Showdown On Pine Street -- High-Stakes Battle Over Seattle's Retail Core Ends Tuesday

A corporate gift and a golden opportunity to pump life into a dying downtown? Or an act of corporate blackmail - aided by politicians - that will destroy a treasured park?

Admittedly, these extremes exclude nuances and qualifications, but they capture the essence of arguments advanced by proponents and opponents of Referendum 1 on Tuesday's ballot in Seattle.

At stake, both sides claim, is more than a block-long stretch of Pine Street.

Friends of Westlake Park, the grass-roots group of activists that has waged a low-budget campaign by debating at political precincts and by savvy media hustling, talks about the need for common citizens to stand up against special interests.

Citizens to Restore Our Retail Core, with broad support among downtown retailers, organized labor, and at City Hall - and a bankroll that has allowed it to outspend the opposition better than 200 to 1 - talks about the major economic benefits the city will enjoy from downtown redevelopment.

Tuesday, city voters will decide whether to permanently reopen roughly 300 feet of colored, granite bricks between Fourth and Fifth avenues. Except for emergency vehicles, the block has been open only to pedestrians since 1990.

Nordstrom has made clear it will quit plans to move into the Frederick & Nelson building, vacant since 1992, unless the street is reopened to through traffic. Developers say if Nordstrom walks, the $400 million private-public redevelopment project - said to be worth 2,800 new jobs and more than $105 million to the city over the next 17 years - dies, too.

Recent polls show the undecideds - who make up about 20 percent of the 95,000 ballots anticipated to cast Tuesday - will determine the outcome. Here are some questions and answers that may be on voters' minds as the election approaches:

Question: What does the redevelopment project entail?

Answer: It envisions a new Nordstrom at the old F&N site with retail stores occupying the lower three or four floors and corporate offices in the upper floors. Across Sixth Avenue to the east, the existing garage would be replaced by a new retail/entertainment center and a 1,000- to 1,500-stall garage, as well as restaurant and cinema space. A skybridge could link the two buildings.

The existing Nordstrom building would be redeveloped to house a hotel and additional retail, restaurant and office space. The refurbished F&N building and new facility across the street would open in 1997; the redeveloped Nordstrom building in 1998.

Q: Why can't our elected officials decide this instead of leaving it to voters?

A: At the request of Mayor Norm Rice, the Seattle City Council did approve the street's reopening in January, by a 7-2 vote. But when opponents pressed forward with plans to file an initiative to keep the street closed - a measure that wouldn't make the ballot before September - the council moved to put the question before voters March 14.

The council was motivated in large part by developers, who noted that keeping the project's future in suspense for eight to 10 months would cost them more than $1.5 million just to retain their options on important pieces of real estate, including the F&N building and the garage block across Sixth Avenue.

Q: Will the voters' decision be binding?

A: Whatever voters decide, there's nothing that legally prevents either side from trying again. In other words, Friends of Westlake Park could decide to push forward with plans for a fall initiative, and Mayor Norm Rice and the Seattle City Council could attempt to revive legislation to open Pine Street.

Politically, though, it is the end of the road, with both sides indicating the voters' decision will be final. Financially, at least for this group of investors, including Nordstrom, Tuesday's vote is what counts.

Q: Why is Nordstrom so concerned about this one-block stretch of Pine Street?

A: In a recent mailing to 65,000 voters, the Nordstrom family said it needs to maximize customer access to justify making an unprecedented $100 million investment to revitalize the F&N building - the first step in a $400 million, three-block, downtown renovation project, of which roughly $300 million involves private money.

The letter asserted that, as things now stand, it is "very difficult for people to get to and move within this area of Pine Street," and also that parking is "wholly inadequate." Were it not for the family's deep-rooted ties to Seattle, it wouldn't even consider making such an investment, the mailing said.

Late last month, in remarks at a downtown investment conference, Nordstrom co-chair Jack McMillan said the store needs the street open to make an additional $50 million a year in sales to make the deal work. "If the people do not vote to open Pine Street, we are not going to go over to the Frederick & Nelson building," McMillan said. "It's as simple as that."

Q: What will happen to the Pine-Pike Street Corridor if voters reject the referendum?

A: Nordstrom has said it will stay put. In addition, other significant downtown developments, including the $50 million project featuring Nike Town, Planet Hollywood, and 16-screen Cineplex Odeon along Pike Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, will proceed regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's vote.

"We're not linked to the Nordstrom (developer) Jeff Rhodes project in any way," said Bob Cunningham of TOLD Development company of Minneapolis, which is coordinating the project, adding the company nonetheless supports Nordstrom's position.

Still, risking the loss of 650,000 square feet in new, premium retail space downtown will do nothing to stem signs of deterioration in the Pine Street corridor. And in the three years since Frederick & Nelson shut down, no one else has stepped up with a proposal to restore the site into the functional equivalent of the crown-jewel department store it once was.

Project backers note that Tuesday's vote is being watched around the country by national retailers and potential investors in downtown. Voter rejection would send a signal that the retail climate here is lukewarm, and could confuse if not chill their interest. Even if that view is unwarranted in light of other downtown development, it could deal downtown a setback that would take time to overcome.

Q: If voters approve the referendum, when will the street reopen and what will it look like?

A: The street would not reopen before next year, according to a timetable that ties the reopening to deadlines Nordstrom must meet in the reconstruction of the F&N building. The number of lanes, the design and traffic-calming devices would be among subjects addressed by a 17-member Pine Street Task Force, headed by the chair of the Seattle Design Commission.

The task force would gather and analyze information and make recommendations to the City Council, and help decide how to spend $1 million in federal grant money to improve the look and feel of the Pike-Pine retail corridor. Traffic volumes would be comparable to those the street carried before it closed, in the range of 600 to 1,000 vehicles an hour.

Q: How much is the public being asked to pay for this project?

A: Public participation adds up to about $100 million. The three main elements are: Roughly $68 million to finance a 1,000-1,500 parking garage east of the F&N building; $24.2 million in a low-interest, federally guaranteed Housing and Urban Development loan to help the developers acquire the F&N building; and perhaps as much as $10 million in property-tax relief if developers succeed in getting the F&N building designated a historic landmark. Of the three elements, only the latter can fairly be called a subsidy because it is a clear tax credit.

With the vote pending, negotiations between the city and developers are on hold regarding parking-garage financing. City officials maintain that if the street is reopened and talks resume, they will strive to structure the deal to make sure the garage pays for itself.

The $24.2 million HUD loan would permit developers to borrow money at a lower rate than they'd otherwise be eligible for, but taxpayers are not absorbing any costs as a result. F&N qualified for the loan as a "spot-blight" project, which in turn could affect the city's ability to qualify for other funds from the same source. But officials don't anticipate problems in the city's ability to apply for similar loans should worthy projects emerge, or to conform with HUD spending-level requirements that will be tested by the loan.

Q: Will the granite pavers on Pine Street, which buckled under bus and truck traffic when the street first opened seven years ago, withstand the load if the street reopens?

A: City engineers are confident the street, which underwent major repairs in 1989, can handle restored traffic. They point to the trouble-free history of the likewise-repaired pavers that extend onto Fourth and Fifth avenues - an area that has borne far more traffic than a reopened Pine Street is expected to receive.

-------------- TUESDAY'S VOTE --------------

Voters will be asked about this referendum:

"The Seattle City Council has passed a law that authorizes the Mayor: To agree to reopen Pine Street to vehicles between Fourth and Fifth Avenues as part of the City's participation in the proposed Frederick & Nelson/Nordstrom redevelopment project, provided that reopening is not obligated until major renovation has begun, and that authority for temporary closure for civic events is retained; and, to accept and plan to spend a $1,000,000 federal grant to enhance Pine Street's pedestrian potential and Westlake Plaza as a central gathering place.

"Should this law be APPROVED OR REJECTED?"