Death by committee?

The debate over the Morrison Hotel drags on.

UNINVITED, FABIOLA WOODS took the floor. "I am shocked," exclaimed the 72-year-old black activist. "Shocked!" She scanned the mostly white faces gathered around the polished conference table on the 13th floor of the Alaska Building. "We're back to 1955," she said, "when no one looks like the people they're talking about."

The 21 members of the Morrison Hotel Task Force seated at the table, and the two dozen interested observers rimming the stuffy room Friday afternoon, sighed collectively. A friend had told Woods about the meeting to discuss saving the troubled Morrison, the city-run low-income hotel and shelter on Third Avenue. So she dropped by to give her two cents, partly on behalf of the hotel's many black residents. Her remarks sparked a quick retort from one task force member (also black) that Woods was an "outsider . . . hindering" their discussion. Suddenly, after debating the mission of their meetings for almost two hours, the task force began discussing who should be at the meetings.

A cynic might wonder if this is just what the Seattle Housing Authority was hoping for. Of two courses of action—1.) just do it or 2.) form a committee to study it—the SHA has chosen the latter to deal with its hotel's run-down condition, budget woes, and crime problem (see "The war zone," SW, 9/7). Though concerned and passionate, the task force of city officials, business leaders, and community activists may have a fatal flaw: too democratic. So many views, so little time. Members' concerns Friday ranged from "what is our goal?" to "what's the policy on cold beer?" in apartment units. Digression prevailed as the group careened off and on the narrow highway to consensus.

That's the other problem: agree on what? The SHA formed the task force—as the mission statement reads—to map a "plan that assures the long-term viability of the Morrison." That doesn't necessarily mean saving it, as many in the room hoped. Several outside housing agencies have submitted takeover plans to improve the old brick, five-story hotel and retain the 205 subsidized apartments, overnight shelter, and street-level outreach agency, the Downtown Emergency Services Center.

But after forming the task force, the SHA submitted its own competing counter- proposal that would slightly upscale the hotel over five years and send the shelter and DESC packing to possibly four smaller "more suitable" locations. SHA promises no net loss of beds.

That seems to please some Morrison residents. "Things are starting to come together," says Ellen Hamilton, a 14-year resident of the hotel. "We have a damn good staff; security's better. Almost everybody supports what the SHA's doing."

Others at the meeting pointed out the upbeat changes come only after years of SHA neglect and mismanagement. "They're making improvements now," says Juan Bocanegra, director of the Downtown Human Services Council, "because they've been dragged into doing it."

But even if the task force decides in January to back an outside management proposal over SHA's, it will be only a recommendation.

"Our board is very interested in what the task force has to say," the SHA's Al Levine reassured the committee. Once a recommendation is in, "they'll go from there."

Fabiola Woods, for one, was not optimistic. "I sense," the grandma said sternly, "some bad vibes in this room."

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