Port goes to court

Proving conclusively that land use is forever, the Port of Seattle has filed an appeal of the state Shorelines Hearings Board decision quashing their waterfront hotel project. The state board ruled last month that city regulators had failed to adequately examine and take into account view impacts from the proposed 85-foot big ugly.

Port spokesperson Imbert Matthee says the goal of the appeal isn't to reinstate the project as proposed. "The main thing we want is some clarity as to what are the rules of the game," he states. Matthee points out that the hotel is actually the last building in a comprehensive redevelopment plan for the Port's waterfront property, which includes the Bell Street Conference Center, two nearby office buildings, and the Waterfront Landings Condominiums. The combined projects have created new viewpoints and opportunities for public access that were taken into account by the city but not the Shorelines Hearings Board, he argues.

Nonsense, replies Irene Wall, the citizen activist whose pro se arguments won over the board, despite the best efforts of a battery of Port, city, and hotel attorneys. "They can still have a hotel there and it can be a really nice one," she says. "I don't think this is such an onerous burden that they can't come up with a new design." Developers at the Marriott Company will have to compromise on their goal of a 400-room hotel, however.

The Port may find the going tough. While most land use law is designed to help people develop their property, the state's Shoreline Management Act is different. Passed at the polls by Washington voters angry over several awful early 1970s over-water developments, the SMA was created to give governments tools to limit and modify proposed shoreline developments. "It does at least provide a little bit of ammo to the discretionary decision makers—if they decide to use it," says Wall.

Or, if they don't use it, as in Seattle's case, shorelines regulators can remand the case and make sure they do it right next time. Wall says the Port shouldn't take the loss too hard, as all of its other waterfront projects are built and operating. "It bugs them that the last [project], the crown jewel, got some public attention," she says. "They were almost home free, and that's what bothers them the most."

Lights, camera . . . government action

Seattle has never been a significant producer of good political theater. This, you will remember, is the city that elected Charlie Chong to City Council in 1996, largely based on the theory that he might utter a discouraging word—or even vote 'no' on some administration initiative.

But, based on a key vote last week, thrill junkies may now have to bypass the council for a new hot spot—the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board. For edge-of-your-seat decision-making, nothing beats the board's decision granting landmark status to the New Richmond Laundry building.

For the first time in years, this reporter can honestly say he had no idea how the vote would go until the question was called. By a 5-1 margin, the board approved landmark protection for the 1917 brick structure in South Lake Union's Cascade neighborhood. Although this sounds like a safe majority, landmarks approval requires a majority of the full board—and the volunteer members have been known to miss a meeting or two. At its current strength of eight members, five votes are required for both a quorum and a majority. Yet, at the meeting's start, only five members were present—meaning Cascade neighborhood residents would have to run the table to gain landmark protection for the New Richmond. As testimony began, a sixth board member arrived, providing at least some margin for error.

After two hours of testimony, the tension deepened when board chair Geoffrey Spelman warned that one board member might have to leave soon. Board majorities have walked out the door before—in perhaps the most publicized board decision of the last decade, the University District's Blue Moon Tavern was denied landmark protection when one pro-Blue Moon member skipped out before the final vote. (The Moon was then saved by cutting a deal with the property's developer.)

The board's decision was hard enough as it was. The New Richmond was the product of a well-known architect (Max Umbrecht, best known for designing private homes and some of the buildings along downtown's First Avenue). It was also cited as a neighborhood treasure in more than one survey of residents. "From a historic standpoint, you really hate to lose these simple, straightforward industrial buildings," notes board member Robert Kovalenko. But Spelman spoke against the designation of New Richmond, and the comments of two other members were vague enough to keep the suspense going to the very end.

Expect more cliffhangers in the future. Spelman says that, as the city's best-known historic structures have already negotiated the process, the board's decisions are far tougher than they were a decade ago. With the city actively encouraging both redevelopment and neighborhood planning efforts, adds board member Larry Kreisman, the landmarks board may continue to be stuck in the middle.

Election quipsters

*County assessor candidate Dave Callon, who invested heavily in signs posted along major streets: "If you haven't seen one of my signs, then you shouldn't be driving on the road."

*Initiative 695 founder Tim Eyman, musing on his own checkered political history: "I was a Perot person myself. The guy's a little wacko—we all know that now—but he's a good guy."

*Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, on opponent Lenora Jones' criticism over city gender-discrimination ordinances: "I may have lost five or 10 points based on that last-minute hit campaign over my support for men in women's bathrooms."

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