All over the city, dozens of pieces of city-owned land sit unused or "underutilized." Some will be sold on the private market; others will be sold to another city department, to be turned into open space or used for some other government purpose.
How the city disposes of such land—known in city parlance as "excess" property—has been a topic of hot debate in the last few years, galvanized by a few high-profile battles over whether the city should keep large properties for public use or sell them to boost city coffers. Parks proponents like city council member Tom Rasmussen want to make it easier for the city to keep usable land as open space; others, including Mayor Greg Nickels, have preferred in the past to sell it off and use the proceeds to fund good causes, like P-Patch gardens or do-gooder nonprofit organizations. The payoff from selling excess property can be substantial; the current list of city properties for sale includes numerous pieces of land valued at several hundred thousand dollars, and one valued at nearly a million dollars.
In the past, Nickels has proposed earmarking the proceeds of city property sales for specific nonprofits the city otherwise couldn't afford to fund. For example, in 2004, Nickels proposed selling the seven-acre Soundway property in West Seattle to a housing developer; the profits from the sale would have benefited the Wing Luke Asian Museum, the African American Museum, a new Asian Counseling and Referral Service building, and the proposed South Downtown Hygiene and Homeless Services Center.
Back then, Rasmussen argued that the site should be preserved as a greenbelt, not sold off to the highest bidder. After a protracted battle, he got his wish, winning not just the Soundway property but a major battle in the rhetorical war over the fate of Seattle's city-owned land. A council resolution adopted in 2006 applied a long list of new hoops that all city departments must jump through before they can sell off their land, including a lengthy evaluation and public involvement process. Now Rasmussen wants the city to take a lesson from that victory and rewrite the law to make it easier to save similar properties in the future.
Fast-forward to 2008. An irregularly shaped, 14,000-square-foot piece of property on the west end of the West Seattle Bridge, purchased for construction staging but never used, is on the market. According to a preliminary report by the city's real estate services division, the "highest and best use" for the land—not to mention the one that would make the most money for the city—would be for construction of "one or two single-family residences." Selling the land could put hundreds of thousands in city coffers—money that could be earmarked for specific purposes.
Rasmussen, now head of the council's parks committee, wants the city to keep the property, which sits astride two contiguous greenbelts and contains a mature redwood. But in order for the land to stay a public greenbelt, the city's parks department will have to take it over—something the department says it doesn't want to do. "It's just a scrap piece of land," says Donald Harris, a property and acquisition manager with the parks department. Rasmussen's solution would make it easier for the city to simply hand such land over to parks. "I'm trying to determine, is there a way to transfer jurisdiction over property from one department to the other—in this case parks—without parks having to pay for it?" Rasmussen says. "Why should we force a department to reduce its budget in order to have a piece of property the city already owns?"
The policy change could put Rasmussen at odds with the mayor, who's unlikely to support increased council control over land sales like the thwarted Soundway sale. Although city budgets have enjoyed several years of growth, lean times may be about to set in again. According to city hall sources, the city's budget is expected to remain flat or even shrink in the next few years. If the city finds itself scrambling to pay for popular programs, land sales could be one way to make up the gap. In tougher economic times, a proposal to make it harder for the city to sell its land could face an uphill battle.
Neither Nickels's spokesman, Marty McOmber, nor Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis returned calls seeking comment on Rasmussen's proposal.