Thornton's ghost

Activists haunt Northgate shopping mall expansion in order to save a creek.

THE GHOST OF THORNTON Creek appears after a heavy rain, a crooked line snaking across the buckled pavement in the Northgate Shopping Center's south parking lot. The parking lot was built and the creek buried in a pipe in the early 1960s when dirt from the Interstate 5 construction was used to fill a wetland (they called them "swamps" back then).

Now a coalition of environmentalists and neighborhood activists want to see the creek brought back to the surface, or "daylighted," as part of the Simon Property Group's Northgate renovation/expansion efforts. The activists say a set of buildings arranged around a winding watercourse would enhance the developer's project, not hinder it. "What we're proposing is not something that will cost the developer money—it's going to make the developer money," says Bob Vreeland of the Thornton Creek Legal Defense Fund. The defense fund is currently a party in two appeals seeking to block the shopping center's expansion.

This creek talk doesn't square with the developer's plans for the property. The Simon Group, an Indianapolis-based firm, owns controlling interest in some 268 commercial properties, including Tacoma Mall and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. Their plans for Northgate's expansion include a 30-screen movie theater, a 210-room hotel, two office buildings, and at least 150 apartments. Coupled with new construction on the main mall property, the new Northgate Shopping Center would contain more than twice the square footage of its current incarnation. Through the construction of new parking garages, the new retail/commercial complex would contain 8,861 parking spaces, again more than doubling the current tally (4,339, including 1,300 in the seldom-used south lot). This section of Thornton Creek, now contained in a pipe 12 feet below the south parking lot's surface, would be permanently buried under a two-level underground parking garage.

Simon representatives say that the Northgate expansion will create a large public plaza connected by walkways with the rest of the shopping center. This plaza is meant to serve as "the Northgate community's place for people," according to the plan.

The coalition of creek savers have upped the ante in the last week—they now want the city to purchase the south parking lot, daylight the creek, and construct a community center and library on the site.

Mayor Paul Schell has spoken out against the proposal, claiming that such a purchase would cost the city $15 million to $20 million and have a negligible effect on improving salmon habitat within city limits.

The hard line being taken by creek activists isn't surprising when the history of the issue is considered. The entire 68-acre Northgate Shopping Center property drains directly into the creek. Every heavy rain scours creek walls, floods areas downstream, and in the process destroys salmon habitat, activists argue. Oil and gas from the mall's massive parking lots is included with the flow, negatively affecting the stream's ability to maintain a salmon population.

The activists also feel they have unearthed the legal equivalent of a knockout punch. They have found evidence of an agreement between the city and Northgate's original owners that would prevent the mall from ever building on the parking lot above the Thornton Creek pipe. If the activists can get a court ruling to back them up, the Simon Property Group might suddenly become more willing to consider the daylighting proposal.

THIS IS ACTUALLY a lot of attention for a creek the city officially claims doesn't exist. In order to avoid triggering legal protections contained in various city codes and state environmental rules, city attorneys say Thornton Creek actually begins at the outfall of Northgate's south lot drainage pipe. The Thornton-Creek-doesn't-exist argument has been affirmed by the city's hearing examiner; lawyers for the defense fund are challenging that and other aspects of her decision in King County Superior Court.

Eric Laschever, a local attorney representing Simon, says that area farmers had extensively channeled the property with irrigation ditches by 1929. The concept of a free-flowing Thornton Creek on the site simply isn't supported by the historical record, he notes.

Knoll Lowney, attorney for the defense fund, says the Northgate Shopping Center expansion has received an unprecedented free ride from land use regulators. Under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), city building officials are supposed to rule on whether a project is large enough to require a detailed environmental impact statement. This decision was never made—the developer didn't even have to complete an environmental checklist, as would have been required for far smaller proposals. The review "was more than inadequate; it was really the worst violation of SEPA I've personally ever seen," says Lowney.

The city argues that a full environmental impact statement wasn't required because one had been prepared for a neighborhood plan in the early 1990s. Lowney replies that using this same logic, since all Seattle is now covered by a comprehensive plan, no environmental impact statements are needed for any project of any kind.

Schell claims that the city has studied the daylighting proposal, finding that the project "would be expensive, yet would not in itself provide significant benefits to aquatic habitat." The city has yet to provide any documentation of such a study, however.

"No environmental document has addressed impacts to salmon as part of this project," says Lowney. "We're saying, 'City, go back and at least study the impacts before you just give this blanket approval.'"

Simon Property Group officials say they're willing to consider working on further mitigation measures but need to ensure the company gets a fair return on their investment. "There are real limits to what we can do, especially when the Thornton Creek Legal Defense Fund has vowed to litigate, no matter what," says Simon's Arthur Spellmeyer, in a letter to the Seattle City Council. "We simply cannot give, give, and give."

Activists have been fighting a lonely battle to protect Thornton Creek for years, but the creek people are better organized this time around. They've enlisted the help of other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, and hired a well-known political consultant, Lisa Collins of Moxie Media. About 150 people showed up at a recent pro-creek rally at the REI co-op and another 35 picketed City Hall last week.

Vreeland, Collins, and fellow creek activist Janet Way took their fish-festooned picket signs up to the offices of the mayor and City Council to deliver pro-creek petitions, cracking jokes all the way. "This building doesn't have a fish ladder, so we'll take the elevator," quips Vreeland. "We're trying to make a splash," adds Way.

The group has received a warm welcome from several council members. Heidi Wills spoke at the pro-creek rally, and Peter Steinbrueck and Nick Licata have also shown interest in the daylighting issue. Finding the money to purchase the Northgate property would be a bit tougher. Indications are that the city may propose some sort of open space or parks ballot issue this November—the activists hope money for purchasing the property or daylighting the creek could be included.

But, for the immediate future, the most likely forum for discussion of the Northgate expansion plan will remain the courtroom.

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