Neighborhood activist Colleen Dooley arrived at the city council transportation committee's July 16 meeting with a petition signed by 80 people who don't want Paul Allen to take over a city-owned alley--a process called "street vacation".

"I don't have a knee-jerk negative reaction to everything Paul Allen does," says Dooley, a thirty-something longtime activist in the Cascade neighborhood. "But I think this is ludicrous."

What is it about this alley that prompted 80 people to sign a petition? The alley itself is nothing special: It's an access route on the block bordered by Terry Avenue, Boren Avenue, Harrison Street, and Republican Street. But Allen's real estate company, City Investors, Inc.--with Schnitzer Northwest--is planning a three-block "Interurban Exchange" biotech development along Terry Avenue. The developers say they need the alley's 5,760 square feet of space to design the complex with a landscaped plaza.

The public owns Seattle's streets and alleys, which the city can sell through a process called vacation, if it "serves the public interest." Essentially, Seattle is offered a perk, in this case, the plaza, in exchange for giving alley or street space to a company. Companies like City Investors and Schnitzer must convince city departments that the public is getting a good deal. The city council has final say.

Dooley contends there's something fishy with this vacation proposal process. First, the city has flip-flopped from sharp criticisms to tepid "yea" recommendations about the alley vacation, indicating that Allen's company had behind-the-scenes influence on the city. Second, there's not as much genuine neighborhood support for the plaza as the developers claim.

Here's the flip-flop: The city's Seattle Design Commission (an advisory group that reviews projects on city property) has criticized the vacation since September 2000. In the design commission's meetings with City Investors and Schnitzer, the developers were repeatedly told to draft alternative plans that don't require an alley vacation. In meeting notes, the design commission said it wasn't convinced the plaza would benefit the neighborhood. Instead, the commission said, it would be a courtyard for the buildings' employees.

Despite the design commission's February 2002 criticisms--"The courtyard design continues to be private in nature... and will primarily serve the private tenants"--and the designers' apparent lack of alternative plans, the commission approved the vacation in March.

Then the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) put together a staff report on the vacation for the city council. When Dooley called the SDOT to hear the recommendation, she was reassured the department would nix the vacation. "They felt the design was inappropriate," she says. A few days later, Dooley got the staff report. She says the SDOT's recommendation changed. "I just get this feeling that the people from Paul Allen's company got wind of [an anti-vacation recommendation] and went in and did some arm-twisting," she says. "It went from they definitely weren't approving it, to they'll recommend it with conditions."

A few days later at the July 16 council transportation committee meeting, Beverly Barnett, who oversees vacation proposals for the SDOT, presented the staff report and didn't shut down the vacation. "We don't make any comment in favor or in opposition to the proposal," she said. "We do think some added design work needs to occur." Then why not table the request until City Investors and Schnitzer deal with these recurring criticisms?

Even weirder: The report and committee meeting seemed to be full of community folks excited about trading an alley for a plaza. Ed Geiger, South Lake Union Friends and Neighbors president, says the project works for the neighborhood. And Jim Suter, Cascade Neighborhood Council president, told the city council committee, "[City Investors and Schnitzer] wanted this project to be a partnership with the community, and they fulfilled that." While those two community leaders might accurately represent the neighborhood, they also might be cheerleaders for the developer: Geiger chairs the board of the Urban Environmental Institute (UEI)--a South Lake Union sustainable-development group that was hired by City Investors for consulting work last year. Suter's a UEI board member.

Between now and a planned August decision, Dooley hopes the city council will take a closer look before handing the alley to Allen's company. "I think this sets a bad precedent [for further vacations]," she says.

amy@thestranger.com

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