Seattle millionaire Paul Allen and his Vulcan Inc. investment group have sent a clear message to the South Lake Union and Cascade neighborhoods: Allen's going to turn the area into a biotech campus. Heck, Allen already owns nearly 50 acres of land (worth millions of dollars) in the neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the residents are sending an equally clear message back: They don't like Allen's encroachment on the area. Moreover, they'd like him to spell out his plans. Those two neighborhood messages came in the past couple of weeks, when the Cascade Neighborhood Council (CNC) voted to keep Vulcan off their council while simultaneously hoping Vulcan would explain the company's designs at a University of Washington forum about the neighborhood's future.

Residents and Vulcan have been playing tug-of-war for years, in what amounts to a futile battle for the neighborhood. Vulcan has Allen's financial power, and city officials are drooling over the prospect of a biotech industry in South Lake Union. (Note Mayor Nickels' new plan to run a streetcar through the neighborhood, an obvious ploy to boost Allen's plans.) At this point, it's doubtful that neighbors can hold back the development, but they can fight for mitigation from Vulcan. Last week, the CNC adopted new bylaws that more clearly defined Vulcan and other developers' role on the council.

On Wednesday, January 15, Colleen Dooley, the CNC's treasurer, was "pleasantly shocked" to see that developers kept a low profile as the council passed two amendments restricting membership and voting rights on the council. The council defined a "worker in the neighborhood" as someone with a permanent workplace in the Cascade neighborhood, and limited the number of employees representing a business on the council to two. In other words, Vulcan and the other companies are effectively barred from the council, even if they're working on neighborhood properties. Vulcan is headquartered on Fifth Avenue, near the football stadium, and it's unclear if any of its employees work on-site in South Lake Union or Cascade.

The move was precipitated by an attempt last August to elect new CNC board members; Vulcan and related property development firms like Schnitzer Northwest, Harbor Properties, and NBBJ Architects packed the August 21 council meeting. The majority intended to vote for a new, developer-friendly council board.

But the council scrapped the election and decided to retool their group's bylaws so the council could remain neighborhood-representative ["Vulcan Attack," Amy Jenniges, Aug 29, 2002].

Even though neighbors don't want Vulcan on the council, they'd still love to hear about the company's South Lake Union plans. That's why Vulcan was invited to a January 23 UW School of Architecture and Urban Planning panel discussion about neighborhood plans and how they guide development. The dialogue will focus on South Lake Union, which has been tagged by the panel's planners as a "microcosm of the most significant development, transportation, and land use forces at play in Seattle." Vulcan is obviously a big player among those forces, and forum organizers invited Vulcan reps to join the discussion. (They also tried to get someone from the mayor's office.)

To neighbors' chagrin, Vulcan declined. Though Vulcan's spokesperson was unavailable for comment, the company apparently gave conflicting excuses for not attending the discussion. First, Vulcan said the invitation was short notice; then Vulcan declined because it wanted more control over the agenda. The city also cited short notice in declining to send a rep.

"It's been difficult to convince people from Vulcan and from the executive office to be on our panel," says event organizer John McLaren. "We consider the invitation still open. They may change their mind."

McLaren's co-organizer, Irene Wall, says that even without Vulcan, the discussion should still be provoking. "We can have a party without Vulcan," Wall says. Seattle City Council Members Nick Licata (who's exploring legislation that would force Vulcan to disclose their plans) and Richard Conlin will be at the forum, though they don't officially represent the city's South Lake Union development agenda (which includes items like Mayor Nickels' streetcar).

And Dooley says Ed Geiger--president of the neighborhood group South Lake Union Friends and Neighbors and founder of the Urban Environmental Institute, which has done sustainable development consulting for Vulcan--will be there, and may provide some developer insight. "He's the closest we could get," she says.

Maurice King contributed to this story.