Slideshow: Doris Cassan talks to a couple about SeaTac's condemnation action against the Cassans' surface parking lot. Cassan attorney John Houlihan, center, listens in. Click on the image for more photos from the story.
Battle over eminent domain, SeaTac development intensifies
As SeaTac officials introduced their plans during an open house for a city center/entertainment district across from the airport light-rail station, they face serious opposition from commercial property owners and some residents.
The revolt comes from city council decisions to condemn a surface parking lot for use as a public parking garage, to place a moratorium on development in the city center area and to consider major zoning changes.
Acting City Manager Todd Cutts reported about 150 residents showed up for the Dec. 7 open house at the SeaTac Holiday Inn.
"There was great participation from all sectors-most importantly the residents," Cutts said.
The residents expressed strong support for the plans for a downtown area featuring restaurants, entertainment venues, shopping and other commercial uses, according to Cutts. He admitted that the 16 attendees representing commercial businesses did not voice strong support.
The 82-acre site would be located across from the light rail station at South 176th Street and International Boulevard.
"We are resolved to develop a downtown core that will enhance the lifestyle of our residents," Cutts declared.
But while city officials presented their open house in the hotel's 12th floor conference center overlooking the planning area, James and Doris Cassan rented a room next door with displays of their own.
The Cassans own the Dollar park and fly surface parking lot at 17400 International Boulevard. The city has condemned the property and staffers say they want to build a public parking garage on the site for SeaTac residents and airport hotel guest who patronize the city center/entertainment district.
In a Times/News interview, Doris Cassan said she and her husband have presented three proposals to the city for a mixed-use development on the site as part of a six-year development agreement they signed with the city.
All have been rejected, she added.
City officials offered the Cassans $2 million less than they paid for the property two years ago because of declining property values.
"But, I'm not a seller, I'm a keeper," Doris Cassan emphasized.
James Cassan said consultants advising city officials are "not in the real world of business." It is impossible to compete for retail customers against nearby Southcenter with 450 businesses to choose from, according to James Cassan.
Doris Cassan added that Sea-Tac travelers leave the city quickly if they are not staying at an airport hotel.
"The airport is not a destination," Doris Cassan declared.
She also indicated that fighting the eminent domain action is court will be more than a business decision.
"A property right is a human right," Doris Cassan said. "Government has become too aggressive in taking from individuals and businesses."
The Cassans have enlisted the help of the Institute for Justice, a leading critic of eminent domain, and the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.
Cutts emphasized that council members have directed staffers to talk with the Cassans about entering into a settlement. The city has not filed an eminent domain action in court yet, Cutts added.
"At the end of the day, the city of SeaTac takes no pleasure (in this condemnation action,)" Cutts noted.
In the Times/News interview, John Houlihan, attorney for the Cassans, charged that the city is intending to find a national developer to build a mixed-use development on the site instead of just building a garage.
"It doesn't take a law degree to tell what's right or wrong in this case," Houlihan declared.
Houlihan added that when cities impose a "top-down" town-square type development, it usually fails.
"How's Burien doing?" Houlihan asked rhetorically.
Houlihan also charged that the city center project will be very costly for SeaTac taxpayers.
Lawmakers also received an earful during public comments at their Dec. 8 council meeting.
Planning Commission member Rick Lucas said commercial property owners should be allowed to develop their property the way they want, but with some rules.
"We should have zoning laws that allow businesses to develop at the highest and best use," Lucas added. "In the past 20 years, there haven't been any new developments in SeaTac that are bad."
William Maurer, executive director of the Institute of Justice, said projects developed by using eminent domain normally result in the city taking on a large debt and not generating the expected tax revenue and jobs.
"Victory may leave a city worse off," Maurer concluded.
Chris Boysen, whose family has owned SeaTac commercial property since 1941, said SeaTac businesses would face a high risk of failure if they are forced into non-airport related businesses.
Resident Earl Gipson called for the resignation of planning director Steve Butler as well as lifting of the moratorium and withdrawal of the condemnation proceedings.
Gordon Tang, owner of the Jet Motel property along International Boulevard, said he is ready to partner with Marriott to build an eight-story hotel on his property.
But, the city is planning to run a "goofy" new street through his property dividing up his parcels. If forced to build the hotel on one acre, instead of all three acres, Marriott would have to charge $300 per night for a room instead of $150, according to Tang.
"That would kill the project," Tang added.
Eric Jacobs, Marriott's senior vice president of development from Washington D.C., backed up Tang.
Jacobs noted Tang has the money to get the project going.
Resident Vicki Lockwood asked, "How did we get so adversarial? We should start shaking hands with each other and let businesses do what they are good at."
Mayor Ralph Shape is appointing an ad hoc committee to advise lawmakers on the city's zoning plans for the city center area.
Councilman Chris Wythe said he appreciated the conversations he had at the open house, especially with people opposed to his views.
"There is a middle," Wythe concluded.
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