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How much does the Convention Center expansion owe the community?

Community groups say the project needs more public benefits in exchange for public streets

A rendering of a squat, glass building to the left of the existing Paramount Theater
A May 2016 rendering of part of the Convention Center expansion
Seattle DPD

The Washington State Convention Center is running full steam ahead with its expansion, and it’s a massive undertaking. The $1.6 billion project will fundamentally change the landscape of the Downtown Seattle area, and not just because of the 1.4 million square foot center itself.

The project requires use of land owned by the public through a street vacation. Specifically, the project seeks 7,665 square feet of alley space, and 47,985 square feet below ground. Typically with projects like this, the public gets something in exchange—but in this case, the developer and some community groups disagree about just how much of something.

Pine Street Group presented their chosen public benefits package earlier this month. It would make some pedestrian improvements to I-5 crossings on Pike and Pine like raising railing height and adding planters, slightly improve bike infrastructure in the area, make some improvements to Freeway Park, fund a study to lid I-5 downtown, light some historic facades, and add a mural at 9th Avenue and Pike Street. The project would contribute around $5 million toward affordable housing.

“The public benefits package as currently proposed by the developer is neither fair nor commensurate with what the public is being asked to give up,” says Alex Hudson, Executive Director of the First Hill Improvement Association and spokesperson the Community Package Coalition. [Disclosure: The author of this story is a close personal friend of Hudson.]

The coalition also includes Cascade Bicycle Club, Capitol Hill Housing, Cascade Bicycle Club, the Housing Development Consortium, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, and others, many of whom submitted public benefits for consideration during the public comment period for the process.

The City of Seattle would seem to agree with the coalition on some level. In a meeting about the benefits package, Beverly Barnett, a strategic advisor for the city, commented that the current package proposed by Pine Street Group doesn’t seem large enough for the street vacations. Barnett has not responded to Curbed Seattle’s request for comment.

In an guest post for The Urbanist earlier this month, the Community Package Coalition compares this package to the public benefits offered as part of the proposed Sodo Arena project in exchange for a street vacation.

The SoDo proposal was about a third the size, but still offered $21-25 million in public benefits for a single street vacation. The Convention Center expansion requires three.

The coalition has proposed their own package, which they estimate will cost around $79 million—a number they feel is proportionate. Their proposal includes funding to extend pedestrian improvements from Olive to Madison, build two woonerfs (a street that’s also a park, like Bell Street Park), partially lid I-5 as part of a Plymouth Pillars Park expansion, and improve safety on Melrose Avenue.

In addition, the coalition proposal includes funding for an estimated 300 affordable homes. The group estimates that the $5 million Pine Street Group is on the hook for would only build 40-60. With 2300 new hospitality-wage jobs coming to downtown because of the project—so the coalition’s position is that more affordable housing needs to go within a mile of the Convention Center.

To gain traction for their proposal, the group has begun circulating a petition to “ensure Seattle gets a good deal from the largest development in our city's history.” The petition targets the Seattle Design Commission, the WSCC board, and the Pine Street Group.

Matt Griffin of the Pine Street Group would not provide Curbed Seattle with estimated costs of their proposal, but tells us he doesn’t think $79 million “is on the basis that we think it’s fair—the basis that we think we should be calculated.”

Griffin says what’s included in the coalition’s package are “all good things,” but not proportional to the street vacations. He adds that the scope of pedestrian improvements on Pike and Pine streets are what they could accomplish without getting additional federal approval, or a high level of approval from WSDOT.

More public benefits may be embedded in the Convention Center plans already, Griffin says—they’re working with the Seattle Design Commission to further develop the package.

“We're not necessarily looking for a specific dollar amount, there's no formula, but think that the Community Package achieves a fair and adequate provision of mitigation and benefit,” says Hudson. She says they’ve received indications from the city that they don’t think the Pine Street group proposal us up to standard, either.

Even after the public benefits package is revised, the street vacations still have to go through the Seattle City Council for approval.

That project the coalition cites—the SoDo arena project with the the proportionally-bigger benefits package—didn’t make it through street vacation approval. That group submitted a new request earlier this month with an even higher benefit package.

Washington State Convention Center

800 Convention Pl, Seattle, WA 98101 (206) 694-5000 Visit Website