Urban Politics #64: The New City Hall / Civic Campus

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.



  • The New City Hall / Civic Campus
  • Seattle Center / Community Centers Levy
  • Review And Analysis
  • A New Proposal
  • New UP Index Web Site Addition

The New City Hall / Civic Campus

The hardest question any candidate has to answer is, “Where are you going to cut the budget to pay for the things that you say you want to do for us?”

I heard it more than once on the campaign trail and I heard many a mumbled response, including my own. But overall I argued, and heard others argue as well, that the City needed to refocus its energy from downtown to the neighborhoods. Now that downtown was “saved” we have an obligation to fund projects outside the central business core. I rarely heard any candidate argue for funding more big projects. So it is with some irony that once again City Hall is considering major expenditures downtown and this time I’m in City Hall.

Back in the summer of 1997, I don’t recall any citizen requesting that we build a new City Hall or a new Opera House. That’s not to say that they are not needed. Many major projects are needed, they are just not on the public’s radar screen for a number of reasons. Often the initial decisions to move forward on them are taken with small incremental steps, almost too small to be detected by the press, particularly since no single step appears to be definitive.

Consequently even before the summer of 1997, while candidates were vying for 5 city Council seats and the Mayor’s office, the die had been cast by city staff and previous Mayors and Councils; City Hall would be torn down and replaced with a new one and that the Opera House was seismically unsafe and needed to be essentially rebuilt.

Last week the Council voted to pursue a new City Hall, which along with other public buildings would create a new civic center for Seattle. I wrote in previous Urban Politics that I preferred a smaller building for City Hall. Having purchased about a million sq. ft. of office space across the street in the Key Tower for our city employees, I figured that we could get by with a smaller City Hall, as was originally planned by former Mayor Norm Rice.

The first plans for a new City Hall building had it at 50,000 sq. ft. It was to just house the Mayor and the City Council. The building finally grew to 190,000 sq. ft and was approved by the City Council on a 5 to 4 vote. Donaldson, Licata, McIver, and Pageler voted for a smaller 150,000 sq. ft. building. The amount of savings from the smaller building is subject to debate, but millions could have been saved if space was eliminated rather than just transferred to the Key Tower.

Another motion failed, with the same line up of votes as above, to consider both selling and leasing the Public Building Site to a private developer. The vote to lease only passed and the site will probably be leased for 75 years or longer. A private sale, subject to some open space and design conditions, could have saved the city millions.

I bring up these votes to illustrate two points: 1. Reasonable people can disagree on how public funds should be spent, 2. With every decision to spend more money rather than less, it becomes more difficult to answer the question : “What are you going to cut in the budget, to give me what you promised?”

Seattle Center/Community Centers Levy

– Review And Analysis

The coming City Council vote on shaping the fall levy, provides a second chance to answer that question. In 1991 the City passed a Seattle Center/Community Centers Levy. It expires this year and we have an opportunity to renew it. The City Council will decide the composition of the levy by June 14th. This Tuesday, June 1st, the Council will be discussing and selecting a number of options that will define that levy.

I believe that there are two major issues that the Council must decide. The first is whether to divide the levy between the Seattle Center and Community Centers. A clear majority of folks (57%) who responded to that question in Urban Politics said “yes”, while only 39% wanted to keep the two segments together as a single vote.

The Mayor supports one vote for the two items. I prefer two. I agree with a Seattle Times editorial (5/27/99) which said that a single vote deprives voters of choice and doubts their ability to make intelligent decisions. By having two items, voters could still choose both and they would gain the ability to vote for just one. There is no systemic connection between the Seattle Center and Community Centers, like there was between the downtown library and neighborhood libraries which was why I supported linking them.

The most common argument I’ve heard for linking the Seattle Center to the Community Centers is that funding the Seattle Center might not pass if it wasn’t linked to the neighborhood centers. That argument leads to the conclusion that we are endangering the community centers by linking them to a less popular Seattle Center. I believe that the Seattle Center levy portion could pass by itself. The Center does have broad support throughout Seattle, including my own. But if those promoting a single ballot item are correct, I don’t see why we should chance seeing both the Seattle Center and Community Centers defeated with a single vote.

The second major issue is determining which projects are to be funded within the Seattle Center and Community Centers portions of the levy. I think the crux of this discussion is determining priorities. How should the City balance the neighborhood planning needs with the Seattle Center’s needs?

Most of us are aware of the 37 neighborhood plans that have involved over 10,000 citizens spending countless of hours in planning how they would like to see the city provide services, facilities and planning in their communities. The price tag for implementing these plans is easily an additional $100 million above our current budget and it could be twice as high. The Seattle Center on the other hand identified in 1990 a number of potential improvements to its campus in its Seattle Center 2000 Master Plan. It was adopted by the City Council that same year. However, in a review of the material sent to me, I did not see where a new Opera House was among the projects identified.

In reviewing the Center’s documents, it is not immediately apparent when the need for a new Opera House was established. It appears that for a time the Center’s strategy was to make continuous upgrades to the facility. Close to $2 million of the 1991 levy went to make improvements. And, the September 1997 Seattle Center Report to Employees stated: “We created improvements that will make the Opera House a world-class facility for decades to come.”

Two months later a Center Action Plan was released, which said that “The quality of the facilities at the Opera House is far below that necessary to support these functions (Opera and Ballet) effectively.” It went on to say the existing technical systems were worn out and no longer capable of supporting the resident performance groups.

The Seattle Center also conducted a seismic study of the Opera House in 1994 and concluded that it would cost $78 million at that time to address those problems. So the need for major improvements has been known for a while.

The Seattle Center called together a Redevelopment Phase II Task Force in 1998 to make recommendations on future Center developments. They concluded that the Opera House should receive top priority. A third of the taskforce members were from the Opera and Ballet (14 out of 41). The Center has since cited the Task Force report as Phase II of their Master Plan. The 1991 Levy is described as Phase I. While that may be a fair description to apply in hindsight, I have not seen any memos describing the 1991 Levy being promoted as Phase I at the time of the vote.

The cost of rebuilding the Opera House is obviously a concern to the City Council. The Opera House will take just over 80% of the Center’s portion of the 1999 levy ($27 million). The balance ($8 million) will go to demolish and rebuild the Festival Pavilion partially underground, which would result in an acre of additional open space, half to be a plaza on its roof and the other half to be a lawn facing the International Fountain.

The Mayor is also proposing that the city issue a $8.4 million councilmanic bond to help pay for the new Opera House. This would result in about an annual $600,000 deduction from our budget to pay off its debt service. Private contributions are expected to come in at about $55 million, $15 million of which the Center hopes to get from attaching a donor’s name to the new Performance Center. The State and County are also expected to contribute $12 million and $5 million each. State legislation for such support was defeated during the last session and I have not seen documentation from the County considering such a contribution.

City Council staff has noted that the Opera and Ballet’s temporary use of the Mercer Arena will necessitate approximately $5.5 million in structural changes to that building. Unfortunately, it will cost an additional $500,000 to convert the Mercer Arena back to it’s former configuration so that it could be used once again for mid-sized concerts, graduations, sporting events, and other such uses. The levy, as proposed, does not contain the money to convert it back.

Some Council Members have asked that money be allocated in the levy to also improve the Mercer Arena, particularly since it is used for many low priced events. Upgrading it would cost $21 million. One proposal is to take that amount from the Community Centers allocation thereby reducing that portion of the levy to $15 million. Another proposal is to increase the overall amount of the levy, but still have just one vote.

– A New Proposal

This situation raises the obvious question of whether it is the right time to proceed with funding a new Opera House. As the Seattle Times editorial, mentioned above, asked, “Does the Opera House deserve a place at the head of the line?” Certainly the city gets a great return for its investment. There will be a substantial amount of private contributions to the Opera House and presumably they will only be made if the City is committed to rebuilding this facility.

But why not make a commitment to place the Opera House on the ballot in 2 years as another Levy Lid Lift? Encourage the contributing foundations to make their contributions at this time to a Seattle Center Opera House Capital Fund. Meanwhile, let’s get the other work done at the Seattle Center: $7 million to the Festival Pavilion and $21 million to the Mercer Arena. That would make the Center portion only $28 million. Then take the $ 8 million that would have gone to it and apply it to the neighborhood portion. The total of the two portions would still total $72 million and the smaller Seattle Center portion would probably have a better chance of passing than a larger one.

Think of this proposal as a Phase I of a Neighborhood Improvement Plan. Let’s not wait for the State Legislature to approve a Metropolitan Park District, if it ever will. Instead let’s make this Levy a first step towards fulfilling the City’s promise to fund the neighborhood plans.

At the public hearing on the Levy, a number of residents stepped forward and asked for funding their particular community center because it was left off of the neighborhood levy. True, there will always be a community that will have not receive what it wanted, but why not make a real statement now that the City is truly committed to seeing that funding gets distributed around the city.

It is a stated goal of the City to support youth facilities, not only are they the best means for curbing juvenile crime but community centers are used by Seattle youths more than any other type of public facility. There probably could be no better investment we could make in creating a better future Seattle. And finally, the revised levy proposal would underline City Hall’s commitment to funding neighborhood plans now, not later.

New UP Index Web Site Addition

We now have a UP index up at our web site. And thanks to UP subscriber John Pastier, we now have the last missing Urban Politics, edition Number 1 on the website.

Keep in touch…



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Comment from bédards
Time June 5, 2015 at 3:54 am

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Just wanted to say keep up the good job!

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