City by committing capital funds to a non-public purpose today, plus budgeted funds and property 55 years in advance. It drains our public wealth for generations, in exchange for a quick financial rush of $6 million in tax credits.
City leaders say they recognize the emergency of homelessness and housing unaffordability. It will take money to address this emergency. This deal greatly weakens the City’s ability to respond to true public needs.
Please do not give away historic parklands, real property, and money of present and future generations in this unfavorable deal. Instead, acknowledge that the City’s building in Volunteer Park must be managed in the public interest, and solicit financially balanced proposals from more than just one potential partner organization. The public should be involved, according to the terms of the Public Involvement Policy of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
For your convenience, here are links to more detailed comments we sent previously:
CB 119150 (lease): http://protectvolunteerpark.org/lease-comment/
CB 119146 (zoning): http://protectvolunteerpark.org/comment-zoning-bill/
Thank you for your consideration.
Jonathan Mark and the other members of Protect Volunteer Park