Developers for the Washington State Convention Center addition proposed a $30 million public benefits package in exchange for three alleyway and two street vacations during a packed meeting of the Seattle Design Commission on May 18.
That total is far short of the $60 to $75 million the Community Package Coalition, a group of nine neighborhood organizations, believes is needed to offset the project’s privatization of several streets and alleys.
Alex Hudson, executive director of the First Hill Improvement Association, representing the Community Package Coalition at last week’s meeting, said the public benefits for the project should be required to meet a very high standard due to the unparalleled vacation request of almost 1.3 acres of public land.
“The community package is an investment into the community’s most pressing and well-identified needs: public open space, safe multimodal transportation and affordable housing on a scale commensurate with the long-term impact of this massive project and the unprecedented scale of their vacation requests,” Hudson said.
Plans for the $1.6 billion WSCC Addition project, located between Pine Street, Ninth Avenue, Howell Street and Boren Avenue, includes 7,666 square feet of combined alleyway vacation, plus 47,983 square feet of combined subterranean street vacations of Olive Way and Terry Avenue.
Matt Griffin, managing partner at Pine Street Group and the developer spearheading the expansion, said the group analyzed recent public benefits packages before settling on the $30 million figure. Griffin estimated the total value of the vacated land at $16 million, which he said was based on a valuation used for a subterranean vacation for a recent project.
The proposed public benefit package includes $15 million for improving neighborhood connections, of which $10 million would be set aside for the Pike Pine Renaissance program. The money would continue the planned pedestrian improvements over Interstate 5, linking Pike Place Market to Capitol Hill. Other funding in the package aimed at improving connectivity includes $1 million for improvements to Freeway Park, $2 million for bike lanes and $250,000 toward a feasibility study to cover I-5.
Also contained in the proposed package was $5 million for affordable housing, which is estimated to cover constructing 40-60 units, and a $2 million investment in Operation Nightwatch.
Roughly $9 million of the package is dedicated to on-site improvements and art installations that representatives for the WSCC addition said go beyond code requirements and contribute to the public experience of the site.
Beverly Barnett, who manages the street vacations program for SDOT, expressed concern that much of what was contained in the package of on-site improvements were mandatory requirements to meet code.
“A lot of the public benefit is being pushed to the perimeter or offsite,” Barnett said. “Our goal, looking at street vacations and a street vacation public benefit, is to make sure there are on-site amenities that make the experience for the general public moving through and around the site really important.”
“I’m not seeing how the program addresses what the community has identified as priorities,” Barnett continued.
During a public comment period, Abby Lawlor, a representative for UNITE HERE Local 8, surrounded by a handful of hospitality workers, said a $30 million investment is not nearly enough.
“We are giving up public streets and alleys for this project,” Lawlor said. “We need good jobs for everyone involved, and affordable housing on a scale commensurate with the demand that will be generated, which we estimated to be about 1,000 units.”
Speaking out in support of the project was Chris McClain, representing the Seattle Building and Construction Trades Council.
Accompanied by a recent graduate of a pre-apprenticeship ironworks program sponsored by the city, McClain said, “Union membership alone doesn’t guarantee middle-class incomes. We must have projects to build as our benefits are paid by each hour of work.”
At a previous meeting at which the design merits of the project were approved, commissioners agreed with developers that the inclusion of several public right-of-ways was essential to the success of the project. The vacations allow developers to push truck-loading docks underground and build 150,000 square feet of below-street-level exhibit space.
Seeking a more cohesive package focusing on how the key pieces of the projects fit together, commissioners decided the proposal wasn’t yet complete. They will continue the discussion at a future meeting before passing on recommendations regarding the public benefits to the city council.
“The issue of dollars is not our direct concern,” said commission chair Ross Tilghman. “It’s where the money is spent and what we get for it.”