The city council is considering a proposal to build a new North Precinct Seattle Police Department station at N 130th St. and Aurora Ave. N that, at $160 million, would cost almost twice as much as originally projected and would surround police officers in an earthquake-resistant, partially bulletproof structure that some opponents have referred to as a “bunker.” The total cost of the project, and the objections from police-reform advocates, have been widely reported.
Less widely reported, however, is the fact that the project includes a $27 million, three-story parking garage and surface lot with 190 parking spots for officers’ private vehicles and another 134 spots for patrol and specialty vehicles–enough parking, FAS communications director Julie Moore says, to “comfortably meet the peak demands when the facility opens in 2019,” meaning the number of officers and staff who will drive their cars to work during standard business hours.
Council members, including public safety committee chair Lorena Gonzalez and her fellow parking hawk, council member Mike O’Brien, grilled police chief Kathleen O’Toole and city Finance and Administrative Services yesterday about the garage, which looms large in FAS’ preliminary building renderings and occupies more than half the square footage of the lot where the new precinct will be built. The station building will be about 105,000 square feet; the 289-stall garage, just shy of 119,000. (Adding another 42 stalls for employee parking and 28 spots for the public in surface lots, the project includes just over 145,000 square feet of parking.) The garage has been scaled back since the original proposal, which called for 241,000 square feet of parking, including a 201,000-square-foot garage.
O’Toole, tasked with defending the unprecedented cost of the station as well as the massive, multistory parking structure, launched into a multipronged defense of the massive structure. SPD needs enough parking for every officer to have his or her own guaranteed space, O’Toole said, because of the unique dangers of being a police officer in Seattle; because neighbors have complained about officers parking on the street; because some officers work late at night when transit is unreliable; and because weather creates wear and tear on SPD patrol cars and special-purpose vehicles.
Conversations with city officials indicate that SPD places particular emphasis on officer safety–O’Toole specifically invoked the death of SPD officer Timothy Brenton, who was shot in his patrol car in 2009–and complaints from neighborhood residents, although neither FAS nor SPD could quantify the precinct’s parking impact on the neighborhood or characterize the specific complaints.
Gonzalez pounced on O’Toole’s assessment of the number of officers who have no choice but driving alone to work. “You mentioned that there are a certain number of officers who do use public transport or something other than a single-occupant vehicle to get to work every day. Does the department track that?” O’Toole said that they did not. O’Brien jumped in, noting that state law requires all employers with 100 or more employees to track their workers’ commute modes and mitigate the impact they have on traffic by reducing the number of people who drive to work alone. City employees who work at City Hall receive free ORCA transit passes and a small discount on parking in two nearby garages.
O’Brien added, “It strikes me that there is no shortage of surface parking lots in that neighborhood, which, to me, raises a couple of questions. One is, is there availability in the off hours to use someone else’s parking spot nearby? Secondly, it seems that with the economics of land in this area that it’s more cost-effective to just buy more land than to build complex multi-story parking garages.” When city budget office director Ben Noble (formerly the head of council central staff) responded that the need for parking at the precinct will only grow in future decades, O’Brien retorted, “It seems that if the neighborhood is going to transition, if we don’t need it now, I’d love to save a bunch of those millions of dollars and maybe design a building that could accommodate a parking structure 10 years from now if we need it, and maybe by then commute patterns will have changed so we won’t need it.”
City staff who work on the project also told me that police officers commute by bus, bike, and car, and that there have been no safety problems because of officers parking in the neighborhood and walking, in plainclothes, to the current precinct building. Free parking is a nice perk, they say, but not one officer has been attacked wearing street clothes while walking a block or two to the precinct. In fact, of the five current precinct buildings, three do not have free on-site parking for every officer and staff member.
“For the officers, it’s assumed that they will drive,” FAS’ Doug Carey told me after the meeting–a practice he acknowledges isn’t “standard, but police are different.
“We have designed the building … so that on opening day they would have enough parking space to park all the personal vehicles,” Carey adds. “Over time, they would need to manage parking in a different way.”
“I’d love to save a bunch of those millions of dollars and maybe design a building that could accommodate a parking structure 10 years from now if we need it, and maybe by then commute patterns will have changed so we won’t need it.”–City council member Mike O’Brien
Gonzalez, the first to raise the parking issue yesterday, told me she needs a lot more information before signing off on a $27 million garage for police to park their private cars. “I need to hear from them the specific criteria they use to estimate the projected growth over the next 30 years that they claim is contributing to the need to have this size, or this footprint, of garage,” Gonzalez says. “I want to get a better sense of what other options were considered before landing on this particular proposal for this 300-space parking garage, and that includes consideration of an area that is dense with surface lots.”
Like O’Brien, Gonzalez points out the disconnect between a city that actively encourages private employees to commute by transit, and a police department that actively encourages its workers to drive alone. “Something that became really apparent to me during the committee hearing was the fact that when the city looks at major institutions throughout our city, we impress upon them the need to reduce the number of people who are commuting in single-occupancy vehicles to work, and the realization that we don’t necessarily apply those same principles and values to our own agencies. There’s an opportunity to have a conversation with the mayor and Chief O’Toole about taking a look at what our own policies are with regard to getting our employees to rely more heavily on public transit, and I think that’s important given the amount of investment” the city is considering, Gonzalez says.