The approximate area of 12 acres of Clise Properties holdings in Seattle.
Recently, Clise Properties
– the real estate concern of the Clise clan – announced it was selling a huge, little-developed 12-acre chunk of the Denny Triangle
to the highest bidder. This is an area in Seattle bounded roughly by the South Lake Union neighborhood, Belltown, and downtown. The move was called unprecedented. The land alone might sell for more than $200 million, and its eventual development could mean billions of dollars of investment in the area.
This is land where the city recently relaxed height limits, thereby tempting developers to build big and, apparently, tempting the Clises to cash out. The move is controversial and took the city by surprise: It's rather startling to see an old-time Seattle family with such deep roots downtown take the money and run, especially so soon after a generous giveaway by the city. "No one expected that they were planning to cash in this way
," City Council member Peter Steinbrueck said. The Clises themselves acknowledged it was a major change in direction.
It throws future development in the area into question, in part because a single developer – probably not local – can reshape the city at a single blow. For those city officials who felt like they were doing the Clises a favor in giving them value and incentives to develop this tract, the move felt like a flip of the old bird.
It is not the first time
the Clises have made big civic moves (they helped to found Children's Hospital and Medical Center) or controversial ones. There was the demolition of the historic Music Hall
in the early 1990s. And more recently some questioned the coziness of Clise interests with the late Seattle Monorail Project
But perhaps the greatest bird-flipping gesture of all was when empire founder J.W Clise
, head of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, took a bunch of business leaders on a "goodwill" tour up the Inside Passage to Alaska in 1899. On that jaunt, he became ringleader in the theft of a Tlingit Indian totem pole
. The junketeers brought it back to Seattle and hoisted it in Pioneer Square as a civic symbol. The sleazy escapade is well documented and well told in Coll Thrush's excellent new book on the history of Seattle and its Native American inhabitants, Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing Over Place
(University of Washington Press, 2007).
The pole was hijacked and erected not as a symbol of love or respect for Northwest natives, but in the same spirit as the Romans who raised appropriated Egyptian obelisks in Rome. It was a souvenir of imperial conquest, a declaration that Seattle was the gateway to Alaska and our civic domain extended to everything in between, including the land of the Tlingits, who were not even a Puget Sound tribe, except when they paddled south on raids of their own.
Clise and his cohorts, whose cruise was funded the booster-happy Seattle Post-Intelligencer
, were indicted for the theft by an Alaskan court, but the judge tore up the indictment after he was wined and dined by Seattle's good old boys at the Rainier Club. A small payment was made for the pole, but years later it was torched by an unknown arsonist and later replaced with a new one that wasn't hot merchandize.
So, the Clises have rolled
the dice for our booming city. As people imagine the opportunities in this prime downtown Seattle real estate – a central park, public square, urban dog spa?), I have a modest proposal.
First, the Duwamish Indians have been seeking recognition as a full-fledged tribe from the federal government. They were approved by Clinton I, but that decision was overturned by Bush II. Maybe they'll get luckier under Clinton II. Recently, the Duwamish broke ground on a new longhouse in South Seattle
that will remind us of their important role in both the founding of the city and before. If they do eventually get recognition, they'll need land, and might I suggest that we turn over some of the Clise property in the name of poetic justice? Nothing could be a more appropriate gift than valuable land offered in symbolic reparation for the shenanigans of J.W. Clise and all of us who followed the Dennys.
Second, we also know that Donald Trump is eyeing investment in Seattle
and looking for something appropriately "world class." Perhaps he could link up with the Duwamish and build a high-rise casino in the shape of a giant slot machine that will remind us how business is done here: Pump your dollars into City Hall and get a big payoff every so often. Some think an Indian casino in Seattle is just a matter of time
There would be little room
for official complaint if either or both of these options occurred. Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis recently said that anyone in the industrial Georgetown neighborhood complaining about a new garbage transfer station there was wrong to gripe. "It's no different from people building a subdivision in the middle of a farm community and complaining about the smell of cow," he told Seattle Weekly
Well, complaining about development by Trump and world-class casinos in the Denny Triangle could be just as hypocritical, because with the kind of civic stewardship we've had, developers and land-owners could be forgiven if they were picking up on signals to "go for broke." In short, it's just what we've been asking for, and the savvy Clises have figured that out.