The Emerald City Goes for More Green

Seattle's ballot proposal for downtown park spurs debate over how to promote urban renewal

SEATTLE is known as one of America's most "livable" large cities.

It has friendly people, access to mountains and water, and the woodsy Northwest's liveliest cultural scene.

One thing the "Emerald City" has long lacked, however, is a major downtown park, similar to the Boston Common or New York's Central Park.

That could change with tomorrow's primary ballot. Residents will vote on a $111 million levy to build the Seattle Commons, which would begin under the shadow of downtown high rises and stretch northward toward Lake Union.

The project is a sign that Seattle's trademark civic spirit has not faded. While supported by Mayor Norm Rice (D), the plan has been conceived and pushed from the beginning by private citizens. Some $70 million has been pledged from wealthy locals such as Microsoft Corporation co-founder Paul Allen and cellular-phone tycoon Craig McCaw. Additional money would come from a mix of government sources.

"It represents a major opportunity for the city, a historic opportunity," says Gerry Johnson, president of the nonprofit Committee for the Seattle Commons.

But the Commons proposal is also emblematic of a challenge familiar to many American cities. The urban center is competing for jobs and residents with newer suburbs and "edge cities," which often have lower living costs. Many current Seattle residents, meanwhile, say their taxes are already too high and plan to oppose the new park.

So while the Commons sounds charming, it has become a contentious concept. Polls suggest the 60-acre park could be voted down, despite strong promotion from businesses.

Mr. Johnson says the Commons would expand the city's appeal to high-tech industries and upscale residents. The park might lure $2 billion in private investment over the next three decades. Property values in the area would rise, paying back the costs in higher tax revenues. To reject it, proponents say, would be to betray the progressive spirit that has put this city in the national spotlight.

Critics counter that the scheme is just warmed-over urban renewal - a costly project that may yield little value.

David Sucher, a real estate developer who opposes the Commons plan, says he would rather see an incremental approach to neighborhood change. The nonprofit Commons group and the city government could work together to create smaller parks in the area as a start, he suggests.

"This could be Seattle's 'Whoops' power project," says resident Carl Smith, referring to the financial fiasco of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), which tried to build four nuclear power plants for the region. Among the potential pitfalls: The park may prove unsafe, or private development may lag.

To build it, 130 small businesses, including Mr. Smith's antique store, will have to leave. "A good portion of the businesses will relocate outside the city" for lack of low-cost alternatives in Seattle, he says. The city has pledged to give financial aid before resorting to eminent domain to clear the area, which is home to everything from automotive shops to warehouses and restaurants.

"Development will come" to this location, Johnson responds. "The question is what kind of development. We're talking about the most attractive kinds of jobs," in fields such as software and biotechnology. Commons backers say about 4,500 more jobs will flow into the area than would come without the park. Moreover, the number of residential units in the area is predicted to rise almost fivefold, to 7,600 units.

The Commons proposal is part of a current wave of transformation here that follows in a grand Seattle tradition. Forward Thrust, a movement begun in 1968, resulted in new parks, fire stations, and a bus system. Other development booms sprang from the 1962 World's Fair and from the Alaska gold rush a century ago.

Today, the city is reviving its downtown shopping district, developing its waterfront, and upgrading Seattle Center, an arts and sports complex adorned by the Space Needle. The Commons question is paired on tomorrow's ballot with a measure to finance a new major league baseball stadium.

To civic leaders such as Mayor Rice, these projects are complementary pieces of a neatly fitting puzzle. But some question whether the city is biting off more than it can chew financially. Also on Seattle's wish list are more mundane needs such as a new police headquarters, repairs to libraries, affordable housing, and sprucing up existing parks.

But others like the fact that Seattle is thinking big. Corporations such as Microsoft and the Boeing Company have contributed to the promotional effort for the Commons. In endorsing the plan recently, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said the park would be "the pride of Seattle residents for generations to come."

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