Gates Foundation moving to Seattle Center

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is set to become part of the Seattle Center campus, it was announced at a press conference at the Space Needle last week. The foundation has inked a deal to pay $50.4 million for a 12.3-acre Center parking lot on the east side of Fifth Avenue North, where the philanthropic organization plans to build its world headquarters, said Center director Virginia Anderson.

"It was a tough negotiation," she added. Indeed, according to the city, the Seattle Center is on the hook for using approximately $28 million of the purchase price to pay for building a 1,000-stall parking structure, for relocating a waste-reduction facility, for some of the costs needed to relocate the skateboard park and basketball court on the site, and for remedial work on contaminated soil and groundwater at the northwest corner of the site, where a Metro bus barn and refueling station once stood.

Center spokesman Perry Cooper had previously said that building the parking structure and relocating the skateboard park and basketball court would be the foundation's responsibility.

However, city costs for building the parking structure are capped at $15,350,000, while the foundation will be responsible for any costs above that, according to the agreement.

The cost for parking could end up being more than that, conceded Patty Stonesifer, president and co-chair of the Gates Foundation. That's because it is unknown, she said, whether the parking structure will be aboveground, or partially underground, which is typically more expensive than aboveground construction.

Also unclear is the size of the headquarters, which could range from 250,000 to 300,000 square feet, said Stonesifer, who added that NBBJ Architects have been tapped to design the building. "But we don't have a specific plan to share with you today."

The foundation currently has around 200 employees in its building on Eastgate Avenue, but on any given day there are more visitors than staff members, she said. "We intend to make this a great place to collaborate."

Stonesifer also described Mayor Greg Nickels and his team as "fantastic and sometimes difficult negotiating partners," but she said the Seattle Center is a good fit for the foundation. "We look forward to creating our long-term home right here."

Uptown Alliance chair John Coney said the addition of the foundation to Lower Queen Anne fits the neighborhood-planning goals of increased diversity, smart growth, sustainability and improved transportation. "It will fit well with our vision of the Seattle Center," he said.

According to the agreement, the foundation has to preserve 50 feet of city right-of-way along Mercer Street between Fifth Avenue North and Aurora Avenue North so that Mercer could be expanded in the future to improve transportation in the area.

The Seattle Supersonics practice facility is also part of the mix on the property, but the Sonics aren't going anywhere until their lease expires five years from now, said Anderson, who added that the stay might be extended.

She also said that, although the skateboard park and the basketball court will be relocated, they won't necessarily be on the Seattle Center campus. King County Council chairman and Magnolian Larry Phillips had a suggestion about that at the press conference.

He thinks a prefect location would be next to a combined-sewer-overflow project nearing completion on Elliott Avenue West, and the county's wastewater division is already talking to the city about the idea, Phillips said. "There's a lot of community support for it from the Belltown and Uptown urban centers," he added.

The $22 million net gain for the city in the deal won't be used for day-to-day operations at the Seattle Center, said Mayor Nickels, who presented his proposal for using the cash to the Seattle City Council the day after the press conference.

According to that plan, $10 million would be used to wipe out a deficit run up by the Seattle Center in the previous three years, up to $4 million would be used to help retire the debt for Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, and $8 million would be earmarked for maintenance and repairs on the aging campus.

The city council still has to approve the deal, a move that seems likely. "We welcome the Gates Foundation to Seattle's community gathering place," said city council president Jan Drago in a press release. "We believe it's the highest and best use for the property and a great fit for the foundation and the city."

Assuming the council approves, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation plans to break ground in 2007, with a view toward moving into its new headquarters by 2008 or 2009, Stonesifer said.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at or 461-1309.

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