A controversial 700-car garage proposed for Woodland Park Zoo is illegal, according to Seattle's hearing examiner. City officials failed to...

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A controversial 700-car garage proposed for Woodland Park Zoo is illegal, according to Seattle’s hearing examiner.

City officials failed to make the case that garages are common or customary in Seattle parks, Hearing Examiner Sue Tanner said in a decision that city and neighborhood leaders received Tuesday.

Tanner serves as the city’s administrative-law judge and is charged with reviewing decisions by city agencies.

Dubbed the “garage mahal” by neighborhood critics, the proposal for a four-story, $28 million structure has been hotly debated for three years. Phinney Ridge Community Council President Irene Wall called Tanner’s ruling a decisive blow.

“It really means the end of this garage proposal and back to the drawing board,” Wall said.

City Council President Nick Licata agreed. “It means the door to the negotiating room is now open; grab a seat at the table and let’s rework our drawings.”

Other city officials were not sure about next steps.

“Obviously, we’re very disappointed with this decision. We just got it and we’re evaluating it,” said zoo spokeswoman Gigi Allianic.

Spokesmen for the city’s planning department and the City Council’s parks committee chairman, David Della, said the same.

Tanner’s ruling could be appealed to King County Superior Court. The council could also change city zoning to accommodate the garage.

Licata said a zoning change is unlikely because a majority of the council asked the zoo to reconsider the garage this spring.

Although the council unanimously approved the project in 2004, five members wrote the zoo in May saying they see the garage as inconsistent with the city’s goal of “reducing our reliance on automobiles.”

Wall said the community council would not support an underground garage, which it did several years ago, nor would it support any garage. “We would encourage the zoo to look at easier fixes.”

The neighborhood group has argued the garage is too big, too costly, and would add to traffic problems. Some neighborhood residents support it.

The city owns the zoo, and the nonprofit Woodland Park Zoo Society operates it under a 20-year agreement.

The zoo society wants a garage because it can’t meet parking demands about 100 days of the year. Zoo officials expect attendance and parking needs to increase.

About 55 percent of visitors now park in the 654 uncovered stalls available at the zoo. Others park on nearby streets. The zoo has averaged a little more than 1 million visitors annually in recent years.

The city’s share of the garage cost is estimated at $12 million by city council staff. Garage users and the zoo society would pay the rest.

The zoo initially planned an underground garage on the zoo’s south side, which residents supported. But Mayor Greg Nickels scrapped it, saying it was too expensive, and backed the proposed garage on the zoo’s west side.

Wall maintains that Tanner’s decision gives all parties a reason to “step away from this cliff” and consider alternatives to the project.

“This thing just got out of hand,” she said.