IT WAS AN HISTORIC moment: a Seattle City Council member publicly confirming the actual costs of a downtown parking-garage deal and admitting it may have been a giveaway of taxpayer funds. No, this isn't the notorious Nordstrom/Pacific Place garage, for which the city is paying developers at least half again their estimated cost to build it as part of a sweetheart "public-private partnership." This is the Freeway Park Garage, which the city handed over to the Washington State Convention & Trade Center in 1996, just as the garage was starting to make money. Now the ghost of that deal haunts the council's August 10 decision to rubber-stamp a permit for the center's $150 million expansion.
"Keep in mind," council member Nick Licata said as the expansion was approved, "that the city has already made a substantial contribution to the Convention Center. We have contributed the Freeway Park Garage, which will end up contributing about $10 million revenue over the next 20 years... as well as a direct contribution [$7.5 million in cash] to the Convention Center which, including both principal and interest, comes out to over $13 million."
That adds up to more than $23 million for a project that, only a few weeks ago, council member Jan Drago—the queen of garage sales—claimed was costing taxpayers no more than $11 million. Licata's figures also exceed Seattle Weekly's projection of $22 million as the true cost of the handover (see "Garages R Us," 7/23). And projecting Licata's 20-year figures for the length of the city's garage lease—30 years—the actual cost may be more than $30 million, or three times what Drago and the council said it would be when handing over the facility in 1996. Licata figures that in return the city will get back just $10 million in taxes by 2020. "I sometimes question what the economic benefits are," he concluded and voted against the expansion's conditional use permit.
THE OTHER GARAGE, at Pacific Place, is meanwhile troubling some council members for a different reason: "misinformation." At a recent council briefing, Margaret Pageler announced that at a September 21 meeting she would try to put some of the misleading stories about the Nordy garage to rest—in particular the claims that the council held no real public hearings before approving the $73 million deal. The council held a "whole series" of Nordy hearings, Pageler insisted, "and so suddenly I'm reading in the paper that we had no public hearings about this? That's just astonishing to me."
But those weren't hearings, just city budget workshops that included some discussion of the garage. The issue, then as now, is that the public wasn't told how the money is being spent—who exactly gets what? In the spirit of clearing up "misinformation," I asked Pageler if she'd reveal those figures September 21. She replied that "the documentation I've requested [for the hearing from city finance chief Dwight Dively] may answer some of your questions."
OK, will Dively finally tell us how City Hall is spending taxpayers' money? "The city," he replies, "did not have a specific cost breakdown at the time the contract with Pine Street Development was signed, and does not have such a breakdown today." Instead, it will be paying $73 million for "a package of benefits" when it takes possession of the garage (to be run by and for the retailers) possibly in November. "The city avoided the construction risks that are common to large projects of this type." It was a good deal, says Dively—whatever deal it was.