Unfortunately, thanks to the inexplicable sway that West Seattle still has over city council members, we're about to ignore this wise mandate and invest millions of dollars in a godawful parking garage. Symbolically, and literally, this is a big step backward. Despite some obvious soul-sucking developments--such as the Target store and its surrounding strip mall--West Seattle has gone a long way toward transforming itself from northwest Tukwila into a true Seattle neighborhood. Alki, and more recently, the Admiral area, are seeing new life within their midst. The Thriftway store, the Admiral Twin Theater, some funky storefronts, and good restaurants (still affordable to non-billionaires) are filling the streets with foot traffic from the surrounding residential neighborhood, other parts of West Seattle, and the rest of the city. This, along with the fact that West Seattle is the last affordable neighborhood within sight of the Space Needle, makes it a real draw to average-income renters and first-time home buyers.
Yet, instead of investing in the last critical component of an urban village (transit service), by the time you read this, the city council will have given the green traffic light to a parking garage, pushing West Seattle back toward the suburban blight of the Tukwila model.
The advocates of the garage, a group of business owners who call themselves ADPARK, are seeking city backing of $3.5 million in bonds to build a 130-stall parking garage across from the Admiral Theater on California Avenue Southwest. Although Admiral residents, like many people in the city, have complaints about parking, the truth remains that the neighborhood doesn't even have enough of a parking problem to qualify as a residential permit zone! A study by the city transportation division found that existing on-street parking was more than adequate to replace parking lost by the recent construction of the new senior center. The only time parking is at all tight in Admiral is during movie hours on Friday and Saturday nights, and even then it's a relatively minor problem that can be solved dramatically by reconfiguring on-street parking. It doesn't make sense to build a multimillion-dollar parking structure to solve a four-hour-a-week problem.
When confronted with these arguments, ADPARK argues that more parking is needed for future development. Aside from the fact that development is generally required to provide its own parking, Seattle's Comprehensive Plan clearly states that the city should address the needs of future growth through alternative modes.
Never mind that the garage is not needed; the plan also puts city finances at risk. Under the public-private partnership proposal, the city would pay back half of the debt, while local property owners would be assessed for the remaining half. The financing plan assumes significant revenues from parkers, even though they can park for free within a block or two of the garage 99 percent of the time. How the neighborhood will fund their contribution isn't clear, either. This project clearly doesn't meet the legal requirements for a public taxing district. The city will have to guarantee these revenues with very little assurance as to their reliability.
The worst thing about this project is the precedent it will set. If a neighborhood without much of a need for parking can rope the city into building a garage, what will happen in neighborhoods where it really is difficult to park, such as Capitol Hill, Wallingford, and Fremont? Instead of funding things that support Seattle's Comprehensive Plan (in-city mass transit, sidewalks, bikeways, and neighborhood parks), the city will be undermining the plan with new parking garages in every area that demands one. An oversupply of parking induces more driving, reducing the demand for transit and other alternatives.
This project does appear to have enthusiastic neighborhood support, but the city council has shown over and over again that it is capable of rebuffing this kind of public support for a neighborhood plan. All we have to do is look at the recent council vote to ignore the wishes of businesses and residents who favored a Duwamish plan that protected industrial uses.
How is it, then, that the council is going to risk so much for an unneeded garage? The answer probably lies more with neighborhood politics in Seattle than in any rational justification for wasting millions of public funds on yet another financially risky parking garage. At least a couple of the council members willing to support this risky project do so only because they fear another secessionist movement by West Seattle residents.
Bill LaBorde is the interim executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition.