The author, B. Gerald Johnson, was the  board chair of the Committee for the Seattle Commons.
The author, B. Gerald Johnson, was the board chair of the Committee for the Seattle Commons, a failed project that Dan Savage says Paul Allen should make up for by paying to lid I-5. Christopher Boswell/

Dear Dan:

I’ve read your open letter to Paul Allen about the Commons. I was the volunteer chair of the board of directors of the nonprofit that largely conceived and promoted the Commons proposal and certainly share your deep disappointment that we were not successful in persuading the public to approve the funding necessary to complete it. I do not share your view that Mr. Allen was in any way responsible for the project’s failure. Or that he should have done more to achieve the vision.

First the facts, most which you recalled correctly. Early in the project’s development, we realized our proposal likely would increase the real or perceived value of properties located within the boundaries of the proposed park. We concluded that our ability to cost-effectively assemble the land we needed would be advantaged if we were able to control key parcels within important blocks, not only to buy as low as possible but also to frustrate increased valuation based on ownership or speculative assemblage of entire blocks. Of course, the nonprofit had nothing near the funds that would have been required to allow us to do that. Our largest benefactor to that point had contributed $1 million to pay for our environmental impact statement and there was a lot of daylight between the size of that gift and the rest of the contributions we raised. The City was unable to buy commercial property against the prospect that the park would succeed.

We approached Mr. Allen for help in accomplishing this plan. As you explained in your open letter, he agreed to lend the nonprofit $20 million to acquire the key parcels, which served as collateral for the loan. He also agreed that if the project were able to proceed, that he would forgive the loan and effectively gift the properties to the City. If the project failed, he would take the properties and forgive the loan. To my knowledge, he then had no property holdings in or near the neighborhood. I don’t believe that Vulcan Real Estate even existed at that time. Quite simply, he was not in the development business and wanted nothing more than for the park to proceed and to eventually make his gift.

The voters were aware of this entire arrangement when we twice voted to reject the tax levies that would have funded the balance of the cost of the park, leaving no realistic scenarios for creating the park. After the second vote, with zero wind—financial or political—in our sails, we had no option except to fold the project. The properties we bought were then recovered by Mr. Allen.

Importantly, the Commons project was more than a park. It was a vision for all of South Lake Union that included high density, mixed income residential, as well as commercial redevelopment. It also included much of the surface street grid reconfiguration that is reflected in the Mercer corridor work that has now largely been completed. The long foreseen commercial redevelopment of the then relatively fallow South Lake Union neighborhood proceeded as we imagined it would—which was the original reason we sought to anchor it with a big park.

The extent and strategic location of the Allen holdings certainly enabled his future real estate company to undertake that inevitable redevelopment on an efficient and generally well planned basis. The neighborhood became the powerful economic engine that it is today more quickly and coherently than it would have otherwise. So that aspect of the Common’s vision was realized beyond even our highest expectations. And the City was able to acquire the former Naval Reserve property from the Federal Government, creating Lake Union Park, the only part of the Commons park to be achieved.

Regardless, all of us who worked so hard to create the park continue to share your obviously deep and profound disappointment with the loss of what might have been.

But none of us share the notion that Paul Allen had anything other than best intentions in the role he played. He also is the person least to blame for the failure of the original vision. We have only ourselves to blame for that.

Finally, with respect to your idea that Mr. Allen should now fund a new freeway lid park, a word of advice. As someone who frequently asks others for money for worthy stuff, I’ve found that, generally, one shouldn’t start a pitch with a beating.

Sincerely yours,
B. Gerald Johnson