War of the do-gooders

Charges of illegal meddling by County Exec's office fly over sale of two Pioneer Square buildings to artists' group.

CREAKY AND UNDISTINGUISHED, the adjacent Tashiro and Kaplan buildings are suddenly at the center of a nasty fight between do-gooders in Pioneer Square. The messy outcome left two King County Council members, mavericks Kent Pullen and Maggi Fimia, asking to start the deal over. Furthermore, Pullen is concerned about allegations by the losing bidder that County Executive Ron Sims' office illegally used its influence to determine the battle's outcome. Such a move would be "very close to verging on a criminal offense," Pullen says.

Despite his rhetoric, the King County Council approved last week a $2.6 million sale of the wedge-shaped, battleship gray, county surplus buildings to ArtSpace, a nonprofit housing group. The hodgepodge Tashiro (circa 1906) and Kaplan (1917) buildings were bought by Metro as part of the bus tunnel project 13 years ago and used mainly to store surplus property in the basement. The buildings still have 11 commercial residents, including two Asian eateries and several artists. ArtSpace intends to turn the buildings, across Yesler Way from the courthouse, into 50 low- income "live-work" spaces for artists.

While the Low Income Housing Institute's (LIHI) director, Sharon Lee, lost her $650,000 bid to put 77 units of mixed housing into the buildings, she did not go quietly. Lee, whose nonprofit group manages a thousand subsidized rental units in Seattle, has sent a six-page letter to King County Council members outlining her complaints about the bid process. Her views are bolstered by Pullen and Fimia.

"The only way we're going to get out of this mess is rebid" the project, says Pullen, who with Fimia backed a failed amendment to start the process anew.

"Both bidders," says Fimia, "were not given the same set of rules to play by."

Among Lee's complaints, she says ArtSpace's $2.6 million bid (in partnership with the Pioneer Square Development Organization) included a $1.5 million payment that would come from the county itself. The county plans to lease 10,000 feet of space in the Tashiro-Kaplan complex for its Cultural Resources department. Lee claims that's not allowable under the plan's specs. "The [bid specs] state that no county funds are to be used in the project," she says. "So how do you factor in a 30-year guaranteed leaseback to the county? That constitutes $1.5 million of their offer! To me, that's use of county funds."

ArtSpace defenders, citing a county prosecutor's supporting legal opinion, argue that no government funding is involved. County Council member Dwight Pelz feels Lee is haggling over a few conflicting terms. "Three 'ands' and an 'or' does not a scandal make," he notes.

LEE ALSO CLAIMS that when she filed a complaint with the King County Ombudsman over the bid process, a Sims aide warned her complaint could threaten her existing county funding.

"After I met with the ombudsman," Lee says, "I received a call from a high-level executive staff person who said that Ron Sims was very unhappy with what I had done and how far was I willing to take this."

Lee adds, "The message was that I had crossed the line and my long-term relationship [with the county executive's office] may suffer."

Sims spokesperson Elaine Kraft calls the claim "groundless." Sims aide Larry Alcantara, with whom Lee has worked on the project, says, "I was shocked when I heard her public testimony. I would never dream of making such a statement."

Lee says Alcantara is not the one who made the threat but wouldn't identify who was.

Pullen isn't saying if he's pursuing the question of executive interference. However, he cautions, "I'm not saying it is [criminal]. I'm hopeful there was a misunderstanding as to what was said." But Lee stands by her charges, and the ombudsman's office confirms it is investigating both her complaint against the alleged interference by Sims' office and her original contention that the bid process was flawed.

"We do not have an opinion whether or not any of the issues raised by the complainant will be found justified," says Ombudsman Duncan Fowler, who is a few weeks from completing his review. A finding by the ombudsman favoring Lee could send the property deal into a tailspin, leading to legal action or reopening the bid.

Despite this uncertainty, ArtSpace is moving ahead with plans to renovate the properties and then charge $425 to $575 a month for each of the 50 low-income lofts and apartments for artists and their studios.

All sides agree Pioneer Square's identity is threatened by new development and old societal ills—homelessness, crime, and aggressive panhandling to name a few. Longtime restaurateur Danny Mitchell talks about the "downward spiral and ghettoizing of this neighborhood." Painter Drake Deknatel, in the square since 1981, says the community, thus Seattle, is slowly losing its cultural center—a loss San Francisco and his native Chicago are also experiencing. "This project recognizes that a different use of space is required to keep this center intact," he says. Mainly because of redevelopment, Pioneer Square has lost an estimated 250 artists and seven arts-related buildings in the past four years, says ArtSpace consultant Cathryn Vandenbrink.

Lee doesn't quarrel with those figures. She points out that several people who spoke up for ArtSpace's proposal cited, as a model, an existing artists/workforce housing project in the square—the 11-unit Harbor Lofts that Lee's group happens to run.

"ArtSpace is a very good organization," she adds. "I'm sorry it has come to this. It's not about either of us; it's about a process that wasn't fair."

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