Seattle Waterfront History Interviews: Gerry Johnson, Friends of Waterfront Seattle

  • By Dominic Black
  • Posted 6/10/2023
  • Essay 22743
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Gerry Johnson has been a central figure in the planning and redevelopment of Seattle's central waterfront as a board member with Friends of Waterfront Seattle. According to its website, the "Friends," in conjunction with the City of Seattle, are responsible for "helping to fund, build, steward, and program the park – today and into the future" ("Who We Are"). In this 2022 interview with HistoryLink's Jennifer Ott and Dominic Black, Johnson discusses his background in the development of parks and open spaces, the creation of a vital Local Improvement District, and his thoughts on the most pressing question around the waterfront project: How to pay for it.

Open-space Preservation Background

Gerry Johnson: Sure. Well, as you mentioned, I've been involved in open space and park issues as my priority civic engagement for my entire adult life. And it goes back to beginning with the farmlands preservation effort in the late '70s and '80s through a variety of regional conservation and open-space preservation efforts, ballot propositions, and that. And also, park-related things, particularly the Seattle Commons Project, of which I was the nonprofit board chair throughout that whole effort. That migrated to the formation of the Seattle Parks Foundation that I've been involved with almost since its inception.

I should also mention that one spinoff of the open space work on behalf of the county was the formation of what is now known as Forterra – was originally the Seattle, King County Land Conservancy. And I was one of the three co-founders of Forterra and its first board president.

So just a lot of engagement in that space in general. And so, when the big idea began to emerge about creating a park along the waterfront, once the decision was made to not just take the Viaduct down, but also replace it with a tunnel, that created that opportunity. And a lot of people had been thinking about the waterfront for a long time, advocating for park use before it became clear that the tunnel was happening and the Viaduct was going away. And I was sort of on the periphery of that. But it wasn't until that decision was made that Mayor Nickels actually formed what was the first iteration of the Central Waterfront Citizens Committee. So I was appointed to that. And my role was, along with John Nesholm, we co-chaired a working group or sub-committee of the full commission or committee that was charged with figuring out how to pay for the project. 

Creating a Local Improvement District (LID)

GJ: A very significant part of the funding plan that John Nesholm and I developed – and the city council approved like two or three times in the course of resolutions that we incrementally wanted them to keep passing – a Local Improvement District. And although that was always a feature of the funding plan, and the city council had signaled several times it was prepared to impose it, this was Mayor Durkan's watch, we needed to get property owners willing to support the LID.

And basically, the way the law works, and this, by the way, is the largest LID that's ever been undertaken in the state of Washington and like ... In any event, the way the law works, if enough property owners representing a certain percentage of the total valuation within the boundaries of the LID oppose it, the LID fails. But the converse is also true. If you can get enough of that valuation tied up, supporting it to block that from happening, then the LID is preserved. Ultimately, we were able to get, working through the DSA and with the help of a lot of very supportive property owners in town, to get the minimum percentage to ensure that it would survive. And this was really important and it's so deep inside baseball, but I think it's important that you guys understand this. 

What we did was we wanted a whole series of things to assure the property owners that first of all, the park is going to happen. And one thing that is a result of the LID, that's a feature of the existing state law which is really good, which is that the city bears the cost-overrun risk. If you get an LID, you are committing to produce it regardless of how much it costs. So there was that. But that was also something that we wanted to reiterate.

And then, there were a whole series of other things about public safety, maintenance, declaring the portions of the park that were in SDOT right-of-way that were becoming park to be designated as a park boulevard so that park rules will apply to public conduct in those spaces. All of that stuff we put into a contract with the city and a nonprofit that was formed representing the property owners. And the city council approved that at the same time they approved the LID. And honestly, I'm just so proud of that. And it secured the LID and also secured the vision of how the park can be operated and funded because theoretically, anyway, the property owners can enforce this contract if the city does not do it. 

Getting Support for the LID

GJ: The LID was controversial and it was particularly challenging for us to get support from a lot of the residential condo owners. I have a lot of friends who live downtown and were not that jazzed about it, honestly. But I think, in the end, they realize that the thing is, long term, going to improve their property values quite a lot. And honestly, the assessment’s spread across all of these properties. The downtown commercial office buildings are paying the vast bulk of it. And I tell people, "We're a tenant in a building that has a high LID assessment and the owners of the building don't pay these LIDs, the tenants do. So I'm in it with you, for what it's worth."

Jennifer Ott: Yeah. Whose idea was it to make it such an enormous district?

GJ: Well, one of the things we did pretty early on, and what the city did, actually, this was part of the run-up to LID in the backs of our minds. But we started doing economic-impact studies based on what the park was expected to be and how that would benefit the city in general. But it became the framework for supporting the LID. And LID is everything that is touched by the waterfront east to the freeway. And that seemed fair. But the farther away you are the less you pay. That's axiomatic.

Dominic Black: When you were in the initial stages of thinking about this as a funding model, did the LID come to mind as this is a slam dunk in terms of a structure that would work or had you other things in mind that you ...

GJ: Yeah, it was always – it was always a cornerstone of the funding from the very beginning. And as I mentioned, we originally had like $250 million or something in for this, and that … but that was the only way we were going to be able to close the gap between the funds that the city had or would likely have. And we also thought that it was fair, pretty fundamentally, if the public is putting as much money – and the total cost of just the park is like $600 million – if the public is putting in half of that just from general taxes, then the benefited property owners ought to contribute.

And then, we also felt all along that philanthropy could and should play a part. But philanthropy is not a big chunk. I mean, it's a relatively large chunk, but the percentage is less than the LID, it’s less than the rest of the public funding that went into the project. And if you throw in the cost of the seawall and the tunnel, then all the rest of this shrinks by comparison in terms of the level of public investment that is necessary to make this project happen. So we never shrank from an LID. And DSA, to its credit, we were working – had working groups with major property owners around the funding plan probably for, I don't know, five or six years in the run-up to putting it in place. So it's not like it was a surprise to anybody.

Philanthropy Key to Success

GJ: One thing we learned from studying other places, and also, intuitively, was that we needed a dedicated nonprofit to support the park from the outside. And that was going to be important because we always knew we were going to have to raise philanthropic money. And we also suspected that the park would need to benefit from ongoing philanthropy.

So our plans had said, from really early on, we envision a special purpose nonprofit being formed to raise the money for a capital contribution and also support the activation of the park primarily. You know, we learned through the Parks Foundation work and a lot of other studies and so on that have come to light just in terms of what makes a successful park, is that activation is the key and you have to have stuff going on and that draws people. And the more people you have, the less trouble you have with public safety. But at the same time, costs more to maintain, and you have to pay people to come and put on concerts and stuff like that. 

So from the very get-go, the nonprofit was part of the vision, and that's why so many of us who were involved in the city effort over the years went over to deal with the nonprofit piece initially, Maggie [Walker] and Charley [Royer], and it's a lot of us who were ... Joe Binder, Nesholm, I was on it at the beginning too. But yeah. So that was always part of it from the beginning.

JO: So why did you want to do a separate organization with Friends and not have the Seattle Parks Foundation take on that role?

GJ: Well, first of all, the Parks Foundation was already well settled as a citywide thing. And it had its own mission. And this thing was so big, particularly with the capital requirement and also the scale of the asset, so it's not unlike ... You know the parks department has very successful partnerships with many cultural institutions who are their tenants, so Seattle Art Museum, both downtown and Volunteer Park, the zoo, MOHAI and so on. So that model was well settled in the culture of the city in terms of how to deal with these major institution scale public assets.

DB: From the vantage point that you're at now, if you look back through these processes that we've talked about, how do you feel things have gone to date? How happy are you with how things have progressed? 

GJ: Honestly, I couldn't be happier with where it sits right now. And literally everything that we wanted to happen, the box is being kicked. And we've benefited from really strong support from all mayors except Mike McGinn, and all city councils and, everybody bought into this vision. And just the amount of effort and commitment to this thing over a long period of time, to see this all falling into place just like this, it honestly, it’s very rewarding.

And it also was a really incredible reflection of, unlike the Commons, the city was able to embrace this, even though it is – I mean it is a downtown thing, there's no question about it. But we've had to do polling over the years, several times, mostly in connection with these elections. And I'll leave that to you, Jennifer. But one thing we always did was check, and particularly after the council started having council districts, but every single district always polled very strongly for this park, and that was not true in the Commons and so, that I think, people began to ...

Well, first of all, everybody around, at some point, experiences the waterfront. You go on a ferry or you want to go to the aquarium or whatever. People saw themselves using this. And they also realized there's a lot of pride in Seattle, even though we've been battered and beaten, and downtown is still slumping and everything else. But this was such an obviously important investment to make. And people also, I think, nowadays, have a much better appreciation for the potential impact of really beautiful parks and how important that is to their lives, particularly as the city becomes more dense. So that has been really, really rewarding. Just the consensus behind this idea, popular consensus behind this idea that we've been able to sustain for the whole time.

How did The Commons defeat inform the Waterfront Project?

GJ: Well, first of all, it did give rise to the Parks Foundation. So a lot of us were involved. A lot of people who were involved in the Commons migrated over to forming the Parks foundation. And the Parks Foundation was critical to getting the MPD and the MPD was critical for the waterfront, at least on the operating cost side, not for capital.

But I don't know, Dominic, you take your chances with the voters regardless of what you're doing. And a lot depends upon the times and people's vision for their own city. And I think the Commons … with the city was still coming into its own in a lot of ways and didn't quite see itself yet as a world-recognized, big deal metro area, innovation and so on, nor did it really understand what was about to happen to it in terms of density. This was before the return to downtowns everywhere in the country you know. And it's just a shame, you know. It was just a miss. And it was a close miss too.

The first one, the first ballot, it may not have been our project per se, but at the last minute, the baseball stadium also got put on the same ballot. And that failed too. And I think we turned out Commons supporters who also were baseball opponents and baseball supporters didn't necessarily like our project so that people were choosing between the two. And ironically, the baseball team went to the legislature and said, "We're moving unless you go ahead and give us other money without a vote," which they did, and our project failed. And we did get a second shot. But I don't know.

I actually think – one of the biggest problems – here's a lesson in answer to your question, Dominic: I think we waited too long to go to the ballot with the Commons. Because we were talking about that project for probably five years or so before we went to the ballot wanting to get everything nailed down and get really good estimates. And then we got the [inaudible] and things. We were buying property, and we thought that would really help us in getting the city to embrace the idea of really concentrating some ... This was the urban villages idea that you densify certain areas and then that relieves pressure on the residential communities, and that didn't sell yet. But the project was always a bit controversial. And I think if we had gone to the ballot a couple years earlier with just more of the idea, we might have passed it, but we were … it got tangled up in a lot of other stuff.

And not enough people were thinking citywide either. It's one of those things where one of the keys to passing ballot propositions or bond issues and levies is, you want to show a project in literally every neighborhood. So you send out a map in the mail and say, look for your little X. And we didn’t – obviously, people had to feel that it was something that would benefit the whole city enough to do it. And that was, you know. Anyway.

Was The Commons Funding as Difficult as the Waterfront?

GJ: No, the Commons was much easier. It was not as expensive. I mean, this was now, 20 years ago, longer. Maybe. Let's see, when was the Commons? 20 at least. And I think our levy, we had a levy, I think it was 80 million for that. And as you know, we went to ballot twice. And this is … such a shame. Part of the reason it was so much cheaper was that Paul Allen, we got Paul Allen to agree to lend us $20 million to buy properties within the boundaries of the proposed park. Basically, we did it strategically so that we could prevent large blocks from being acquired for speculation if the voters approved the levy. And he lent us the money and we bought the properties; we bought a lot of land. But the deal was if the park did not go forward, Paul would get the land and forgive the loan. So that actually was the foundation for Vulcan Real Estate. And he had no interest in South Lake Union until then.

I mean, it turned out okay for the city. We always had Lake Union Park, so the city got that before we did the Commons. So it was everything north of Mercer up to Westlake and then the width. So 80 acres sticks in my mind as what we were doing there. But yeah, I mean, that was a long time ago, and a hundred million was a lot of money in those days. So unfortunately, we didn't get that one.

JO: So that was going to be entirely levy extended?

GJ: It was a levy. It was going to be a levy, yeah. I think the levy was 80 million, you could check it, but … and then Paul's 20 and the total a hundred, probably in those days, that was a lot of money. And the property was not that valuable either, I mean … if you remember, South Lake Union, it was not dense, it was low rise, it was kind of weak commercial. There was not much residential except in the Cascade neighborhood, car dealerships, gas stations, stuff like that. So. 

JO: It was very different.

GJ: Very different.

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