There are so many factual errors in Knute Berger’s grumpy piece on Seattle’s “billion-dollar waterfront park” it would take more space than I have to correct them. But it is not the little stuff that got my dander up.
First of all, it is not a billion-dollar park. It is a massive and costly project to replace a failed transportation system — the Alaskan Way Viaduct — and failing infrastructure — the Alaskan Way seawall. That’s where most of the money goes.
These are major and essential investments to protect lives and avoid regional economic disaster in the event of earthquake, tsunami, or even a major storm.
Knute, who calls himself, “The Mossback,” delights in throwing around some relatively small numbers to make a relatively small point: that, oh no, this is expensive. Indeed it is. Exactly $1.07 billion. That doesn’t even count the $2 billion dollar tunnel — already paid for by the state of Washington — that makes the entire central waterfront public safety and park investment possible.
But Mossbacks by definition see half empty glasses not half full ones. And they live in the dark, where the moss likes to grow. But out here in the light there is a different, happier take on this story.
There is a $290 million bond issue on the November ballot that, together with money already budgeted by the city, will pay for a new seawall and the replacement of rotting pilings on Piers 62 and 63, the former concert piers now closed because they are unsafe. If the bond issue passes, the city will have secured nearly all of the new money needed to replace the failing ransportation and public safety infrastructure. That bill comes to about $650 million, and. $290 million of that also comes from the state of Washington for a new Alaskan Way, demolition of the Viaduct, and decommissioning of the Battery Street tunnel.
That leaves $428 million needed to design and build the new public spaces, waterfront promenade, bike and pedestrian paths and critical connections between activity centers such as Colman Dock, the Aquarium, the Market, downtown neighborhoods, and the Stadium District.
Funding for all of that will come from several sources. First it will come from property owners whose property will increase in value as a result of the transportation and public safety investments, and from the economic activity generated by making the waterfront a desirable place to visit and to do business. Property owners in the areas that benefit most will pay additional property taxes in the new Local Improvement District to be established by the city. Early estimates are that $200-$300 million will be generated. That's nearly half what the park costs.
A second source of funding will come from a newly formed non-profit organization, Friends of Seattle Waterfront, that will lead the effort to raise $80-100 million from foundations and corporations. Additionally, over the next five to eight years the city will need to identify between $70-150 million for public improvements, perhaps going to the voters for a special levy and using money from the general fund.
Finally, to Mossback’s point about our failure to adequately maintain the public spaces we build. He is correct. His example, Seattle Center, is a lovely legacy of Century 21, but has been a burden on the City’s general fund for decades. It is a failing business model that other cities have moved away from.
Consider New York City's Central Park, for example, where 85 percent of the cost of maintaining and programming the park now comes from private sources, mostly voluntary contributions from residents and businesses that are located nearby. Other cities with major new urban public parks have created organizations like the Friends to keep them clean, civil, and interestingly programmed.
The Central Waterfront Committee that oversees the city’s design and planning effort estimates in its Strategic Plan that the Core Projects in the funding plan include about 10.5 acres (not including right of way) and will cost about $4.2 million annually for initial operations and maintenance, changing to about $2.7 million a year as projects mature.
Experience in similar projects around the country supports the committee’s conclusion that the Core Projects can generate sufficient revenue to support O&M costs through a combination of public sector investment by the city, parking revenue, earned income from concessions, event income, and philanthropy.
Seizing the opportunity to create a green, lively, active, and sustainable waterfront for all out of the wreckage of a failing roadway and seawall is a smart, necessary, and forward-looking investment in our economic future and our quality of life. Just ask the people who have to move the freight and all those big boxes at the Port of Seattle.
Now, thanks to multiple public and private investors, a big happy gang of volunteers, and some talented city bureaucrats and elected officials, we have a realistic and achievable funding plan to make it happen.
The author is co-chair of the Central Waterfront Committee, and former mayor of Seattle.