Municipal League of King County
Recommendation on City of Seattle Initiative Measure No. 1—Building and Operation of a Mile-Long Elevated Park on Alaskan Way
August 2, 2016 Primary Election Ballot
Summary of Measure
Initiative No. 123 seeks to put in place an alternative to the City of Seattle’s existing waterfront redevelopment plan. This summary first describes briefly the City’s existing plan, before explaining the proposal set out in Initiative No. 123.
By ordinance, the City Council has adopted a plan to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, including demolition of the existing Viaduct structure. By statute, the State adopted a financing plan for this purpose. By contract with the City, the State committed to funding removal of the Viaduct. The City and State will jointly perform the design and construction of the Viaduct demolition through a future agreement. The City’s existing plans for waterfront development are referred to using the umbrella term “Waterfront Seattle,” and include plans for waterfront park space. Among other features, the park would include a ground-level “promenade” along the seawall, an elevated “overlook” between the Seattle Aquarium and the Pike Place Market, and other green spaces.
Initiative No. 123 is separate and distinct from the existing plans for the waterfront embodied by current state law, City ordinances and contractual agreements. Initiative No. 123, if enacted, creates a Downtown Waterfront Preservation and Development Authority (PDA) to build and operate an elevated park (also called a “garden bridge”) and other amenities along the waterfront. The elevated park would integrate an approximately 400 foot section of the existing Viaduct into the design and run approximately one mile, from the Pike Place Market to Century Link field. Initiative No. 123 does not adopt a specific design plan but envisions construction of the elevated park and other amenities based on an option referred to as “Alternative No. 2” in a May 8, 2015, feasibility study produced by BuroHappold Engineering for the Sponsors of Initiative No. 123.
In some respects, the elevated park is intended to integrate with aspects of existing waterfront redevelopment plans. In other respects—such as retention of a portion of the Viaduct and construction of an elevated park instead of a ground-level promenade—Initiative No. 123 conflicts with existing plans for the waterfront.
The PDA created by Initiative No. 123 would seek public and private funding, including City funds, to build and operate the elevated park and other waterfront amenities. Initiative No. 123 would require the City Council to “make funds available to the PDA from any source available to do so,” including the City’s general fund or issuance of Councilmanic revenue bonds. Initiative No. 123 does not contain any specific spending caps or limitation on the funds that the City Council must make available to the PDA. The feasibility study conducted by the Sponsors’ vendor estimates that the total construction cost would be approximately $165.2 million. Sponsors believe that Initiative No. 123 would be funded from the same sources as the existing waterfront development plan.
Upon passage of the measure, an interim Council would govern the PDA for no longer than 190 days. The interim Council would be composed of Kate Martin, Teri Hein, Richard Warner, Susan Bean, Don Harper, and Irene Wall. Within 45 days of voter approval of the measure, and by majority vote of the interim Council from a pool of self-nominated candidates, three additional interim Council members would be selected and appointed.
After the initial 190-day period, a twelve-member appointed and elected Council would govern the PDA including four members appointed by the Board of the Seattle Metropolitan Park District and four members elected from the PDA “constituency,” which will consist of all dues-paying members. These eight members must then elect four members of the interim Council to serve on the permanent Council.
Arguments FOR the Measure
The Municipal League believes that the following are some of the strongest arguments made by proponents of Initiative No. 123.
- An elevated park would preserve the panoramic views provided by the Viaduct and create an innovative and defining architectural feature.
- Many cities, including New York, London, Paris, Chicago, have built or are building elevated garden bridges. Elevated parks are an interesting way to bring green space to an urban setting.
- Although the City’s existing plan does provide for overlook space to preserve views, one of its other features is a ground-level, waterfront promenade located next to a major surface street (Alaskan Way). Visitors who wish to walk the waterfront may prefer touring an elevated park over a promenade next to a busy thoroughfare.
Arguments AGAINST the Measure
The Municipal League believes that the following are some of the strongest arguments counseling against passage of Initiative No. 123.
- The City already has a waterfront development plan under which a new waterfront park will be built. This existing plan is the product of a years-long process during which the public has provided significant feedback, including through thousands of public comments and hundreds of public meetings. Features of the City’s plans are already under construction, and millions of dollars have already been spent on design of the new waterfront park. Initiative No. 123 was developed by proponents of the measure. It has not been subject to remotely the same degree of scrutiny and open, transparent, and comprehensive public input.
- Initiative No. 123 does not contain sufficient safeguards for stewardship of public resources. Initiative No. 123 has no spending caps and instead commits the City to funding the project from any available source. Passage of Initiative No. 123 would create considerable uncertainty as to whether funding identified for the City’s existing plan would realistically be available to fund an elevated park. This funding includes, among other things, private philanthropic support from persons supporting the City’s existing plans.
- Management of City parks should be done under the supervision of the City’s elected leadership and not a PDA. PDAs are appropriately used special projects, not core City services like parks management. Initiative No. 123 would turn over control over a substantial swathe of the City’s waterfront to an unelected PDA.
- The City’s waterfront plan already contains an elevated viewing area that will preserve panoramic views of Puget Sound.
- Initiative No. 123’s preservation of a section of the Viaduct raises serious questions. The Viaduct is a state highway that has been found to be seismically unsafe, and which the State intends to tear down accordingly. It is unclear what role the State would need or be willing to play in a plan to preserve and retrofit a section of the existing Viaduct.
Recommendation and Rationale
The Municipal League recommends voting NO on Initiative No. 123.
The City is already well down the path of creating a new waterfront park. That new waterfront park has been designed to integrate with the various other waterfront development projects underway. The current plan is the product of good government process. The City utilized an open, transparent, deliberative process that integrated public feedback. The resulting plan strikes a fair balance between features that open the waterfront to downtown, preserve views, create public space, and serve a busy transit corridor.
The Municipal League always is concerned when the initiative process is used to propose major and expensive commitments that may not be fully vetted. That concern is heightened here, where the future of the City’s waterfront is at stake and the measure would commit the City to unbounded funding of plans developed by an unelected PDA.
We can all agree that the views from the Viaduct are lovely. But the desire to preserve great views does not warrant taking great risks with the waterfront’s future and the City’s resources. Nor does it warrant ripping up the City’s comprehensive waterfront development strategy at the eleventh hour. The Municipal League recommends voting no on Initiative No. 123.
 The Feasibility Study is available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B17FA_OyuMpNQmVaY0Vkek8yN0E/view.