Seattle Stands Ready to Reinvent Itself With Wealth of Ambitious Urban Projects

FIRST it was the Alaska gold rush of 1890. Then a Boeing boom in World War II. The 1962 World's Fair. The ``forward thrust'' bond measures of 1968.

Seattle's history is one of sporadic leaps, and now the city is poised to surge again. Business leaders and elected officials have developed a wish list as tall as the Space Needle, ranging from sports stadiums and a Boston-style commons to a rail-transit system and schools.

As other urban centers go on fiscal diets and privatize services, the Emerald City is looking toward a spending spree. ``Seattle wants everything,'' says Bruce Chapman, president of the Discovery Institute think tank in Seattle and an advocate of many of the projects.

Known as one of America's most ``livable'' and progressive cities and a rising star of Pacific trade and high-tech industry, Seattle will be closely watched to see how well its bold efforts fare.

On one level, the civic makeover is an inevitable coming-to-terms with the Puget Sound region's rapid growth. On another, it is a classic struggle between the metropolitan core and faster-growing suburban areas outside Seattle.

The city proper has actually lost population, dropping from 530,000 in 1970 to 503,000 today, even as the Puget Sound region has burgeoned to 2.5 million residents. Like older United States cities, the gem of the Northwest faces daunting centrifugal forces: the flow of families, commerce, and culture away from the city center. This hollowing-out process is starkly symbolized by the shuttered Frederick & Nelson department store, the downtown's biggest retail landmark until the company went bankrupt two years ago.

Mayor Norm Rice argues that revitalizing urban life will benefit the whole region by luring business, easing traffic, and reducing suburban sprawl that threatens the region's scenic beauty.

But analysts warn that the proposed changes - each one marketed on its own merits - carry a high total cost. Taxpayer burnout, pushing out more businesses and residents, is a danger.

In last week's election, for example, bond measures for libraries, schools, and police buildings, totaling over $600 million, failed to win the needed 60 percent supermajority of Seattle voters.

``I believe that we need to prioritize,'' says Jan Drago, a City Council member. She calls for public discussions and mail surveys of residents.

``We may be approaching the maximum amount as far as tax burdens,'' says Jim Hebert, an economist with Hebert Research in Bellevue, Wash. ``There's a competition'' to get projects approved before that limit is reached and before the economy turns down again, he says.

Creative public-private partnerships can help finance some of the projects, Mr. Hebert says. For now, he adds, economic indicators such as per capita income and business confidence are up despite the Boeing Company's prominent troubles.

``We've sort of caught our breath,'' Mr. Chapman says. ``We're ready to do something again, but I don't know what.``

ENVIRONMENTAL concerns about sustainable lifestyles seem at odds with business groups advocating less regulation to spur growth. Also, as surrounding cities grow, efforts at regional cooperation are becoming more complicated. A recent example is the hot potato being played over whether to add a new runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport or to add a small airport somewhere else.

Also, Seattle has not wholly avoided the conservative shift in national politics. David Brewster, publisher of the Seattle Weekly, calls this flurry of projects the city's ``twilight of liberalism.''

Here is where other key items on the wish list stand:

Light-rail system. A three-county Regional Transit Authority has come up with a scaled-down plan, at $6.5 billion over 16 years, to build a system (streetcars, sometimes underground) in Seattle, operate commuter railroads on existing tracks, and expand bus service. Critics say the plan, scheduled for a vote in March, is likely to move only 2 percent of current commuters out of their cars.

Seattle commons. This $400 million project, pushed by businesses and private donors, would create a 74-acre park linking the downtown with Lake Union to the north. Chapman says some of the big up-front costs could be financed creatively by the promise of higher tax revenues from upscale housing to be built along the park.

Retail revival. Frederick & Nelson's collapse has left a huge gap in the city's shopping district. As part of a $300 million project, developers hope to turn the 10-story F&N building into a home for Nordstrom, which now has a smaller downtown store. Months of negotiations with the property owners appear to be moving forward again.

State-of-art stadium. Perhaps the most nationally recognized Seattle issue is the plight of the Kingdome. In July, falling roof tiles closed the stadium and it only recently has reopened. King County's $40 million repair job is only the backdrop to a higher-stakes discussion.

Both baseball's Mariners and football's Seahawks say they need a stadium with more luxury seating so they can make money. The Mariners want a $250 million retractable-roof stadium. The Seahawks call for $120 million in Kingdome upgrades. Either plan could involve taxpayer money. Many economists are skeptical of the financial payback.

A movement is also afoot to expand Seattle's convention center, and rumblings are being heard about a new symphony hall and a joint bid with Vancouver, B.C., and Portland, Ore., to host the 2004 Olympic Games.

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