Seattle Press
Northgate Neighborhood Planning Goes Awry
Back in 1993, Northgate residents published an ambitious plan to redevelop Northgate Mall and its sibling strip malls as a pedestrian-friendly urban center. They called it the Northgate Area Comprehensive Plan, and it was eventually adopted by DCLU as the prime directive for future Northgate development. In 1998, the Simon Property Group put together a General Development Plan for Northgate Mall. The Simon Group says their plan complies with all applicable land use code, including the neighborhood plan. But Northgate residents call Simon's development plan a mall and have challenged DCLU's approval of the plan, citing the inconsistency of the General Development Plan with land use code and the Northgate Area Comprehensive Plan.

Two issues are at the heart of the argument between the neighborhood and the mall developer: the automobile-centric nature of the Simon development plan and the potential daylighting of Thornton Creek's headwaters, which now flow through a culvert beneath the south parking lot. The Simon development plan adds 2,810 parking spaces and tends toward the "moat" model of shopping mall development: structures swimming in a sea of asphalt. The redevelopment adds a 6,000-seat theater, a hotel, 450 housing units, three office towers, a skybridge, three above-ground parking structures and an underground parking garage at Northgate Mall. As part of the south parking lot redevelopment, the headwaters of Thornton Creek would be exhumed and then reburied beneath the new underground parking structure.

(6,000 seats would make the Northgate Mall theater one of the two largest in the world. Brussels, in Belgium, earned a notation in the 1997 Guinness Book of World Records with its 6,000 seat movie theater. Brussels is a city of 10 million people. Seattle's population is 534,000.)

Two community groups have appealed the DCLU's approval of the plan: the Maple Leaf Community Council and the Thornton Creek Legal Defense Fund. "We split up the issues with the Maple Leaf Community Council," said Bob Vreeland of the Thornton Creek Legal Defense Fund. "They took traffic, pedestrian access and parking. We're looking at watershed issues."

In addition to the two appeals, a third group, Citizens for a Liveable Northgate, has broadcast a written warning to the 37 communities engaged in the neighborhood planning process. Citizens for a Liveable Northgate, which has supported both the efforts of the Maple Leaf Community Council and the Thornton Creek Legal Defense Fund, has published a critique of the neighborhood planning process titled "Report from Northgate: Citizens for a Liveable Northgate Meets Godzilla." Citizens for a Liveable Northgate mailed the 14-page document to the 37 neighborhood planning groups May 28. (Portions of the report are printed in this issue of The Seattle Press.)

Joel Tufel, a member of Citizens for a Liveable Northgate, described the report as a collection of personal testimonials that recount the citizen experience with the neighborhood planning process. The report, he said, describes "the face of the beast. It is a highly critical document. It addresses the farcical nature of planning. We hope that it will create controversy and pressure. We're involved in a political struggle with the city.

"The city," said Tufel, "is leading us deeper and deeper into an impossible future." In order to avert that impossible future, Tufel and other members of Citizens for a Liveable Northgate would like to rally other neighborhood planners and force the city to adopt neighborhood plans with the force of law.

City Councilmember Richard Conlin has other ideas in mind for averting that impossible future. He believes the city can keep neighborhood issues in mind as specific master-use permit applications are made. "We have the opportunity to condition the permit if the application is outside the scope of the General Development Plan." He also said the city can continue to negotiate with the developer and that the city might avail itself of other legal tools to meet some of the neighborhood's needs.

But Tufel said the city and county are partners in the development plan. "The Mayor was able to achieve some of his housing goals. Metro solved its Park & Ride parking problem with the theater. City agencies are solving the individual problems they are charged with while ignoring the big picture." Metro proposes to move its Park & Ride at NE 112th Street and 5th Avenue NE to the underground parking garage.

Citizens for a Liveable Northgate have declined to meet with the Mayor or Councilmember Richard Conlin until the "Report from Northgate" is in the hands of neighborhood planning groups. The Hearing Examiner's decision on the appeals will be made the week of June 13.

Contact Citizens for a Liveable Northgate at 526-5342.