Was it overkill or just self-defense? When the usually sleepy Cascade Neighborhood Council held a meeting to elect new officers last Wednesday, Paul Allen's real estate company, Vulcan, Inc., made its presence in the neighborhood known. Of the 52 people who signed up to participate in the meeting, 19 were affiliated with Vulcan in some way, and eight were directly employed by the company. Vulcan owns about 50 acres in the South Lake Union area.
Colleen Dooley, treasurer for the neighborhood council and an outspoken critic of Vulcan, calls its presence at the meeting a "hostile takeover." But not everyone who showed up for the meeting took part in the election. Though the meeting's sign-in sheet indicated 9 Vulcan employees were in attendance, Vulcan's Jim Mueller claims that only three people from Vulcan actually voted. Because ballots were cast anonymously, it's unclear how many more votes came from Vulcan's partner organizations—Trammel Crow, Harbor Properties, and architectural firm NBBJ, which announced earlier this month that it is considering a move to South Lake Union.
But after Vulcan critics lost in two fairly close votes (24-17, and 22-18), the neighborhood council canceled the entire election, and a heated debate ensued over whether corporations headquartered elsewhere had a right to vote in neighborhood elections. The council has given itself three months to clarify its bylaws on the issue.
Asked if Vulcan mobilized developers to attend the neighborhood council meeting, Vulcan spokesperson Michael Nank was vague. "I don't know," said Nank. "I don't have that information. As far as people out there talking—if there are conspiracy theorists out there—Vulcan has a stake in the Cascade neighborhood. We want to be part of the neighborhood and participating as much as we can."
Neighborhood council vice president Ed Geiger says accusations have been flying both ways and that an "unusual" number of residents showed up at the meeting. "Both sides were afraid the other side was going to load the deck and were making sure that wasn't going to happen."
Some angry Cascade residents disagree. "They were trying to shut the residents completely out and build the Commons III," says Sean Phelan, referring to two failed plans to redevelop South Lake Union with local tax dollars. "They already pack every organization down here."
Jim Suter, the current president of the Cascade Neighborhood Council, does maintenance work on Vulcan property as an employee of Trammel Crow. Geiger, one of the neighborhood council's two vice presidents, runs the Urban Environmental Institute (UEI), which is about to release a report on sustainable building design that was paid for by Vulcan. Geiger is also looking for a site to build a 342,000-square-foot UEI campus in South Lake Union—possibly, he suggested to the Puget Sound Business Journal last year, on Allen property.
"It's simply not a conflict of interest," Geiger says of his work for the UEI. "It's something wonderful and great and good for everybody." Suter refused to comment about his professional connections to Vulcan.
Over the past two years, both Suter and Geiger have submitted glowing testimony to the city in favor of Allen-sponsored developments. Their support, and the support Vulcan has earned through extensive outreach to businesses in South Lake Union, made it appear that Allen had overcome the neighborhood opposition that helped defeat the Commons proposals in the 1990s.
But the recent criticism from people who feel that Vulcan isn't doing enough to protect affordable housing—in particular the Allen-owned Lillian Apartments—and the controversy over the heavy presence at the neighborhood council's election have combined to change the tenor of the debate in the neighborhood.
The process of deciding how many votes corporations get in the neighborhood council "is going to be a street fight," warns Phelan. "That's going to be a bloody battle. I don't see how we as residents have any other option."