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Originally published February 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 23, 2007 at 3:21 PM

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From pit to landmark public plaza?

By day, downtown Seattle is filled with office workers and public officials toting briefcases, backpacks and coffee. By night, the neighborhood...

Seattle Times staff reporter

By day, downtown Seattle is filled with office workers and public officials toting briefcases, backpacks and coffee. By night, the neighborhood around City Hall is nearly a ghost town, with homeless people sleeping in the doorways and buses blowing by.

Seattle officials mean to change that, announcing plans Thursday for a $300 million development of high-end condos and a plaza that would become downtown's biggest public open space. They say the combination of new residents and new public gathering spot will transform the 9-to-5 business district into a vibrant day-and-night neighborhood.

"This will give our city a new iconic landmark," Mayor Greg Nickels said.

Just a few blocks away, the plan to add upscale condos to this end of downtown has already begun with Smith Tower. Owners of that historic building submitted plans Wednesday to turn its offices into condominiums.

The civic square would be built on what is now the block-wide hole in the ground bordered by Third and Fourth avenues and Cherry and James streets. Until 2005, the old Public Safety Building stood on the city-owned land.

The city picked Seattle-based Triad from a pool of five developers. Triad proposes modeling the project on the Pioneer Square Courthouse in Portland, Ore. The developers estimate spending $300 million and expect construction to be completed by late 2010.

Details have not all been worked out, but early plans call for half the lot to be taken up by a 32-story building with condos and offices, with the other half remade for the public, with a shopping area, cascading terraces, fountains and a People's Pavilion for meetings and classes.

The city would retain ownership of the public space and shops, and the developers would pay the city $25 million minus the cost of developing the public areas.

The proposal still requires City Council approval, but it appears to bring resolution to a 10-year debate over the site. Nickels and some council members once suggested selling the land to developers. Some members wanted to make the entire site public, but others resisted using city money for such a project, Councilman Peter Steinbrueck said.

With the Triad proposal, the city would use the sale proceeds and income from the retail space to maintain the public area and hire a third party to put together programs. Council members spoke of the spot Thursday as a destination for cultural celebrations, art installations, live entertainment and public protests.

Steinbrueck, who served on the developer-selection committee with council members Jan Drago and Tom Rasmussen, said he envisions the site "as an urban square that really speaks of our civic values in Seattle and our environmental ethic."

Although the design is still in its early stages and there are plans to seek community input, Triad developers said they could see putting offices on the lower floors and condos on the upper floors of a building that would look like two interconnected towers forming a figure 8. Condos would be priced from under $500,000 to the millions.

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At one point during his news conference on a City Hall balcony overlooking the site, the mayor had to wait for sirens to go by.

Asked why buyers might be attracted to a neighborhood that includes the county jail, courthouse, homeless shelters and low-income housing, Nickels said, "This will never be a dull neighborhood."

He noted that King County's Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness is working to find housing for people who are chronically homeless.

Councilman Rasmussen, who chairs the council's Housing, Human Services and Health committee, said he supported turning city-owned property into market-rate housing rather than setting it aside for low-income housing.

"The center city has more subsidized housing than any other neighborhood," he said. Having condos next to the plaza "will continue to put eyes on the street activity and create the kind of healthy environment that will be very attractive to people."

Steinbrueck also pointed out that based on new downtown zoning rules, if developers build to maximum capacity, they will have to contribute $19 per square foot to a low-income-housing fund.

The buildings would partially depend on solar power, wind turbines and recycled rain water, and be built to the highest sustainable standards from the U.S. Green Building Council, developers said. There will be a bus and light-rail tunnel station under the plaza, and the developers will build underground parking.

The lead architect is Seattle-based GGLO and the project's designer is London's Foster + Partner, which worked on the Swiss Re building in London, the Parliament building in Berlin, the airport in Hong Kong and the Millau Viaduct in France.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

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