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Seattle may condemn 103-year-old woman’s parking lot to run…a parking lot

 

October 25, 2013
 

Eminent domain, the power government has to condemn a property for public use, can profoundly alter people’s lives and plans. That’s why it should be used sparingly and only to meet specific public needs when reasonable alternatives do not exist.

The possibility for abuse of this power is always there. Take a look at this case: The City of Seattle is seeking to condemn a parking lot owned by a 103-year-old woman, who does not want to sell it, to build…nothing – at least for now. They want city-run parking at the location. From KIRO Radio’s Linda Thomas:

The city does not appear to be as sensitive to Myrtle Woldson’s wishes. She’s the property owner who does not want to sell the lot between Seneca and Spring streets. She’s said no thank you to Seattle’s offer several times.

Republic Parking Northwest manages the 134-stall lot. Yes, the city is acquiring a privately-owned parking lot to create a city-owned lot.

Woldson’s property is worth about $5 million as is, but realtors say its developed value is around $130 million.

The City is concerned that there is not enough short-term parking in the area because of the viaduct replacement project. Woldson’s lot, a mix of short- and long-term parking, is described as “almost always full,” suggesting that it is already helping meet the area’s parking needs.

Of course, the property is also ripe for future development. The situation brings to mind the “Sinking Ship Garage” case from a few years ago, where the Seattle Monorail project was condemning a parking garage at 2nd and Yesler. The family, which had owned the property even during their internment by the federal government during World War II, was willing to give some property to build a Monorail station but wanted to build housing and retail on the rest.

That wasn’t good enough for the Monorail project, which wanted the rest of the property for storage during construction. Many suspected that the real reason for condemning the entire property was to sell the rest of it later, at great profit, to create revenue for the agency. The only reason the family still owns the property today is that the voters voted to halt building the Monorail.

Citing the potential for litigation, city leaders are tight-lipped about the property’s future. Marc Stiles at the Puget Sound Business Journal noted something that adds the confusion around the City’s motives:

Another oddity about the Woldson situation relates to a different part of the city and state program. Parking lot owners are given a financial incentive to make some stalls available for short-term parking at reduced rates. The owners are reimbursed for the difference between what they would normally charge and the reduced rate.

Beck said Republic Parking Northwest offered to put Woldson’s lot in this program, but the Seattle Department of Transportation refused. He wonders why the city now wants to spend a sizeable amount of money to create short-term parking —which is its existing use.

***Update***

William Maurer from the Washington chapter of the Institute for Justice, a great organization that stands up to protect citizens against questionable government takings, wrote in with his perspective (and to be clear, neither Maurer nor IJ represent the property owner in this case):

The city needs to tread carefully in this area.  A condemnation must be for a public use and it is not clear what the city’s ultimate purpose here is.  If it’s to run a parking lot, a parking lot already exists on the property.  The government should not exercise this destructive power because it thinks it has a better way to run an enterprise.  We also have to be wary of that the city is not simply trying to use the threat of eminent domain to obtain the property on the cheap and then turn around and sell it to a developer when the tunnel is complete.  The Washington Constitution doesn’t allow the government to play real estate speculator.

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