- John V. Fox (originally written in 1997 but still relevant today as the Mayor launches a new plan to increase height and density in downtown Seattle)
Since the late 70’s, whole blocks of low income housing in downtown were wiped out to make way for over 15 million square feet of prime office space. Still more housing was removed for expensive hotel development, major retail complexes, lavish restaurants, and a convention center. Of course we were told that this facelift has more than paid for itself, returning jobs and taxes to area’s economy, and that ultimately, the benefits would trickle down to all of us. There is, however, another way of looking at what’s happened to our downtown, beginning with an examination of the costs of downtown growth and, more importantly, a look at who were the winners and losers. What you find when you proceed from this perspective is a legacy of at least 20 years of corporate welfare which has coincided with dramatically increasing levels of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness in the inner-city, and that local government’s role - far from helping us alleviate these conditions - actually has created them.
Over the decade of the 80’s, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars were committed for infrastructure and the support services needed for downtown expansion - police, sewer, fire, water, streets, electricity, and other utilities - at an annual cost of about one-third of the City’s budget. On top of that, there also were several big ticket items - major capital improvements to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars - such as the 400 million dollar bus tunnel. Transit planners said that a bus-only mall down Third Avenue at a cost of less than 50 million would have provided enough capacity through the 90’s, but the corporate establishment insisted on a more expensive and higher capacity system that to this day remains underutilized. A new downtown electrical substation and expanded generating capacity also was required which contributed to significant increases in our utility bills over this period.
The Convention Center, spanning the Freeway at 8th and Pike, also was built at a public cost of over 150 million dollars - 50 million over its projected cost. Even though modest improvements to the Seattle Center at a fraction of the cost would have ensured an ample supply of convention and trade show space, the corporate establishment insisted on construction of a shiny new facility downtown. They wanted a building that was close to the retail core where it would attract additional hotel business and another large slew of shoppers, and, of course, drive up their property values. Once it was built, Convention Center authorities called on the City Council for special zoning exemptions, use of city street right of way, and 2 million of in general fund dollars for roof supports so a garden park could be built on the Center’s roof. While these requests were promptly granted, it was not until the late 80’s that the City Council finally allocated about 2 million dollars in general fund monies for overcrowded homeless shelters, and social services, after nearly a decade of efforts by advocates to free up these resources. To date, over 600 units of low cost housing have been wiped out as a result of the Convention Center.
During the 80’s, the City spent about 25 million dollars to underwrite the cost of “improvements” at the Westlake Mall. In reality, this meant handing over a large chunk of dollars to one of the nation’s wealthiest development corporations, the Rouse Company, so they could build a glitzy shopping complex, which now covers the entire northside of the Mall. As a result, a 20 year citizen effort to create a large public green space was sacrificed and dozens of longtime small businesses were displaced. The City and the Port, during this period also spent over 30 million dollars for tourist oriented improvements along the central waterfront. In effect, the last of the upland warehouses, and most of the remaining piers (that used to provide a host of working class jobs) were “upgraded” and turned into offices and trendy shops. A new art museum was also built during this period in downtown at a public cost of over 50 million dollars.
Of course we were told that this would make Seattle a “world class city”, and that “what’s good for downtown is good for the rest of us.” Far from it. In the mid-80’s, the City contracted with Gruen and Gruen Associates, a large San Francisco based accounting firm, to complete a cost/benefit analysis of expected downtown growth. That study showed that the cost of maintaining and adding public services and infrastructure to downtown would greatly exceed any tax revenues realized by the boom. The results were buried in a larger city document that never saw the light of day. And while downtown growth during the 80’s did generate employment, few of these jobs went to blue collar workers - a group that still makes up a large portion of Seattle’s workforce. According to State Employment Security data, blue collar employment today is twice that of the white collar sector. People of color also were left out. In the Southend and Central area, unemployment remains 2-3 times that of whites with the rate rising to 50 percent if you are young and black.
Perhaps the most devastating by-product of downtown growth has been the dramatic loss of low income housing. According to city figures, over 4000 units have been lost since 1980 just in downtown.
And, city wide, the increased demand for housing created by the influx of new office workers has driven up rents in all our neighborhoods. The average price of a home jumped from about $45,000 in 1977 to over $280,000 today. City-wide over 500 low cost units are lost each year just to demolition. 2000-3000 additional units are lost each year to abandonment, speculative sale, conversion, and high rents. According to City census data, almost half of the city’s renters - who now make up the majority of Seattle’s households - now are paying close to 50 percent of their income on rent. In effect, the forces unleashed by our city’s preoccupation with downtown growth, go a long way toward explaining why we have so many homeless people on our streets, so many more on the verge of becoming homeless, and why waiting lists for public housing are literally years long.
The downtown growth that brought us many of these changes was not simply a result of the inexorable motions of the market place or other forces we could not control. On the contrary, what happened was a conscious by-product of public policy decisions made by our Mayor and City Council. That’s why on any given day in Seattle, there are over 3000-5000 homeless people on our streets, according to city shelter data. That’s why, we have little or no resources to provide jobs for people of color in the central area and southend and to meet other needs in our neighborhoods. Our elected officials have made a conscious decision to promote the downtown boom at the expense of our communities. As a consequence, we are a community that is increasingly divided by income, race, and class and increasingly separated culturally, spatially, and psychologically.
Given the enormous levels of public subsidy invested in downtown during the 80’s at a time when neighborhoods could not even get a pothole filled, it was especially galling when in the early 90’s, corporate leaders and the Mayor informed us that downtown had been “neglected”. Of course the newspapers helped spread the myth - to justify another round of even larger multi-million dollar contributions for downtown. Take a look at the public cost of downtown projects underway or built since 1990:
* 40 million dollars for a Concert Hall in downtown. The Krellsheimer Foundation years ago had set aside land for this project at the Seattle Center where it could have been built at much less cost to taxpayers, but the downtown establishment insisted on a downtown location. The project will go up on a block where low income housing once stood. According to a November 1994 Seattle Times article, Councilmember Tom Weeks (who just this Fall vacated his seat), acknowledged that the City Council was forced to cut the 95-96 budget by 15 million dollars, sacrificing funds for basic city services to accommodate this facility.
* 360 million dollars for a new baseball stadium - a cost that now is 50 million dollars over its original price tag. It’s also interesting to note that where the Kingdome has offered about 45,000 general admission seats to baseball fans, the new ballfield will have only about 15,000, preferencing the more expensive seats and the addition of a few thousand luxury boxes.
* 90 million in public dollars handed over to Nordstroms to assist them in their move to the old Frederick and Nelson’s building. Mayor Rice, committing the time of dozens of city staffers, worked tirelessly to assist Nordstrom’s in securing City Council approval for use of city funds to construct a parking garage. Council approval also was obtained for a sky bridge linking the garage to the new Nordstroms building. To cap this arrangement - a deal the Mayor has described as one of his finest achievements - the City helped Nordstroms obtain a 24 million dollar federal loan. These funds were supposed to go to communities experiencing “spot blight”, so the Mayor’s office produced crime data and other information to prove that this part of downtown qualified. Later, a citizen’s disclosure request revealed that crime data used by the Mayor’s office had been manufactured. Crime had not gone up and the area could hardly be called blighted. The 24 million dollar loan translated into a direct gift of about 6 million dollars to Nordstrom’s (the value associated with the reduced interest rate they received). Monies that should have gone to serve truly needy communities like our Southend and Central Area were handed over to one of the regions wealthiest upscale retailers - a company that also has a long history of complaints lodged against it for failing to hire blacks, and for union busting tactics.
* 115 million dollars in City funds were allocated to buy the Gateway Tower for a new City Hall. Given that the building has had no better than a 50 percent occupancy rate since it was built in the mid-80’s, and that it was owned by Herman Sarkowsky, one of the city’s most influential downtown developers, a longtime patron of the arts, and friend of several councilmembers, critics of this deal have called it nothing more than a “corporate bailout”.
* 200 million dollars for expansion of the State Convention Center. We were told only 10 years ago that the existing facility had 30 years of adequate capacity and would pay for itself. It’s been operating in the red since it was built. The City handed over 10 million of its dollars to accommodate this expansion including revenues from the Freeway Parking Garage - originally build in part with Block Grant Funds earmarked to serve low income people. The expansion also will wipe out another 100 units of low income housing and cost the State and City over 20-30 million dollars to replace these units.
* The Port has spent over 85 million dollars for Pier 66 improvements, including construction of a new conference center, expensive private moorage, and space for a fancy restaurant. According to a recent Seattle Times article, the project exceeded its original budget by 20 million dollars and the conference center is rarely used.
* Ida Cole, owner of the Paramount received 1.5 million dollars in city funds through a “Transfer of Development of Rights”- public monies used to upgrade what probably is Seattle’s ritziest theater. Not satisfied, and perhaps a little envious of the Nordstrom’s deal, she demanded an additional 5 million dollars in subsidies. Too bad, the City only gave her an additional $300,000. In return, Ms. Cole has promised to offer occasional discounts on seating for kids. Ms. Cole’s upgrade of the Paramount also necessitated conversion of about 50 low income housing units to office space.
Imagine if we had added the 400 million dollar Commons onto this total. No wonder Seattle voters balked when they were asked to support this project. Indeed sticker shock has set in among Seattle voters. There is no question that is why Charlie Chong was elected to the City Council. Chong, very much of a populist, clearly distinguished himself as the neighborhood candidate. He was able to soundly defeat Bob Rohan by highlighting Rohan’s downtown connections and his corporate liberal background. It is refreshing to once again find ourselves with at least one councilmember who when asked how he will review future downtown projects, says “our quality of life has gone downhill as a result of downtown revitalization. There is a direct correlation.”
Unlike the Commons issue, voters usually have not even been given a chance to vote on downtown projects (maybe that’s why they were offered the opportunity to vote “no” twice on the Commons). And it is this matter, that is of particular concern to Charlie Chong. In reference to future big ticket items, Chong says “I will be asking questions in public and in private meetings. How will you pay for this? Who will benefit?” He is quick to highlight the fact that “the dollars the city used to finance revitalization downtown came from councilmanic bonds, not voter approved sources.” Chong also notes that the city now must pull out an additional 25 million dollars from its general fund in 1997 to cover the interest payments on that debt, and “the next year it will be 29 million higher.” Even though the City’s lobbyist, two years ago, had succeeded in securing state legislative approval for a doubling in the amount of allowable non-voter approved debt, Chong says “we are very nearly at our limit and would have reached that limit to pay for the Commons.”
Even though the City now finds itself lacking in resources for our neighborhoods (Chong puts it well when he asks “when was the last time you saw a street sweeping machine on your streets”) the downtown establishment’s appetite remains unsated. With the Mayor, most City Councilmembers, and major media still in tow, the corporate elite are working the system to secure still more goodies, including a 250 million dollar new football stadium, a 100 million dollars for a new downtown public library (something with merit that has got lost in the grab bag of downtown projects), and a 130 million dollar improved aquarium. There is still talk of tearing down the viaduct and building a tunnel to carry displaced traffic under Alaskan Way. Other projects in the works for downtown include a 20-90 million dollar new jail, a 20 million dollar west precinct station, and a renovated King Street station....the list goes on.
Marty Curry of the City Planning Commission, which assists in development of the city’s new land use plan, takes issue with the notion that there is too much focus on downtown: “A lot of public resources have gone to both downtown and the rest of the City. We just completed five recreation centers around the city.” She also highlights the city’s neighborhood matching fund that frees up dollars for neighborhood projects like p-patches, provided that the community can match those dollars with “sweat equity.” I wonder if the Nordstrom’s family or Ida Cole were required to pitch in with their own sweat equity before they received the benefits of our tax dollars. The reality is that the amounts we have spent to meet basic needs in our neighborhoods, pales by comparison to what we have spent in downtown. The disparity is especially mind boggling In the face of growing poverty, more homelessness in our community, and deteriorating neighborhood streets - when we are routinely told that there is not enough to meet these needs.
We are at a crossroads in this city. If we accept the same old rhetoric - that the horses in downtown must be fed, in order to feed us sparrows - then we can expect, not only more homelessness, unemployment, and poverty, but a real and perceptible shift in the quality of life in our city. We will have our highrises, our upscale hotels, and tourist attractions downtown, but the price will be a City that increasingly resembles the dystopic reality of Los Angeles, - divided, fortified, and “gated” - a city that sets policy and shapes its physical environment out of fear and the need to contain growing numbers of disenfranchised and alienated people. Seattle already has moved down this road, allocating more of its resources for social control rather than social services. We now have a “Weed and Seed” program, a drug loitering law, car impound law, no camping laws and nightime curfews in our parks to keep the homeless out, a pedestrian interference law, jail time for those caught drinking or urinating in public, a no postering law (recently struck down by the courts), aggressive use of trespass laws, a virtual ban on teen nightclubs (recently repealed after years of effort by youth and the music industry), a no-sitting law, more police, and expanded use of private security. No wonder we've built a shiny new jail, not to protect the public from violent criminals, but to house all those people, especially the homeless, poor people, and people of color who have been criminalized as a result of these measures. Ironically, City Attorney Mark Sidran has called them “civility laws”.
Few if any of the City’s larger policies are measured first from the standpoint of how they affect the distribution of resources in our communities. We need to build a broad coalition of progressive forces in this city that would include disaffected neighborhoods, small independent businesses, communities of color, the poor, the homeless, and their advocates, young people, immigrants, as well as progressive elements within the labor movement. The issue of downtown corporate welfare is the issue that could bring these groups together. Around such a rallying cry, there is a potential for a movement that could force the election of new leaders willing to cast aside the old assumptions and make a moral commitment to achieving equity and economic justice in our City - that’s the stuff of true leadership. Until we get it, we are condemned merely to repeating the mistakes already made by other cities across this country.
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