Greg Nickels says there was little enthusiasm to charge developers fees to create new open spaces in the city's six growing urban areas.
Nearly two years ago, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels announced plans to make developers pay for new parks and open space.
Developers fought the idea, open-space advocates more or less shrugged, and the City Council never received a formal proposal from the mayor.
“We just didn’t find much enthusiasm for it,” Nickels said.
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In the face of that, the plan has been quietly shelved.
Now there’s no plan in sight for adding splashes of green to the city’s most crowded neighborhoods at a time when they’re expected to sprout new skyscrapers and welcome thousands of new residents.
Unveiled in August 2005, in the home stretch of Nickels’ re-election campaign, the mayor’s plan called for charging open-space “impact fees,” common in other Washington cities, for the first time in Seattle.
The fees were to be imposed in the city’s six urban centers, where Nickels wants to funnel growth and where new green gathering places would be particularly needed: Uptown, downtown, South Lake Union, Capitol Hill/First Hill, the University District and Northgate.
Those areas are expected to add almost 45,000 residents and 60,000 jobs over the next two decades — with the vast majority going to the four urban centers south of the Lake Washington Ship Canal.
To help make that growth more attractive, city planners say 16 new acres of open space are needed.
Through impact fees that would charge developers up to $2.72 per square foot on new buildings in those urban centers, Nickels hoped to raise $85 million for new parks.
Those fees, Nickels said, would buy about half of the desired open space. City leaders would have to figure out how to raise the money needed to buy and maintain the rest of the land.
Over the past year the mayor’s aides held several meetings with developers and open-space advocates. Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said he expected resistance from developers, who said new fees might discourage the new housing and dense development the mayor wants in some neighborhoods.
But Ceis hadn’t anticipated “getting a lukewarm reaction” from the open-space advocates “we were counting on to be fervent supporters.”
Some just don’t like the proposal. Brice Maryman, co-director of Open Space Seattle 2100, said it focused too narrowly on urban centers and would not have raised enough money for needed green space.
Michael McGinn, director of Cascade Land Conservancy’s Seattle Great City Initiative, said putting more housing downtown — and closer to jobs — would be good for the environment, and he wouldn’t want the city to thwart good planning with new fees.
“I think the conversation has evolved beyond ‘let’s ding developers,’ ” Maryman said.
Others said the mayor’s proposal was too vague.
“We are in favor of the concept, but we wanted more details,” said Heather Trim of People for Puget Sound. Without specifics on where and how fees would be spent, Trim said, her group couldn’t assess the plan well enough to support it.
Still, Trim said, she thinks Nickels failed to deliver on a commitment.
During last year’s debate over allowing taller buildings downtown, Trim said city staff members told her impact fees would be used to create more open space so her group wouldn’t need to push for more parks.
“I’d say we got placated. … We now feel we lost the battle,” she said.
The downtown-zoning debate centered on letting buildings go taller if developers contributed to an affordablehousing fund and met strict environmental construction standards. Under the new rules, a project such as a new condo tower at 1521 Second Ave. could go from 29 stories to 40 stories, but the developers would have to pay $1.75 million for affordable housing.
Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, who led the council’s downtown-zoning effort, was surprised to learn the open-space proposal had been sidetracked.
“The mayor’s office asked us not to push for open-space fees [while the rules for taller buildings were being considered] because they said they were developing a plan,” Steinbrueck said.
Ceis said he made no promises and told no one to stand down on open-space fees.
It’s unlikely the zoning process would have been very fruitful for open space. Housing advocates made a strong pitch that developers should contribute to affordable housing in exchange for taller buildings. Nickels and the council agreed. Also, the housing fees extracted from developers are projected to total $24 million over 20 years — far short of what’s needed for open space.
In some ways, the open-space plan sank under the weight of other new fees and taxes the city has imposed since Nickels first floated his proposal.
Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, said the mayor’s proposal was “not well thought-out and not based on good research or assumptions.”
Steve Leahy, president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, said the fees might deter growth in the “very areas which the city has targeted” for additional housing.
Leahy also said the city needs to better manage its existing parks before it creates new ones.
Joe Quintana, chairman of the Seattle Business Coalition, said his group opposed the fees because they would have charged business for something enjoyed by the general public.
The coalition is already unhappy about new taxes on parking and on employers that the city approved last year to pay for bridge and road projects, he said. Added to new affordable-housing fees and new environmental-building requirements, the open-space proposal amounted to one fee too many, Quintana said.
His recently formed group includes the chamber, the downtown association, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Seattle and King County, the Seattle Hotel Association and neighborhood business groups.
Ceis said the idea of creating more open space in urban centers is not dead but that no new proposal is being considered right now.
Nickels has been preoccupied recently with replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Ceis said, but added, “We’ve got to get it going soon.”
Maryman says the issue won’t fade away. “It’s sort of like the viaduct. It’s time for people to go back and approach it from a new direction.”
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