The Seattle zoo's parking garage cost to city might double, rekindling a controversy

A new city analysis backs up citizen complaints that fiscal projections were faulty. If the Zoo Society had proceeded with an earlier plan, it might already have a garage in place at a similar cost to the much-delayed, bitterly fought one now proposed.
Crosscut archive image.

A drawing of the parking garage proposed for the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

A new city analysis backs up citizen complaints that fiscal projections were faulty. If the Zoo Society had proceeded with an earlier plan, it might already have a garage in place at a similar cost to the much-delayed, bitterly fought one now proposed.

Editor's note: As a Phinney Ridge resident, the writer has been active in the fight against the proposed parking garage at Woodland Park Zoo. He's also an active supporter of the zoo and paid-up member in full. Readers are encouraged to factor that in and comment below. For more than a year, neighborhood activists near the Woodland Park Zoo have been hounding Seattle officials with evidence of fiscal miscalculations for the Zoo Society's controversial planned $31 million, 700-car parking garage. It appears they were right. In a report today to the City Council, city analysts warn that revised attendance projections and diminished expectations on garage usage will drive up the garage's cost to taxpayers. Under what the report considers a worst-case scenario, the pricetag would be $16.5 million, more than double the original estimate of $8.18 million. "Significant uncertainties remain regarding key drivers, including overall zoo attendance, the share of visitors who will use the garage, and the potential establishment of a restricted parking zone," states the report, prepared by the City Council's central staff. Could the report be enough to reopen the garage issue with the council? Richard McIver, chair of the Finance & Budget Committee and a stalwart garage supporter, has said repeatedly that the issue should be revisited only if "there is some overwhelmingly compelling new evidence, which, had it been available earlier, would have likely led to a different decision." Other council members have expressed concerns over financing, as well as other issues, during the three-year controversy. But council skeptics have never had enough votes to delay funding or reopen the issue. Still, fireworks are far from over. The updated financial scenario comes just days before a public hearing at City Hall on budget approval of the garage. The hearing, slated for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday before the parks committee, was announced last month after city officials were informed that a similar hearing in 2004 may have lacked adequate public notification. At the earlier hearing, officials disclosed that the proposed project was being moved from a south-entrance, underground configuration to a west-side, four-story, above-ground structure – a move activists later dubbed "the switcheroo." Zoo and parks officials cited cost as the reason for the change. Although official cost estimates were never made public, today's report cites a figure of $28.3 million for the south end garage. So the irony is that if the Zoo Society had proceeded with the earlier plan, which had begrudging neighborhood approval, it might already have a garage in place at an eventual cost (to the city) approaching that of the much-delayed, bitterly fought west-side garage. Garage opponents say they don't want the south-end project revived. "We need to focus on existing parking resources that are more than enough to accommodate the zoo's parking needs," said Irene Wall, president of the Phinney Ridge Community Council. Among the options: Use of additional surface parking in Woodland Park, additional available parking on city streets, and shuttles from Northgate (which has a new parking garage), the Interstate 5 park-and-ride lot at Northeast 65th Street, and school parking lots, which are not used during the zoo's peak summer season. Public subsidy of a "mammoth mall-sized parking garage" conflicts with the city's comprehensive plan "and our goals as a sustainable city," Wall added. Zoo officials say the report actually shows a lower city cost for the garage by figuring in the city's new parking tax, which will total $4.1 million over the 20-year financing period. But Wall said the tax is aimed at street, bridge, and other transportation maintenance, not parking garages, and that a multimillion-dollar net loss would still occur. The steel garage, nearly a football-field square, would occupy a footprint comparable to the north meadow, home of the popular Zoo Tunes concert series. Critics say it will fill only on busy summer weekends because a consistent 40 percent of zoo goers do not pay for parking, preferring neighboring streets instead. The city and zoo initially discussed encouraging a restricted parking zone in residential neighborhoods to the west and north to force zoo-goers to use the garage. But under city guidelines, an RPZ must be petitioned for by neighbors, many of whom oppose the idea. Neighbors would have to pay an annual fee for RPZ parking stickers and say it would be impossible to have summertime barbecues and host parties for friends and relatives. "If an RPZ is not ultimately formed, or the RPZ does not impose tight restrictions all year round, the garage revenues may be lower than estimated here and the city's financial obligations may be higher," the report notes. In a two-week period in 2005, more than 1,400 citizens, most of them neighbors, signed a petition opposing the garage.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Paul Andrews

Paul is a career journalist and a self-described bike nut.