What Could Have Been: Grand Civic Space Languishes as Pit to Nowhere

13
SounderBruce from Seattle, United States – Seattle Civic Square site, March 2016

When I first walked into City Hall as a neophyte councilmember in January 2005, workers had just started demolishing the old Public Safety Building. The building, just to the west of City Hall, was a 14-story teardown notorious for its people-trapping elevators and abandoned rooftop jail. The structure’s sole claim to fame was having served as a backdrop for “McQ,” a neo-noir movie starring John Wayne.

Old City Hall

Once debris of the demolished building was carted away, a yawning, block-square pit was left behind. The fenced-off cavity occupied the full block between Third and Fourth and Cherry and James. Seventeen years later that hole in the heart of Seattle still blights the city’s government ghetto (Seattle City Hall, King County Courthouse, Seattle Justice Center, Goat Hill Garage, and County Jail).

During his first term in office, Mayor Greg Nickels had foreseen the emptied block as a grand public-private development, a real Civic Square. The site was to house a 43-story office/residential building, a jointly owned underground garage, and a civic square rimmed with lively retail spaces.

But alas. That utopian vision – the project some called Seattle’s answer to San Francisco’s Union Square – was not to be. No sooner was the project negotiated with Triad Development than the Great Recession hit in 2008. The civic square plan was put on hold while Triad negotiated contract extensions. Then along came the 2015 election and with it an episode that ballooned into a political scandal.

Triad executive Brett Allen had approached Jon Grant, a candidate for Council Position 8, with a deal: If Grant (former Tenants Union president) would help settle the Tenants Union lawsuit against Triad, then a hefty expenditure against his election would go away. It was a naked shakedown and one that wasn’t much of a secret. In fact, Allen also contacted former Mayor Mike McGinn, a Grant supporter, to seek his help in pressuring Jon.

The scandal prompted then Mayor Ed Murray to vow to cut ties with Triad. The development company’s contract with the city was due to expire again on Dec. 31, 2015 and Murray decided it would not be renewed. Attempts were made to transfer the deal to another developer. But the search for partners capable of taking over the project failed not once but twice. 

The city was left trying to wriggle out of the deal with Triad as well as finding another developer. Finally Mayor Murray – the third mayor whose office overlooked the giant pit – sent the City Council legislation that would authorize a contract with the Bosa, a British Columbia developer. The council approved the new deal in September, 2017, with only Kshama Sawant voting no and declaring the contract “corporate welfare.”

The new Civic Square agreement differed from the original Triad plan in several respects. Bosa Development was acquiring ownership of the entire block in exchange for $16 million in cash and some $5.7 million expected in affordable housing fees. Bosa had plans to build a taller, skinnier 59-story residential tower with street level retail space and a 25,000-square-foot plaza. 

As previously intended, an easement would provide for public use of the plaza. The city no longer would be responsible for the plaza’s operating and maintenance costs but would gain exclusive use of the space up to 10 times a year. Looking ahead, Fred Podesta, the city’s director of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), talked up the deal: “When the Seahawks win the Superbowl, we’ll have a great place to celebrate.” 

City Hall Park and County Courthouse, 1917 Image 38044, Seattle Municipal Archives

Design changes meant that Bosa had to start over and apply for a new master-use permit. That meant a couple of years of delay and pushed back construction once again. Bosa’s new plans were completed just in time for the pandemic to arrive and complicate schedules. The site, once again, stood barren save for a few weedy sprigs and a single tree.

Finally in March of this year there was big news: Bosa announced that it would start on the project the following month. The city issued permits for shoring and excavation and Mayor Bruce Harrell cheered the news. He noted, “It’s an excellent step forward in efforts to revitalize downtown.” 

But wait! In July, Bosa put out a release saying the ill-starred project would be delayed yet again. Word from the developer spoke of “rising construction costs” and “uncertainty of the market,” and “looking forward to the time when we can begin pursuing this project again.”

The contract signed with the city had given the developer four years to start on construction and six to finish the tower before incurring penalties from $500 to $5,000 per day. Bosa’s pause of work could mean penalties for delay have been triggered. But FAS spokesman Melissa Mixon stated that “delay damages, if any, will be determined at a later date and assessed after April, 2026 at the earliest.”

At present there are no guarantees that the yawning pit will become the long envisioned public amenity. Over the years there have been a few tantalizing glimpses in local prints. Artists’ sketches show Bosa’s proposed curved tower, designed by architect James Cheng. The graceful structure was depicted filled with hanging greenery and topped with rooftop trees. Will it ever become reality?

It does seem that after an angst-ridden 17-year saga, it is time to talk about rethinking the original dream. The hole in the city’s heart has yawned unoccupied under six mayors (counting interim Mayor Tim Burgess), four potential developers, and just shy of two dozen councilmembers. Children born the year of the Public Safety Building’s last gasp are going to be able to vote next year. 

City leaders now need to step back and ask tough questions: Was the original public-private plan somehow flawed? Did it exact too many concessions from the private partner? Is attracting some new developer to take over the project – likely with the risk of a thorny re-negotiation – even possible? Or is Seattle stuck forever with the Pit from Hell?

Previous articleLessons from Hungary: How to Undermine a Democracy
Next articleWarren Magnuson’s Legacy is Instructive: The US Senate in 1970 Versus Now
Avatar photo
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seattle Times. In 2003, she quit to run for Seattle City Council where she served 12 years. She now writes for Westside Seattle and has been a co-host on The Bridge, aired on community radio station KMGP. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

13 COMMENTS

  1. I would think any property developer, even the City itself, will want to see how the demand for downtown highrise office space shakes out over the next year or two, as well as the demand for brick and mortar retail somewhat away from the center of downtown retail.

  2. Not only is this a well-written story, it raises hard and painful truths: The current City council has abandoned our beloved metropolis, preferring to squabble and posture about one issue: homelessness. Do councilmembers even walk downtown? Been outside of the post office at Third and Union lately? How is this acceptable, to see garbage, abandoned storefronts, reeling drug addicts and painfully little of the vibrancy that once marked this city? I feel sorry for anyone experiencing homelessness and addiction. But their needs don’t trounce the rest of us who work downtown and are tired of seeing constant reminders of what we are now. The deep pit that Godden mentions is a metaphor for how much we’ve fallen in the past decade. And where is the Council ?The recent vote adding bonuses to attract more police officers is a step forward, but even that wasn’t a unanimous vote. Ten years from now, will we be reading about more squandered opportunities?

    • I don’t think council members walk around downtown. So far as I know, they are still mostly working from home, which is part of the problem. Just like you, I see appalling things downtown on a daily basis.

  3. I think, as the story suggests, it is a good time to consider once again how to have an open, safe, beautiful park in this block. The possible park is surrounded by good buildings with historic facades. As with Bryant Park in New York, the park could be activated by food service, library services, and performances, as well as visible security personnel. Seattle still does not have a destination park downtown, and this could be part of the revival of downtown. Trying to get a private developer to create a park-cum-high-rise has proven impossible, given how many city council “cooks” there are in this kitchen.

  4. Thank you Jean. A well-written story indeed, and worth telling. I’d like to contribute one detail, however. You mentioned that incoming “Mayor Greg Nickels had foreseen the emptied block as a grand public-private development, a real Civic Square.” Actually, that vision preceded Nickels by a few years. In 1996, during the Norm Rice administration, the Downtown Seattle Association’s Urban Committee studied the question of what could be done about Seattle’s dreadful municipal campus, including the Public Safety Building and the City Hall building. The City had purchased Gateway Tower at a fire sale price (now the Seattle Municipal Tower), and there were plans to relocated the electeds to the top of the tower. A few of us on the DSA committee thought the Public Safety site should be turned into a full-block urban park, with a small “jewel-box” City Hall building in its midst, putting the elected mayor and council members down in the midst of the community. Paul Schell was elected in 1997 to succeed Rice, and convened an advisory group to pursue the redevelopment of the municipal campus. Ultimately, architect Gordon Walker, a long-time Schell confidant, suggested the idea of a redevelopment that would have civic plaza space flanking both sides of 4th Avenue, enabling the creation of a very large large civic plaza by diverting traffic off of 4th for big civic gatherings. Schell embraced Walker’s idea, and that has been the plan ever since. The plaza in front of our “new” City Hall building is the down payment on that vision, and Gordon’s Big Idea will be realized if/when the plaza is ever extended onto the Public Safety Building block.

  5. Seattle’s current comprehensive plan calls for transit oriented development there — a light rail station entrance is on that block. However, TOD now is disfavored, in Seattle and around the country. There is a huge excess of office floorspace now downtown. Also, projected demand for condos in the urban core is miniscule. The significant development over the past decade around light rail stations has been shared housing, non-profit housing, and public housing. Not sure what the appetite for more of that is on the part of the city council though.

  6. Excellent story
    I love the Bryant Park suggestion.
    But is the “Seattle process” capable of such a heavy lift – in less than 5 years? There will be many advisory committees and divided Council members who are lobbied by the advisory committee members and in the end another recession will be on us and it will be financially infeasible for any developer.
    But a Bryant Park OMG yes! But right now it would more likely turn into a Union Square.:(

  7. Jean Godden’s ability to take history, politics and concise/accurate research remind me of the good years of her reporting and long stint on the City Council when our Councils did us proud. The Pit from Hell has led to the even more deteriorating surroundings on the other side of the County building and contributed to the blight of Third and Second Avenues in what was our city’s proud beginning. I don’t go downtown, I avoid all roads close to the government buildings I used to frequent, and I lament the lack of that Seattle “umph” that we used to brag about. Mayor Harrell still gives me hope, but with the exception of Councilmember Sara Nelson, this City Council is not going to help save our downtown. Maybe a new council?

  8. While we are lamenting the government center with its unsafe park, decayed admin building, architectural lemon of a second county admin building (the one with diamond), miserable skybridge, and awful jail, maybe it’s time to encourage county exec Constantine to take a tough look at the whole miserable campus, close some of them (like the jail) and move some of them out to where the county’s population lives.

  9. Big yikes at the phrase “government ghetto”. It’s a shame that Jean Godden refers to the the civic core with such derision – or does she simply misunderstand the history and connotation of “ghetto”?

    The property is currently assessed at about $60 million – and as noted in the article, Bosa purchased nearly-full ownership of the property in 2019, and attempted to restart development earlier this year. With the city facing funding shortfalls, what can the city actually do to help this along?

  10. What percent of City and County employees
    Who worked downtown pre-pandemic
    Work downtown now?

    Let’s check
    Our assumptions
    About what is needed
    At this location.

  11. Aside from material escalation and sourcing issues, I believe the following have huge impact on progress in that area.

    The public housing authority on 3rd Avenue between James and Cherry. Do I feel guilty for this suggestion? Absolutely. Someone above suggested a park at that location. Which is a nice thought, but absolutely absurd considering the activity in this area. This would only provide more open space for the continued dangerous, unregulated behavior in this area. Seattle PD tries to monitor this area, but they can only do so much with lack of personnel and funding.

    Transportation issues. The only safe routes for semi trucks are on 4th Avenue, with a ‘sacred’ bike lane and 3rd Avenue which is only accessible by transit. Which poses a serious safety threat to the public when Cherry & James Street are the only accessible routes for construction vehicles. Does anyone remember the runaway truck?

    Seattle needs to re-evaluate their priorities and provide reasonable solutions for the current situation. We need to find solutions for the current criminal, mental health, and homelessness issues in the heart of the city we love.

  12. I work downtown! And it is better than it used to be, far better, than last year at this time. But there are still vast swathes I know many people avoid — and in particular, the area around the King County Courthouse and the pit that Jean described so well. How can we let that area become such a pit from hell? It makes me sad to remember the vibrant area that was once … with great, affordable restaurants like Bakeman’s, all gone now. Who will come in to take their place?

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.