Safeco Field views: Going ... going ... gone?
A developer says office and residential towers near Safeco could help enliven the surrounding area, but the public board that oversees the ballpark says tall buildings would block the spectacular views Safeco was designed to showcase.
Seattle Times staff reporter
From the upper concourse of Safeco Field, dubbed "Lookout Landing," fans can enjoy spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains, ferries crossing Elliott Bay and the Space Needle soaring above Seattle's skyline.
But these iconic vistas could be partly blocked by new office and residential towers that developer Greg Smith hopes to someday build just northwest of the ballpark.
Smith said new buildings, with restaurants and shops at street level and hundreds of people living above them, could help create a bustling stadium district and enliven nearby Pioneer Square.
The Public Facilities District (PFD), an appointed board that oversees taxpayers' investment in Safeco, is dead-set against Smith's plan. The board has hired consultants to plot public-relations strategies; has soughtCEOs, sports figures and former governors as allies; and has even stretched its budget for a politically charged battle that pits ballpark views against dense urban development.
The fight over Smith's site spotlights a thorny question: As Seattle grows, what's to be sacrificed and what's to remain sacrosanct?
PFD Chairman José Gaitán said Safeco was designed to showcase the very views that are endangered.
The view from Lookout Landing, he notes, is a short walk from the cheap seats in the upper deck.
"It shows you don't have to have a million bucks to have a million-dollar view," Gaitán said.
The city insists that views be protected from some public places, but there are no rules to preserve views from the ballpark.
"It's a public stadium, but the public in general can't go in without paying," said Diane Sugimura, head of the city planning department.
Still, she said, planners will consider views when they recommend whether to change zoning at the site to allow the taller buildings Smith wants.
The City Council will ultimately decide the issue.
Normally, the seven volunteer members of the PFD board work in obscurity. The board keeps such a low profile that, though most members' terms expired in 2005, Gov. Christine Gregoire and King County Executive Ron Sims have yet to reappoint them.
But to protect Safeco views, the PFD is going all out, according to district records and e-mails among board members, their allies and consultants.
Board member Joan Enticknap, president of Homestreet Bank, went so far in one e-mail as to say she favored "all-out war" against Smith, who she said is "winning big-time and we are currently dead."
Enticknap pleaded with the board to devise a "massive PR/personal campaign" to match Smith's "lobbying" and "cajoling" of city officials and the media.
The board agreed to spend $100,000 on a contract with The Fearey Group, a Seattle public-relations firm, which has drawn up a strategy to recruit "top-tier allies" to act as "evangelists" for their cause.
Options for growth
The battle between the PFD and Smith was prompted by a city plan to encourage development in the stadium area and the Chinatown International District. At the behest of Mayor Greg Nickels, city planners drafted the Livable South Downtown report for a part of the city that has remained relatively dormant during recent boom times.
The sweeping plan offers the possibility of raising building heights to stimulate dense development around King Street Station and a future light-rail station.
Smith's property, on First Avenue South between South King Street and South Royal Brougham Way, is now occupied by a warehouse, old manufacturing building and parking lot. Current zoning caps heights at 65 feet and prohibits housing.
Planners propose a variety of options. Some would allow housing on Smith's property and allow buildings of 100 to 160 feet tall.
Models prepared by city planners show that taller buildings — if square and bulky — could obscure Lookout Landing sightlines of the bay, ferries, downtown skyline and Magnolia. From another part of the concourse, Smith's buildings could obliterate the water and mountains. From center-field seats, new buildings could block some of the downtown skyline.
Sugimura notes that slimmer building designs might lessen the impact on views.
"I would listen and try to be as cooperative as possible," Smith said, "but at some point I'm going to present a design that is best for our property and best for the public and neighborhood."
The City Council is expected to take up the South Downtown plan early next year after getting recommendations from planners and Nickels. The mayor hasn't tipped his hand. But in a February letter to Gaitán, Nickels said he believes the stadium area can accept new growth without "undue impacts" on the facilities.
One board member said the PFD has gone too far in its campaign against Smith.
"The amount of money being spent seems to be way out of line with what's expected of a public agency with limited resources," said retired King County Superior Court Judge Terry Carroll. Carroll, who cast the lone vote against hiring the consultants, said the board needs to be more open-minded about nearby development.
"I think we've got to be a good neighbor and compromise and focus on what's best for the overall community," he said. "This is not the Space Needle. It's a ballpark."
Smith, in his campaign, has scrutinized PFD records and shared them with reporters to emphasize what he views as extraordinary efforts to block his plan.
He has also created a Web site touting the benefits of squeezing office and residential buildings onto his site. He argues that stadium-area land is better used for jobs, housing and entertainment than parking.
Even as Smith was fighting for zoning changes that would allow his proposed development, he was negotiating to sell some of his 7.8 acres near Safeco to the state Department of Transportation for work on the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project.
Smith and the state closed a deal last week. The state paid $29 million to buy 3.75 acres on the west side of Smith's property. The state will lease the eastern half of Smith's land for at least four years and pay more than $8 million in rent during that period.
Some of the land the state bought will be used for a new, wider Highway 99, which will be at street level in the area. The rest will be used to stage construction and relocate utilities.
PFD documents suggest that a potential zoning change for Smith's property could have driven up its value and given Smith a "windfall profit."
But the state did not appear to overpay. In coming up with a market value for the land, state appraisals gave more weight to the current zoning than proposed zoning changes. The state paid $175 per square foot for the 3.75 acres it bought, roughly comparable to similar sales in the area.
Smith said he still wants to develop the east side of his property — the strip closest to the ballpark — after the state is done with it.
Gaitán said the PFD welcomes new development near Safeco. The board just wants city officials to consider how new neighbors might damage views and add to traffic.
"The board is in favor of the mayor's proposal to increase density. The question is where and when and how do you do that in a wise and thoughtful way."
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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