Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels wants to shrink and privatize a plaza planned for the site of the city's old Public Safety Building, located...

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Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels wants to shrink and privatize a plaza planned for the site of the city’s old Public Safety Building, located across the street from City Hall.

Nickels’ preferred proposal, one of three options, would trim the size of the plaza by roughly half of what once was envisioned. The smaller size would make room for an additional, privately owned apartment building in addition to the private office tower that long has been planned for the block.

The mayor’s aides said his plan would bring more money into city coffers by making the site more appealing to developers and would avoid “social problems,” such as crime, that could come from opening a big, new downtown plaza.

The site is bounded by Third and Fourth avenues and James and Cherry streets.

Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said the mayor’s proposal still would retain a “significant public open space” while adding much-needed housing to downtown.

But the proposal drew opposition yesterday from some City Council members, who vowed to fight any reduction of the open space that long has been in the plans for the new Civic Center.

“It is a complete abandonment of the long-standing vision that many of us have worked on for many years,” said Councilman Peter Steinbrueck.

Council President Jan Drago said the mayor’s plan was “unacceptable” and that the council would be drafting its own alternative, which would retain public ownership of a large plaza. Both the mayor’s and the council’s plans for the block likely will include a new underground parking garage.

The debate comes as workers are tearing down the old Public Safety Building, which had housed the Police Department and Municipal Court since 1950 until the opening of the nearby $92 million Justice Center in 2002. Demolition is supposed to be completed by this fall. The new $76.6 million City Hall opened in 2003.

The new City Hall and Justice Center, along with the Seattle Municipal Tower (formerly Key Tower) comprise the city’s massive Civic Center project, which has cost more than $260 million so far. That doesn’t include whatever needs to be spent on the Public Safety Building site.

Brenda Bauer, Fleets and Facilities department director for the city, said that by turning over ownership of the new plaza to a private business, the city could avoid a crush of new expenses involved in building and maintaining the space.

Bauer also touted the benefits of creating more “eyes on the street” by building new apartments on the site. The mayor’s proposal suggests a 100-unit apartment building, located on the southwest portion of the block, with retail stores at street level.

That element, Ceis said, is crucial, because consultants have told the city that with the current high office-vacancy rates downtown, attracting developers who want to build an office tower may be difficult. But plenty of developers might be enticed by the opportunity to build a new apartment building.

“We think the residential piece would make [redeveloping the block] more attractive and make it happen sooner,” Ceis said.

The city already plans to encourage new downtown activity with the pending sales of the nearby Alaska and Arctic buildings, which will be converted to condominiums and a hotel, respectively. They currently provide office space for city workers. A council committee plans to consider those sales today.

Ceis said a privately owned and operated plaza could avoid some of the problems that have plagued the nearby City Hall park, a grassy area next to the King County Courthouse where homeless people hang out. Ceis said the city could still guarantee public access to the new plaza by including a “covenant” in any purchase agreement.

Drago and Steinbrueck said they intend to fight any effort to sell the public land to private businesses.

While the mayor has stated his preference, he also developed two other options for consideration by the council. One would basically eliminate the entire plaza in favor of new office and apartment developments. The other would more closely mirror the original plans for the block, building an office tower on the northern third of the site and leaving the rest for a plaza.

Drago said she hoped the council’s alternative would be ready by May 14, when the city plans to celebrate the official opening of City Hall’s new plaza that faces the Public Safety Building site.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com