Zoo coup? Council members signal a rethinking of the parking garage

Reading between the lines of yesterday's bond approval, the zoo's bitterly contested garage is dead.
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A drawing of the parking garage proposed for the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

Reading between the lines of yesterday's bond approval, the zoo's bitterly contested garage is dead.

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. Nobody actually said so at yesterday's Seattle City Council meeting, and you have to read between the lines of an artfully conducted political coup, but the Woodland Park Zoo's bitterly contested $30 million parking garage project is dead. Yes, the council approved the sale of bonds earmarked for the garage. Yes, zoo executives said they were pleased with the vote and gave no indication of shifting gears. Not yet, anyway. But with five council positions up for grabs this fall, and with city-wide attitudes changing toward car dependence, global warming, and fiscal prudence, the message to zoo leadership was clear: "You've got your money. Now figure out a better way to spend it." After years of enmity that pitted neighborhood activists, including a number of Zoo Society members, against zoo leadership over the garage, any peace pipe would need a serious dusting off. But reconciliation would solve a lot of political problems for the city and help build a strong coalition moving forward on transportation, funding, and environmental issues for the Zoo. "It is my hope the city will take the security of this bond sale as a moment to take a breather and evaluate the actual need for the garage," said Sally Clark, the council's neighborhoods committee head who also chaired yesterday's session. Clark joined council members Peter Steinbrueck, Richard Conlin, and Tom Rasmussen in asking for a reassessment. Another garage skeptic, council president Nick Licata, was absent. Only budget committee chief Richard McIver spoke in favor of the garage. Perhaps the loudest volumes, though, came in the form of silence from two garage backers, Jean Godden and David Della, despite the fact Della heads the parks committee with oversight of the city-owned, privately managed zoo. Both are up for reelection this fall, along with Clark and Rasmussen. Steinbrueck is vacating his seat, leaving a council majority of five positions on the ballot. Della, a first-term council member facing stiff opposition from Tim Burgess, the former Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission chair, has been whipsawed between the lucrative donor potential of the Zoo Society board and the mounting public outcry against the garage. His message consistently has been "we have a deal with the zoo and intend to keep it." Not reiterating it yesterday was a calculated wait-and-see gesture and an indication of shifting political winds on the garage. Steinbrueck, who may have designs on running for mayor in 2009 (the same can be said of Conlin), said he will submit a formal request for the zoo to reconsider its plans. The garage is now "too big, too expensive, it's anti-environmental, and it's for an organization that should be setting a higher example on conservation and the environment," Steinbrueck said. He was followed by Conlin, who did much of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering with the council and has shown the firmest grasp of the parking garage's ultimate conundrum: How do you force zoo visitors used to parking for free on the street to pay to park in a garage? You could change the law to impose a restricted parking zone (RPZ) on surrounding streets, Conlin noted, but then you lose a lot of potential customers on those sunny overflow summer days when even a parking garage twice as big would be unable to absorb demand. Noting that the city's agreement with the zoo calls for a plan ensuring that visitors will actually use the garage, Conlin said, "I so far have not seen such a plan." The next step was not immediately clear. A master use permit for the garage is under consideration by the Department of Planning and Development but has yet to be issued. Neighborhood activists have promised to appeal any permit and fight the project in court on environmental-impact grounds. Rethinking the garage would stave off months, if not years, of a protracted legal battle. Detente in the years-long battle may not be easy. After the meeting, zoo neighbor Esther Bartfeld approached zoo President Deborah Jensen and offered to set up a meeting with neighbors to discuss possible options. "You won't be our first stop," Jensen told her. Given the zoo's past resistance to meeting with neighborhood activists, though, Jensen's comment could be viewed as a positive, even if reluctant, admission of a different tack to come.


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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.