A “yes” vote on Initiative 123 in early August would mean a High Line-like garden bridge for Seattle, killing a plan the city’s been working on for close to a decade.
Voters have two weeks to decide whether to completely change the city’s plan for transforming Seattle’s downtown waterfront.
Initiative 123 would create a public development authority to plan a one-mile elevated park — or “garden bridge” — incorporating a small, restored portion of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Former mayoral candidate Kate Martin has led the effort for an elevated park for years and helped gather more than 30,000 signatures to get it on the Aug. 2 ballot. If voters approve, it would effectively kill the city’s waterfront plan that’s been almost a decade in the making and would give access to city funds for the elevated park.
Martin said the idea, which she compares to New York’s popular High Line park, is better than the city’s plan for a two-mile waterfront promenade. Seattle’s plan has the support of major players including the Seattle Parks Foundation, the Seattle Aquarium and the Downtown Seattle Association. The city’s design effort is headed by architect James Corner, who designed New York’s High Line and opposes I-123.
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“That elevated park will pay our city and the people of our city back in spades from the day it opens,” Martin said. “It’ll be the most fabulous thing that’s ever happened to downtown Seattle and bring nothing but goodness forever.”
Martin’s plan — which originally sought to keep and use much of the Alaskan Way Viaduct — challenges a city design that’s about 60 percent complete. The city has sought public input at more than 400 meetings and four large forums that saw crowds of about 1,000 people, said attorney Gerry Johnson, who is on the board of the nonprofit Friends of Waterfront Seattle, the “no” campaign’s largest contributor. Voting no would leave the city plan in place.
“This thing has been in the works with very active citizen oversight and citizen participation in the development of what is now a really mature design that we believe is consistent with what the public has told us over all those years,” Johnson said.
The group says Initiative 123 is “unfunded and irresponsible.” Opponents of the initiative accuse Martin of confusing and even deceiving the public with her campaign’s language.
Signs of support
Records from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission show the “no” campaign had raised more than $270,000 as of last week, with the largest donation, about $50,000, coming from Friends of Waterfront Seattle.
The Seattle Parks Foundation and Seattle Aquarium each chipped in $25,000, as did several others.
Martin and her team have raised more than $390,000 through three different campaign committees filed with the city, including “Park My Viaduct,” “A Waterfront for All” and “Yes on Initiative 123.”
Most of that haul came from prominent developer Martin Selig, who donated more than $250,000 that largely funded a feasibility study.
Selig said he had supported a High Line-like structure in Seattle, but when he realized that Martin wouldn’t be saving the Alaskan Way Viaduct, but rather restoring and retrofitting a 400-foot stretch of it that runs just north of the Pike Street Hillclimb to north of Union Street, he jumped ship.
The two have never met.
“I funded a huge amount of money to [I-123] and one day I called and was told, ‘No, we’re going to tear down the viaduct and build a new one,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m very sorry. That’s not what I agreed to,’ ” Selig said.
Selig donated $5,000 to the “no” campaign in June.
“[Selig] backs out of a lot of things,” Martin said. “I think he’s made a life of backing out of things.”
The estimated cost for the city’s plan, which would tear down the physical barrier that separates pedestrians from the waterfront and build an elaborate ground-level park, lingers right above $700 million.
It was designed in tandem with the Highway 99 tunnel being drilled beneath downtown.
Johnson said the city has secured up to $290 million from the state for road improvements and will largely fund the rest of the project through a property tax on the downtown central business district, the area that would see the most economic benefit from the plan.
Johnson said the city also will rely on philanthropy and take some money from its general fund.
Martin said she predicts her elevated-park plan, which she promotes mainly because it will preserve views now seen along the viaduct, would cost a similar amount, perhaps even less.
According to the initiative petition, the elevated bridge would be paid for by “funds available to the PDA from any source available to do so including, without limitation, the general fund …”
“The most significant outcome is [a ‘yes’ vote] could take resources and time from actually realizing the vision the city has had for the waterfront for so many years,” said Lisa Richmond, the executive director for American Institute for Architects Seattle, which hosted a panel last week called “Why Initiative-123 Doesn’t Add Up.”
Johnson points out that Martin’s already outlined an interim 12-person council — which he calls a team of “pals” — that would make up the Downtown Waterfront Preservation and Development Authority to oversee the project and make crucial design and budgetary decisions.
For example, it would finalize funding and details such as what will happen underneath the bridge once a designer is selected, said Irene Wall, who would be on that council.
“The implication … is that we’re going to act irresponsibly and the PDA will not do so,” Wall said. “I don’t think that’s a legitimate argument.”
Johnson is concerned that voters will be confused about what they’re deciding because of how Martin gained support for Initiative 123.
A petition circulated by Martin, still available on the city clerk’s website, was titled “A Waterfront for All.” The city has been using “Waterfront for All” as a slogan for more than six years, Johnson said. Friends of Waterfront Seattle last year sent Martin a cease-and-desist letter regarding the phrase.
“That’s why we had to raise this money, to make sure that voters are actually making a choice between what they think they’re going to get, which has been designed through the city’s process, and the other idea that’s not well thought out,” Johnson said.
Martin and Wall countered that the phrase “A Waterfront for All” isn’t copyrighted or trademarked and was within their right to use.
Sharon Peaslee, who contributed about $5,500 to Martin’s campaign through video and website production, said the campaign battle has gone beyond what is really important.
She agrees with Martin that an elevated park with a scenic waterfront view would be a great addition to the city’s tourism and economy.
“This should not be about [Martin],” she said. “This should be about Seattle and what is best for Seattle.”