Park It Here -- Pledges Are Streaming In For The Seattle Commons

I got a letter the other day. It was printed on smart, buff-colored paper. I saw the simple, tasteful letterhead and I smiled.

I read the text. It was asking me for a check for $100. I grinned.

I scanned down to the signature. I laughed out loud and reached for the checkbook. You have to support your own offspring.

Not quite eight months - and the baby looks as though it is going to be born.

On April 17 of this year, I wrote my first column proposing a major central park for Seattle - from downtown all the way to the south shore of Lake Union.

Architect Fred Bassetti, Parks Department head Holly Miller and I put our imaginations together and dreamed of how it might look. By the middle of May we had come up with preliminary drawings and (with the help of Times readers) a name: the Seattle Commons.

Was this visionary doodling on a grand scale? Or the first flinty sparks of an emerging urban reality?

It was a question in my own mind. I called Paul Schell.

"Am I kidding myself?" I asked him. "I know it's a great idea, but can something this vast actually be done?"

"Of course it can," Schell said. "All it takes is leadership."

If he could help someday, he added, just let him know.

Several days later I got a call. "You don't know me," Joel Horn said, "but I love your idea and I think I can help you. I am very good at organizing things, putting together people and projects."

Joel Horn, I would later find out, was a young, recently retired president of a Bothell software and publishing company. He had a departure bonus that would allow him to work - for nothing, if necessary - on structuring and coordinating the people, committees and civic forces that would enable the Commons to become a reality.

I said fine, and turned him loose.

Joel Horn would not head the project, but he would find the leadership for it. He would talk to people, find out from them what people to talk to next. He did this with a passion.

During the next 100 days, he met with 250 of Seattle's key people: attorneys, planners, designers, businessmen, neighborhood merchants, philanthropists and community groups.

"And I still have a hundred more to talk to," he said. "Phyllis Lamphere (a former city councilwoman) offered to help me open every door we needed opened. It turns out that Phyllis Lamphere has the biggest Rolodex in town."

We were sitting in Horn's kitchen sipping tea, a Sunday afternoon progress report. The phone rang.

"Yes," he said. "Thank you. Thank you very much. We'll put you on the mailing list and keep you informed."

He hung up the phone and smiled.

"Another thousand dollars," he said.

I had earlier spoken to two former mayors: Wes Uhlman and Charles Royer. Both were enthusiastic. Both were now listed as "Friends of the Seattle Commons," along with 80 of some of the most prominent, influential and civic-minded individuals in the city.

Horn showed me the table of organization, spread out on his kitchen table.

"The present board of directors: Tom Byers, Mick Fleming, Gerry Johnson, Craig Lee (of the Trust for Public Land), Ross Macfarlane, Mike McGavick, Nate Miles, Peggy Robinson and Tayloe Washburn," he said.

"Who's in charge?"

"Gerry Johnson of Preston Thorgrimson Shidler Gates & Ellis is chairman of the board. His firm is also providing legal services - pro bono.

"Bill Schwartz of the Schwartz Brothers Restaurants donated meeting space, a standing table at Cucina! Cucina! and free business lunches. McCaw Cellular Communications gave us a thousand a month in mobile phone service. It's beginning to pull together. It's happening."

The Commons has so far raised around $100,000 in gifts and pledges: $65,000 from the national urban open-space group, the Trust for Public Land. A local philanthropic women's group recently added $33,000.

Then there was the fund-raising letter that I - as a listed "Friend of the Seattle Commons" - had received. That had gone out to four score others in the city and beyond. The solicitation had been signed by another "Friend of the Seattle Commons":

Paul Schell, the guy who said of course it could be done, was now on board.

It should be stressed that the Commons will not just be green space, bushes and trees. Included are plans for at least two new inner-city neighborhoods and business clusters, a solution to the "Mercer Mess," even plans to solve such mundane (but vital) matters as sewage and stormwater overflows into Lake Union.

The intention was to raise the money from national and regional sources. If possible, to make the project pay for itself between now and its projected opening in 2001.

The reaction from the Mayor's Office and City Hall? Interested and quietly supportive.

An internal memo sent out from the mayor to all department heads read, in part:

"The discussion began under the banner of `Hinterberger's Commons' or the `South Lake Union Neighborhood.' I am asking Gary Lawrence (Office for Long-range Planning) to coordinate the city's involvement in these discussions.

"The City's position is, at this point, one of interested observation . . ."

Norman B. Rice.

All in less than a year. I will keep you advised.

The address, if you want to join or contribute: Seattle Commons, 1000 Lenora St., Sixth Floor, Seattle, WA 98121.

John Hinterberger's column appears Wednesdays in the Scene section of the Times and his restaurant and food columns appear in Sunday's Pacific magazine and Friday's Tempo.