Rainier Square might be razed

Rainier Square may be demolished to make way for a 26-story Hyatt Regency hotel under a redevelopment plan being reviewed at Seattle City Hall.

The hotel would alter the skyline and character of a storied piece of downtown real estate if it's approved by the city and the University of Washington, which owns the land.

Left intact would be the landmark Rainier Tower office building.

The hotel would sit at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Union Street, on one-fourth of the block now occupied by the tower and Rainier Square retail center.

Designs aren't complete, but architect Robert Glazier said the tower setup allowed him to "have some fun" with the exterior and the top of the hotel.

"You will see the top from a variety of places around town, so we want to have it interesting," said Glazier, of Palo Alto, Calif.

Rough concepts presented to city officials this week included a tower with upper stories tapering off in small steps, similar to the Watermark Tower on First Avenue; a simple box; and a tower stair stepping back from the street. A sixth-story swimming pool would extend toward the tower's tapered base.

UW regents privately reached a tentative agreement in November to lease the corner to Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels for 80 years. Pioneers donated land in the area for a school in the mid-1800s when it was an open field, but the UW has rented it out for income since moving to its current site in 1895.

The school had considered a deal with The Ritz-Carlton, which proposed an 11-story, L-shaped hotel along Fourth Avenue that would have obscured the tower's base.

The UW may receive more than $1 million a year from Hyatt, more than five times what it earns from retailers who would be displaced, said Dave Haworth, who manages the UW tract.

"That's been a problem property for several years," he said. "It's neither fish nor fowl. It's more than support retail for the office space, but it's not the Pacific Place big kahuna that's its own destination."

It was the talk of the town in the mid-1970s, however, when the pencil-shaped tower drew jeers and fears of collapse. Some residents sued to preserve a historic building on the site, and the brouhaha contributed to Seattle's participatory land-use rules.

But today, with far-out buildings such as the Experience Music Project museum under construction, there has been little public reaction to the hotel and others transforming the city center.

City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, an architect, said it was a mistake to replace the historic building with Rainier Square in the 1970s. Now he wishes the square would stay because it's more inviting to the public than a hotel.

"I think the plaza and retail pavilion have contributed to easing the imposition of Rainier Tower, so I'm distressed to hear about plans to tear that out," he said. "I mean, one more hotel doesn't do a damn thing for the city in terms of our cultural vitality, it just feeds the expansion of the convention center, basically."

Haworth said the hotel would enhance the area.

"It's going to generate more traffic - desirable traffic. It's going to generate jobs. It's going to infill some large open areas without overwhelming them."

Urban designer Mark Hinshaw, who serves on the city Design Review Board that discussed the Hyatt on Tuesday, said the hotel seemed like a "reasonable thing they could be proposing there."

Other board members were concerned about the shortage of parking in the area and the loss of public space at the complex. The board asked Glazier to return with more detailed renderings of the hotel's street frontage. Plans call for a new driveway along Union Street and a structure closer to Fourth Avenue, where there's now a wide sidewalk.

Hyatt developer-representative Mark Solit of Orinda, Calif., said construction could begin in late 2001 and the hotel could open in 2003. He wouldn't say how much would be invested, but Haworth said it was around $100 million.

The Hyatt would join a building boom that could add more than 1,000 rooms downtown, which had about 5,000 rooms in 1997, according to the Downtown Seattle Association.