The Mayor announced this week that city government would not sell approximately 11 acres of surplus land along Myers Way in southwest Seattle, opting instead to retain it as undeveloped open space. This decision is unfortunately inconsistent with 13 years of expressed fiscal policy regarding this property.
The history of the Myers Way property (51 total acres) is important to understand. The city purchased the land from Nintendo in 2003 for $14.9 million as part of the Joint Training Center (JTF) project, a new facility to be used by the city’s Fire Department and utilities for skills and safety training. The City did not want to buy the entire 51 acres – only a small portion needed for the JTF – but Nintendo would only sell it as one entire property. So at the time of the purchase, the City Council declared its intent that any surplus land not needed for the JTF would be sold “for private development to offset total project costs and to spur economic development” in the surrounding neighborhood.
In 2006, consistent with the 2003 decision, the City Council unanimously approved selling the unneeded property to Lowes for $9.7 million. However, that deal fell apart and was not completed.
Then, in November, 2015, the City Council directed by ordinance that $5 million from the sale of the Myers Way property be used to cover the 2016 costs of the emergency declaration related to homelessness. (Other proceeds were to be used to pay back $1.3 million in internal loans related to the original JTF project.)
Over the past few months, as City action to once again sell the property loomed, various interested parties began to object. Parks and open space advocates urged the city to retain the property and keep it as undeveloped green space or converted to a park. (The City’s draft plan to sell just 11 acres would have left approximately 25 acres as undeveloped green space.) Affordable housing advocates suggested it should be used to build affordable housing. It is important to note, however, that the city’s Office of Housing and the Parks Department had earlier reviewed those options and deemed the land not suitable for affordable housing or another park. (Westcrest Park, an 81-acre park, is less than a mile away.)
This history highlights an important principle for me: City government should act consistently with fiscal policy decisions. We should act prudently and follow through on our commitments.
We often hear public complaints about inefficient spending of taxpayer funds. This case is instructive about how the public sector sometimes ends up paying more. The City was forced to buy a property that was larger than what it needed in 2003, but told itself that was acceptable because we’d sell the unused land. The recession delayed this intention. Now here we are, 13 years later, still trying to pay off the original loan we gave ourselves to build the JTF, and making a decision not to sell the unneeded property runs counter to that long-standing and well-communicated intention.
That said, we should be willing to adjust course if solid reasons exists or if earlier decisions were unwise. Those justifications are not present in this case, in my opinion. And regardless, we should not be swayed by the latest cause du jour without a coherent plan for making the City budget whole.