A Convention Center Redo for the People

With a $1.6 billion price tag, the Washington State Convention Center (WSCC) addition will be the single largest real estate development in Seattle history — more costly than Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field combined. This project is to be built on public land, by a public agency and financed with tax dollars. As a city, that means we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in what the community needs most: public open spaces, safe routes for people walking and biking, and homes affordable to working families.

In February, the convention center proposed a package of public benefits in exchange for repurposing 1.28 acres of aboveground and underground streets and alleyways owned by the public. The package of benefits is supposed to be proportional with what the WSCC is asking the public to give up as well as the permanent impacts of the project.

It doesn’t even come close.

The expansion will forever transform a part of our city center. The project will result in years of construction, require the permanent removal of public rights of way and contribute to our housing shortage by adding thousands of low-wage jobs to Seattle. We ask that these challenges be acknowledged and be treated as opportunities to address our city’s most pressing needs head on.

A group of nine community organizations has come together to speak with a unified voice for an alternative to the convention center’s benefit proposal: The Community Package. It represents up to $86 million of investments in projects with meaningful and lasting benefits for our city.

The Community Package creates new parks and open spaces in our dense city center. It makes this highly trafficked area safer for people walking and biking in the neighborhood. It mitigates, rather than worsens, our housing shortage by helping build 300 affordable homes for working families.

In total, the Community Package includes investments in 11 projects. It includes safety improvements for people walking and biking in the Pike-Pine corridor and around the Interstate 5 interchanges. It also includes an expansion of Plymouth Pillars Park with a small lid over I-5 and funding for a feasibility study to explore lidding other parts of the freeway in the future. It creates new people-friendly public spaces on First Hill and in the Denny Triangle while improving existing spaces like Freeway Park to make them safer and more accessible. Critically, the package includes funding to construct affordable housing close to the expansion to ensure families of all backgrounds can enjoy these investments.

The Community Package puts the public on the path to a fair deal. It matches the scale of what the WSCC is asking the public to give up, and is comparable to other benefits packages for recent large, multi-block developments.

More importantly, the investments are interrelated and ensure that the expansion will improve the surrounding neighborhoods, and help the area remain livable as we welcome the many new visitors, staff and traffic the project will bring.

The convention center project team has stated admirable principles: benefiting the city at-large, creating rich mixed-use neighborhoods and strengthening our urban framework. The Community Package offers exactly the type of community-identified projects that get the expansion closer to its own stated objectives.

We want to see our downtown businesses and hospitality industry succeed. We also want to ensure the convention center provides a public benefits package that reflects the massive impact this project will have on our city. With the Community Package, we have a chance to demonstrate how developers and civic projects can build a legacy of positive, long-term improvements in Seattle’s central neighborhoods.

With the next meeting of the Seattle Design Commission set for April 20, the convention center has plenty of time to revise its initial proposal. This is the beginning, not the end, of a conversation with the public. The Community Package should be the starting point for the design commission and City Council in further discussions of proposed benefits.

At the February design commission meeting, an official representing the project remarked that when it came to community benefits, the convention center didn’t want to “spread the peanut butter too thin.” Perhaps it’s time to add more peanut butter.

 

This piece was originally published in the Seattle Times Opinion Section, 10 April 2017. It was written by McCaela Daffern, Sustainability Manager at Capitol Hill Housing; Alex Hudson, Director of First Hill Improvement Association; and Blake Trask, Senior Policy Director at Cascade Bicycle Club.  Click here to read the full article.

 

Learn more about the Community Package