King County has a problem. Its Youth Services/Detention Center — a.k.a. “the juvenile jail” or simply “Juvie,” though it also contains courts and classrooms — is outdated, undersized, and generally grim. But the county has no money to replace it, and last fall voters roundly rejected a sales-tax increase that would have done so.
Wright Runstad & Company, the consummately well-connected Seattle developer, has a problem too. One of its signature properties, the former Public Health Service/Pacific Medical hospital on Beacon Hill, has been sitting empty since its main tenant, Amazon.com, moved to South Lake Union — leaving Wright Runstad to carry what The Seattle Times reports is more than $320,000 a month in lease and interest payments. And while the PacMed tower, a 1932-vintage Art Deco gem, is one of the most visible and spectacularly sited buildings in Seattle, its isolation from downtown, the dismal property market, and a glut of office vacancies make finding another top-flight corporate tenant a long shot.
But a solution beckons to both their problems: to move the detention center, which is south of Seattle University, to the Beacon Hill tower, replacing view offices with cells and courtrooms. The county and the developer alike refuse to answer questions about the plan because, as Wright Runstad President Greg Johnson says, “it’s an active procurement process.” But sources in the Beacon Hill neighborhood and in city and county government who’ve been observing that process say Wright Runstad seems on track to land the Juvie project.
If so, it’s on a fast track. Last February, King County facilities director Kathy Brown told a County Council committee that “several developers” had tendered unsolicited proposals for replacing the aging jail facility. This prompted the county to issue a request for qualifications — a streamlined version of a request for proposals — from interested developers. Six companies responded, several of them national firms with farflung operations: Jones Lang LaSalle, Lydig Construction, Panattoni + Lorig, Skanska USA, the Molasky Group, and Wright Runstad. Last week Brown told the council that her office had reviewed the bids, interviewed the bidders, and settled on a top choice — which was an “off-site proposal,” a description that fits Wright Runstad’s. Ordinarily, given the difficulties of siting facilities such as jails, agencies and developers would attempt to rebuild on the same site.
One of the other bidders, Lydig Construction, proposed not just to rebuild the current facilities but to develop the nine-acre site in stages into what Lydig project manager Ryan Healy calls “a King County supercomplex.” Lydig would save costs by merely renovating the current jail cells (“They’re in great shape”) and by consolidating a wide range of county services, currently scattered across “20 to 30 commercial sites,” into the new complex. After a few years, the county would net a “positive cash flow” from the consolidation. Lydig would finance the project cheaply with tax-exempt bonds and turn full ownership over to the county after 30 years. The Juvie site, at 12th Avenue and Alder Street in Squire Park, is in Healy’s view a rare resource the county should hold onto: “For the future 100 years there’s no other possibility to have such a large land mass so close to the downtown corridor.”
It’s a complex and intriguing plan; Healy says he heard from one of the other bidders that the county rated Lydig’s proposal second or third out of six. “The only thing I would hope they would do is have an interview process where we could explain the intricacies,” he says. “They said they would do interviews in the RFP. But we have not been called for an interview,” contrary to what county facilities director Brown suggested to the council. (She did not return several calls for comment.) "We just heard nothing back," Healy says. "We sent in two emails and did not get a response except to say our proposal had been received.” Still, he says, he’s not complaining; he salutes the county for “opening the process up to ideas. I hope the King County taxpayers get a good plan.”
Brown said that the administration hoped to complete due diligence on the preferred bid by the end of August and, if it checks out, come back to the council with a concrete proposal. If not, said Brown, it would have to “do a more refined RFP process, which could take about three months.”
That’s just a snap of the fingers compared to the four years that Wright Runstad has spent seeking a new tenant, ever since Amazon signaled its intent to depart. At least one other prospect may still be in the picture: the Bellevue-based City University of Seattle, which, true to its name, has been trying to move to Seattle. “We have looked at their building, as well as a dozen other sites in Seattle,” says City University spokesperson Christopher Ross. “We’re not far enough along in any of our negotiations to comment.” Ross would not comment on a report that the school is locked into its Bellevue lease for another year. If so, that might leave a window for the county to conclude a deal quickly.
Already, the accelerated county process is stirring unhappy memories of the controversial dealings that gave Wright Runstad everything short of ownership — a 99-year lease with two 25-year extensions — at what was widely seen as a bargain price in 1998. As Casey Corr, now a Seattle U. official, reported in The Seattle Times, a host of leading political insiders — Gerry Johnson, Tom Byers, John Howell, Joel Horn, and Mayor Paul Schell — worked on behalf of the city, Wright Runstad, or the flailing Pacific Hospital Public Development Authority, the property’s owner, to pull it off. Connections to both the firm and PacMed ran deep in Schell’s administration. “The deal really smells, but I can’t get any hooks on it,” City Council member Nick Licata told Corr at the time.
Similar murmurs are starting to rise now — complete with a rumor that Wright Runstad has retained a ubiquitous hired political operative, ex-deputy mayor Tim Ceis. (Ceis and his partners in the CBE Associates consultancy did not return calls to check on this.) Wright Runstad, the private party in a string of public-private partnerships, continues to occupy a privileged position at the intersection between private development and local government. Its projects include Redmond City Hall, a 2009 addition to the county’s Harborview Hospital, the Washington State Employees Credit Union Building, the public-private World Trade Center Seattle, a new office complex at the State Capitol, the new Husky Stadium renovation, and, in partnership with the county, the Chinook Building and King Street Center.
But the climate at city hall has changed; Mayor Mike McGinn is not part of the same establishment as Schell. And moving the juvenile jail would require a zoning change or variance from the city. “The PacMed site is in a commercial zone, which prohibits jails,” says Bryan Stevens, a manager at the city Department of Planning and Development. The juvenile center “would not be permitted in the zone.”
Gaining permission would expose the project to what would doubtless be heated public comment. After discussing the project with Wright Runstad’s project manager, one prominent Beacon Hill activist, writer Craig Thompson, thinks “the juvenile justice center would be fine” in the neighborhood. The building, he notes, has been “fully technologically updated … . I imagine it can be secured.” And it “would probably be a better neighbor than Amazon, which was totally disengaged from the neighborhood.” The Amazonians, says Thompson, “didn’t come into our little business district,” and even preferred to walk their take-to-work dogs on the company lawn rather than in the adjacent dog park.
Then again, there aren’t a lot of lunch options, or zoning for them, nearby, though the hotpots of Little Saigon beckon right across the 12th Avenue bridge. And Thompson also guardedly endorsed Amazon’s arrival in 1999, when many other neighbors resisted. They’ll be even more resistant now, predicts Judith Edwards, the president of the North Beacon Hill Council. After long struggles with drug houses, homeless camps in the “Jungle” greenbelt, another proposed Boeing Field runway, and strip clubs in nearby SoDo “this is going to be greeted by the community with, ‘Here we go again. We’re getting dumped on.’”
They may have grumbled before, says Edwards, but “many people would love to see another Amazon come in.” Still, if the juvenile inmates wind up on Beacon Hill, they may benefit more from the spacious views than Amazon’s workaholics did. Just don’t count on ever getting as clear a view into the process that brought them there.