Charitable Confiscation

Plans for the monorail complicate internal politics at nonprofit Northwest Center.

NORTHWEST CENTER, the Seattle charity for developmentally disabled children and adults with an industrial campus at Interbay, has been caught up in a quiet internal debate of philosophical and financial differences, with some parents questioning the center's future. But all of a sudden, the center seems to know exactly where it's going. Away.

Officials last week confirmed that the Seattle Monorail Project is moving to take the nonprofit's 7-acre, triangular wedge of offices, businesses, and warehouses near 15th Avenue West for the proposed monorail operations center. Plans for the site include a train storage yard, repair shops, work bays, administrative offices, and a control center.

The takeover will be done forcibly, by eminent domain, if necessary. Buildings could be razed and the land cleared sometime next year. "We approached the center with a proposal," says Paul Bergman, spokesperson for the Seattle Monorail Project that is developing the $1.75 billion, 14-mile Green Line that will slide along 15th, the main drag between Ballard and downtown Seattle. "We are currently in negotiations." He wouldn't reveal other details, although the monorail board, according to meeting minutes, has authorized its right-of-way planners to take the land through court action. Besides the Northwest Center site, the monorail wants a smaller tract nearby, at West Dravus Street, for one of its stations.

"They've got the authority to condemn our site," says David Wunderlin, executive director of Northwest Center, founded in 1965 to provide therapy, education, training, and job placement for the disabled. It aids about 500 clients annually and recently took over operation of some of King County's swimming pools, which were facing closure due to budget cuts. "The monorail suggested that it might make sense for us to talk," says Wunderlin, "but we really don't have a plan to sell. I don't know if we want to sell. It depends on the opportunities to relocate."

The move to acquire the land seems to indicate the monorail has now officially decided on Interbay over SoDo as the site for its proposed ops center. It's unclear how the big yard would coexist with the Port of Seattle's plans to build a new commercial/residential neighborhood called North Bay in the nearly 60-acre uplands area of nearby Terminal 91. The federal government also plans to sell or trade 25 acres near Northwest Center, used by the National Guard. The Interbay landfill, home also to a city golf course, athletic fields, and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe's rail yards, is in part a former garbage dump often mentioned as ripe for takeover by developers. Several large, polluted portions are undergoing environmental cleanup.

Neither the monorail nor Northwest Center will discuss specifics, but according to public records and other sources, the selling price of the property is pegged around $13 million for two plots along West Armory Way that include five buildings. The property, the bulk of Northwest Center's assets, is appraised at just over $11 million.

THE MONORAIL CONDEMNATION adds to the stress between some of the charity's leaders and parents who already were at odds over the center's management. Northwest Center's revenue for 2002 was $20 million from its industrieswhich employ the disabled as custodians, maintenance workers, and driversand from donations, thrift sales, and government funding. The center's expenses were $21.2 million, but its operations are solvent, says Wunderlin.

Some parents feel the center is under-serving the severely disabled, who are unable to work in Northwest Center's revenue-producing businesses. "In the last three years, the philosophy has been changing," says a parent who did not want to be named. "The people who are not productive enough are being squeezed out." Other parents and some center officials agree with that view, according to interviews and e-mail messages obtained by Seattle Weekly.

Wunderlin strongly disagrees. "Our organization is dedicated to working with people with disabilities, helping them with programs, education, and training. We've had clients with us for 25 or 30 years," he says. "We are developing a new program right now for the most severely developmentally disabled people we have, and we're working constantly to find new programs."

AT LEAST TWO Northwest Center board members say they feel kept in the dark about important financial decisions made by center executives, including a recent multimillion-dollar line of credit for new business ventures. The center's liabilities jumped from $2.6 million in 2000 to $5.3 million in 2001, according to the center's latest available IRS filing.

The monorail condemnation action should be challenged, some parents argue, noting that the takeover is a 180-degree reversal from earlier proposals discussed by Northwest Center and the monorail for a low-income housing development on some of the land. Wunderlin says the charity will hold a membership meeting Thursday, Nov. 13, at 5:30 p.m. at the center. "We'll be talking about potentially where NWC as an organization may be going and about the monorailin effect," he says, "about our future."

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