The Downtown Seattle Association, along with a who’s who of the city’s most prominent retail and residential real estate developers, has sent a letter to various state and local officials, all but laughing at the economic viability of “Option E,” state House Speaker Frank Chopp’s preferred alternative to replacing the Alaska Way Viaduct.
“This alternative relies on an economic premise that we believe is fundamentally flawed — that there is a market for nearly a mile of new retail development under the highway structure.”
No shit, Sherlock.
Chopp’s plan would call for a mile long, triple decker structure with a retail mall on the ground level and a four-lane sorta elevated tunnel above, capped with a pedestrian park. The “genius” of Chopp’s plan is that above the basic cost of building the freeway, rents and development rights would pay for the park, the retail construction and other promised amenities. Talk about a great deal.
Well, not so much, according to the folks who actually do this kinda stuff for a living, the very developers Chopp is counting on to make Suicide Park Mall a reality. Amongst the problems envisioned is the lack of demand for 600,000 square feet of new retail space, particularly at this location… you know, with all that “noise, lack of parking, and stigma of being under a freeway.” One developer commented that the project would be too risky in a boom economy, let alone our current economic bust.
The developers also cited “engineering uncertainties” that make the project “unfeasible from a yield to cost perspective” (translation: impossible to make a profit), including the challenge of placing below-grade foundations within the highway right of way and the waterfront’s “well documented geotechnical conditions,” as well as the need to physically isolate the retail construction from the highway in order to minimize noise and vibration.
“Failure to accomplish this isolation would render the space below unacceptable for commercial occupancy.”
Given these and other inherent risks, the developers make it clear that the estimated rental income simply doesn’t offer a reasonable return on investment.
“It is our firm conviction that this scenario does not offer the commercially attractive or viable opportunities that are essential for funding the amenities that are suggested. We strongly believe this scenario should be dropped from further analysis and consideration.”
And that’s not just some dumb blogger or activist (or mayor) talking; that’s the opinion of the chief officers of eight of the region’s most prominent developers. Chopp can argue with the developers if he wants, but considering his project is entirely predicated on their investment, it’s the firmness of their conviction that counts, not its accuracy.
I know that given the political necessity of securing the Speaker’s cooperation whatever alternative is ultimately selected, everybody is afraid to criticize Option E as the utterly ridiculous “impractical and unachievable” fantasy it truly is, but criticizing Chopp and criticizing Chopp’s plan are not the same thing.
Chopp has done an admirable job building and maintaining a large Democratic majority in the House (using it, well, we’ll see how the coming session goes), and with a few notable exceptions he’s proven himself an effective and progressive (if sometimes too pragmatic) Speaker. But Option E… it’s kinda crazy… economically, architecturally and politically… and it’s time somebody Chopp trusts tells him so. All this polite beating around the bush… you’re not doing Frank any favors.
So now that the people with money have given everybody a little political cover, it is time for some prominent elected officials—including members of Chopp’s own caucus—to thank the Speaker for his creativity, but offer a very firm “no thank you” to a mile long mall that simply isn’t viable. Otherwise, we’ll all just continue to fritter away time, money… and Speaker Chopp’s credibility.