As regular readers of The Stranger are painfully aware, we love public transit.Love it. We love it—and what it does to make life better for everyone—so hard we sometimes risk squeezing it to death.
We are also deeply skeptical—to put it mildly—of the Manifest Destiny attitude over at Mars Hill Church which somehow, almost impossibly, manages to be stealthy and arrogant at the same time. (Mars Hill's bizarre bipolarity, their special combination of chest-puffery and cravenness, partly explains why the rest of us can't stop gawking at their theological/business rodeo.)
Anyway—a story that pits Sound Transit against Mars Hill is like a gift from you-know-who. As you read on, please keep this sentence from the Mars Hill leadership in your mind: "We believe that God wants us to have this property."
Our story begins earlier this week when folks at Sound Transit noticed a press release and new website from Mars Hill that sounded simultaneously triumphant and wounded. (How do they do that?) The church announced that God loves Mars Hill so much, He's super-sized their Bellevue branch and decided it should be the church's new headquarters:
God’s plans have far exceeded our own and, for his glory, He has given us fruit that has outgrown our current facility.
Our current location at the Danz building is a leased space and has been sold to the Rockefeller Group. They have announced plans to demolish the building and develop the entire block. Over the next few years our church would be situated in the middle of a major construction project, and ultimately we would be forced to move at the end of our lease in 2017.
The bottom line is this: God has had bigger plans for Mars Hill Bellevue all along, bigger than we could have ever imagined. When we moved into the Danz building we prayed for growth, and by God’s grace, the growth we’ve seen in Bellevue makes us one of the single fastest growing churches in America today. We need a larger location to accommodate what God is doing in our church.
So far so good. Mars Hill is moving and says that "only one building in Bellevue is available that meets the needs of the church that God is building on the Eastside." That is the International Paper property at 1899 120th Ave NE, Bellevue, WA.
Here's where it gets interesting—Mars Hill goes on to accuse Sound Transit of swooping in and "seizing the property under the authority of eminent domain," meddling with God's plan and Mars Hill's ambition:
Unfortunately we find ourselves in a position where we are going up against the government. Given the perspective, we are a small church with little chance of being able to make the government change their decision. However, we will continue to move forward with faith in a God who is bigger than any government. A God who rules a world that bends to his will. We believe that God wants us to have this property, and we will continue to be obedient to his call.
But that version of events, according to Sound Transit, is total horse shit. Geoff Patrick of Sound Transit says the transit authority started making moves to buy the International Paper property in 2011, shortly after it went on sale, and reached an informal agreement to buy on November 3, 2012.
After a long process of environmental-mitigation review and haggling, Sound Transit says it finalized the deal on June 19, 2013. (Note: They purchased the property. Mars Hill's claim that it was seized "under the authority of eminent domain" is either a mistake or a fabrication.)
The first Sound Transit heard from Mars Hill was at a board meeting on June 27, 2013—one week after they bought the property.
If you take Mars Hill's word for it, the big, bad government stole their prize lollipop. But that lollipop was never Mars Hill's to begin with. The closest they come to staking a legitimate claim in any of their PR is to say they "made a generous purchase offer." So they've got money. But nobody seems to want to sell (to them, anyway). And they're pissed.
Now Mars Hill is mounting a public e-mail campaign—"going up against the government"—to pressure Sound Transit into selling a property (which it already owns) to the church, a wannabe buyer that showed up on the scene a week after the two-years-in-the-making sale was finalized. (Again with the mewling and fist-shaking all in one gesture—it really is incredible how they pull that off. Sometimes Mars Hill seems like a character who's stumbled out of a Tennessee Williams play.) Mars Hill has not responded to requests for comment. Neither has International Paper. But if I had to guess, I'd say International Paper engaged the church in some negotiations, which the church misinterpreted as a done deal, but ultimately decided to sell to Sound Transit. Ergo, pissed.
Sound Transit says it bought the property for $23 million. We don't know how much Mars Hill offered for it.
Now for the inevitable boring footnote:
* Mars Hill claims, correctly, that Sound Transit only needs two out of four properties it has located (including the International Paper property) "as part of an ongoing environmental process for constructing an operations and maintenance satellite facility (OMSF) to support the 30 miles of light rail extensions we are on track to complete in 2023," as ST spokesperson Geoff Patrick put it in an email. ST has purchased the Mars Hill-coveted property as a "protective acquisition," which is a little unusual but not unheard of.
ST moved for a "protective acquisition," Patrick says, because the property is one of the few that meets the requirements for an operations and maintenance facility that they'll need when they more than double their rail mileage. If ST didn't buy it but somebody else did, ST's attempts to acquire it after the fact would be "substantially more expensive" to taxpayers, as the new owners would probably lump in whatever investments they'd made in the site as part of its new, higher cost.
So it made sense to buy.
If ST decides it doesn't want the International Paper site it will sell it, probably to an entity that wants to develop it for transit-friendly purposes. Patrick stresses that he does not speak for the board, and it's their decision, but since ST likes transit it would most likely want to see the property go to a transit-friendly project.
So while Mars Hill wants the property, and says ST is hogging it because they aren't 100 percent sure whether they need it yet, ST's preemptive purchase of the property is not extraordinary or egregious.
In sum, Patrick says, "we're concerned that some of the language Mars Hill has on their website is misleading, as our efforts to acquire this property have been underway since September of 2011. There may be a perception that we swooped in at the last minute and foiled their plans, but the first contact we had with them was one week after we purchased the property." (Patrick says Sound Transit executed a final purchase agreement with International Paper on June 19—technically, the closing took place on Sept 3.)
For Mars Hill to pretend like they're destined to own the International Paper site—"God wants us to have this property"—displays either poor sportsmanship, a sense of divine entitlement, or a shaky grip on reality. Or all three.