Jean's View: A Hole in our Heart

By Jean Godden

There's a big gaping hole in the heart of our city. The unsightly cavity -- a pit without a pendulum -- blights the block between Third and Fourth and Cherry and James. It has been yawning there since 2005, a full dozen years.

That pit was created when crews demolished the old Public Safety Building, a decrepit structure infamous for its abandoned city jail and its dysfunctional elevators. The quirky elevators once imprisoned Police Chief Patrick Fitzsimons' wife for four uncomfortable hours.

When the run-down building was finally demolished and carted away, Mayor-at-the-time Greg Nickels had high hopes for a public-private development. The site would house a 43-story office/residential building, an underground parking garage and a Civic Square rimmed with retail spaces.

That grand vision -- Seattle's answer to San Francisco's Union Square -- dated from the boom days of 2007. But in 2008, the Great Recession hit the city. Civic Square plans, designed by Triad Development, were put on hold until times improved and financing would become available again.

Five years passed. Then came the 2013 election and an ugly political episode. Jon Grant, a City Council candidate endorsed by then Mayor Mike McGinn, uncapped a story about how he was approached by a Triad associate. The incident, an alleged shakedown, ballooned into a scandal. That led to a suit brought by a displaced tenants group (an offshoot of the Tenants Union of Washington, Grant's former employer).

Grant ending up losing the 2013 election to incumbent Councilmember Tim Burgess. Triad subsequently apologized and paid the tenants group $700,000, a fund intended for affordable housing.

However, scandals aren't without consequences and Triad lost its chance to develop the Civic Square property. Last year Mayor Ed Murray picked Touchstone Development to take over the project. Within months, the new deal fell through. Touchstone was unable to line up investors.

Last October Murray announced a tentative deal with Bosa Development, a California-based real estate developer, to take over the project. Murray anticipated sending a final agreement to the City Council "early" this year with construction to begin in 2018.

Alas. The pit is still there and the long-awaited deal still isn't inked. Latest word from Julie Moore, spokeswoman for the city's Finance and Administrative Services Department, is that the due diligence period for Bosa has been extended until June 30. Meanwhile negotiations continue over labor union agreements and design refinements.

Contacted last week, Moore suggested that, with due diligence underway, it is too soon to be writing about the deal. She said she expects that, come the end of next month, a package may be ready to go to the council.

Moore wouldn't venture a guess whether the June 30 date is a firm one and, if so, when construction could get underway. Never mind when the city might actually see a plaza at its front door.

Nevertheless, it does seem that, after an angst-ridden 12-year saga, it is time to move along. The hole in the city's heart has yawned unoccupied under three different mayors and three developers, a metaphor for inaction.

When Mayor Murray met recently with the Seattle Times, he listed projects he wants to complete in his final months in office. He hopes to make progress on police reforms, select a site for a sports and entertainment arena, renegotiate homeless service contracts, approve upzones with affordable housing requirements and work out a local improvement district for the Seattle waterfront.

That's an ambitious to-do list, a work plan that calls for a worker of miracles. However, it would be great if the mayor would add one more important task to his list: approving the deal that finally, once and for all, will fill that cavernous cavity in front of City Hall.

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