Southlake Disunion

The mayor is pushing for up to $460 million in transportation investment in the South Lake Union neighborhood. Critics say that might enhance Paul Allen's property values, but it won't relieve congestion.

Get ready for a brand-new traffic jam in South Lake Union. Mayor Greg Nickels is, as usual, putting the pedal to the metal as he promotes between $200 million and $460 million in new transportation investment in the area. The mayor wants a streetcar, a fix for the Mercer Mess, and to reconnect the neighborhood streets across Aurora Avenue North. When you add other Nickels proposals for the neighborhood, including electrical and park improvements, the taxpayers' bill might be as high as $660 millionfar more than previously reported. The mayor hopes to pay for most of this through regional and state transportation funding. Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis says the administration is also developing plans for a development charge known as a "transportation impact fee," a measure sure to create controversy within the business community.

The mayor's route is already snarled due to the fierce opposition of a loose collection of unlikely alliesslow growthers, low- income-housing advocates, neighborhood business owners, and City Council members. They say the city is hurting for cash and has other, more important transportation priorities. In addition, they accuse the mayor of being a traffic cop for billionaire Paul Allen and his Vulcan holding company, which owns nearly 50 acres in South Lake Union. Opponents say they can defeat the mayor's initiatives by capitalizing on public resentment that Nickels and Allen are taking the taxpayers for a ride.

SOUTH LAKE UNION'S FANS see the neighborhood as the city's workhorse, an unglamorous place that is home to 25,000 jobs, including those at many businesses that rely on the neighborhood's modest rents or more sprawling spaces in comparison to downtown. South Lake Union is also home to around 900 mostly low- income households.

Nickels sees the neighborhood as Seattle's premier place for economic development. In this bad economy, he thinks that bringing new jobs to the area is of paramount importance. He hopes that in the next 17 years, South Lake Union will add 20,000 new jobs and 10,000 new households. His optimistic projections depend on the plans of Vulcan, the neighborhood's largest landowner, to invest heavily in new development to make South Lake Union a center for biotechnology and a place to live, work, and play 24 hours a day. To support that kind of growth, Nickels says, the public must invest in infrastructure improvements, and transportation tops his list.

Currently, South Lake Union's transportation system, in the mayor's view, turns the neighborhood into a place people pass through on their way somewhere else. The Mercer Mess, consisting of Mercer and Valley streets between Aurora Avenue North and Interstate 5, carries 82,700 cars on an average weekday. When Nickels talks about transportation improvements, he doesn't mean making traffic flow more smoothly through the Mercer corridor. He wants to change South Lake Union into a place more people want go tobe it for work, for dining and entertainment, or because it's home. His goal is to allow people to do all this without a car.

Mercer Street at quitting time.

His opponents see these plans as impractical dreams on the one hand and green-washed subsidies for the fourth-richest man in the world (third in the U.S.) on the other. They say the Mercer corridor is ugly but it works. Any two streets that can carry that many cars a dayeven with its notorious doglegs and confusing on- and off-rampsis a miracle of transportation, especially in this region known for traffic snarls. People are not going to stop wanting to get onto I-5, nor are they going to stop coming to Seattle Center. The city should do some minor adjustments to help traffic flow and call it good. Even if a lot of scientists and lab technicians were to find new employment in South Lake Union, chances are they would arrive there by driving from the suburbs or from more residential Seattle neighborhoods, where they can enjoy the bungalows and yards long associated with the region's middle-class family life.

If Paul Allen wants to transform South Lake Union into Biotechtopia, let him pay for it, opponents say. For years, they point out, Vulcan lobbyists have been flacking all of the proposals now claimed by the mayor as his own, at every level of government, from the lowliest neighborhood-planning meeting to the offices of the state's key transportation power brokers.

DESIRE NAMED STREETCAR

At $45 million, Nickels' proposal for a streetcar running 4.5 miles from Westlake Center to South Lake Union is the cheapest, best known, but most criticized aspect of the mayor's transportation plans. "The streetcar is nothing more than a frill to drive up Paul Allen's property values," says John Fox, coordinator of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, an activist group fighting for low-income housing. "Here we have a community that is starving for resources to meet our basic transportation needs, and the mayor is nakedly serving one developer."

Fox and his allies contend that Vulcan lobbied public officials about the streetcar for years before Nickels took officesomething that is confirmed by elected officials including Seattle City Council President Peter Steinbrueck and council Transportation Chair Richard Conlin. Nickels highlighted his support for the streetcar in his state of the city address last January, and he has been putting the might of his administration behind it since.

Vulcan spokesperson Michael Nank says Nickels is in the driver's seat. Says Nank, "The mayor has shown strong leadership." He adds that the project will be a boon to the region as a whole.

In an interview with Seattle Weekly, Seattle Department of Transportation Director Grace Crunican, a wonky, no-bullshit administrator, and Deputy Mayor Ceis, a political enforcer with plenty of policy chops, laid out the mayor's case for the streetcar. Crunican says it is a "cheap way of getting a fixed-rail commitment to the area." Crunican, who served as the director of Oregon's Department of Transportation, says Portland's Pearl District streetcar is a model. It attracted more than $1 billion in investment, Crunican claims, because developers love fixed rail. A bus route can be changed tomorrow, but fixed rail is permanent, she argues. In addition, she explains, the streetcar will tie in to the regional system of Sound Transit's light rail and the in-city, people-moving monorail to create a seamless transit commute to South Lake Union.

CEIS SAYS THE STREETCAR is just one leg of larger system. "You can turn this streetcar easily into a circulator system," he says. The most obvious tie-in would be with the Waterfront Streetcar that runs from Myrtle Edwards Park along the central waterfront to Pioneer Square, but Ceis hopes eventually the streetcar could run up through the Chinatown/International District and on to Capitol Hill. "I'm looking at Seattle over the next 20 years," he says.

City Council Transportation Chair Conlin, a thorough, brainy guy who studies proposals carefully, is not impressed with the mayor's pitch: "Most of the stuff we have gotten so far on the streetcar has been background and fluff," which Conlin doesn't dismiss out of hand. "The case needs to be made that this is a cost- effective transportation solution." Conlin is negotiating with Crunican's Seattle Department of Transportation on what needs to be done to understand the nuts and bolts of a streetcar line through South Lake Union. Meantime, he can't begin to place the streetcar within the list of city priorities.

Seattle Transportation Director Grace Crunican is looking at ways to reconnect the street grid at Aurora Avenue North. (Karen Steichen)

While money seems to be foremost in the minds of those skeptical about or opposed to the streetcar, the mayor actually believes the finances of the streetcar are one of the project's strengths. Under Nickels' plan, $25 million of the $45 million capital cost of the project would be paid for through a special tax on property owners in the South Lake Union neighborhood, including Vulcan; the remaining $20 million would be paid by the city's or the region's taxpayers. Crunican thinks the willingness of large property owners to bear the costs is a tremendous asset. "When you have the customer, that's the time to do it," she says.

Conlin is concerned about how to pay for the public's share and the annual operating costs of the streetcar. He points out that all public transportation systems require a subsidy of some kind. "Somebody needs to know what those costs are and who is going to pay for them."

Ceis says the mayor is in negotiations with King County Metro, the agency that runs the Metro bus system, to operate the streetcar. He thinks the annual subsidy might be less than for a bus, because the streetcar will be so heavily used.

Activist Fox worries that money spent to build and operate the streetcar will not be available for other, more pressing transportation needs. He says that the mayor's blatant favoritism for a Vulcan-backed project makes the proposal ripe for organizing. He plans to run a citywide, grassroots campaign to defeat the streetcar proposal by pressuring the City Council, which must approve the project. "Even folks lining up for [other Allen] plans are not up for the trolley," he says.

In fact, a majority of City Council membersConlin, Steinbrueck, Nick Licata, Judy Nicastro, and Margaret Pagelerexpress skepticism or outright opposition to the streetcar.

A FINE MESS

In June, longtime Mercer Street property owners Mike Foley (the Pacific Lincoln Mercury building) and Al Heglund (the West Marine building) received startling phone calls from a Nickels representative about the acquisition of their property. Jim Reinhardsen of Heartland LLC, who works on contract for the mayor on real-estate matters, told the two men that the city would have to take their property as part of the mayor's plan for a two-way Mercer Street. Neither Foley nor Heglund would agree to meet with the mayor's man. Despite the fact that Foley had spent years working on transportation plans for South Lake Union as transportation chair of the neighborhood planning process, it was the first he had heard of the mayor's plan for the street he owns property on. "Why is the city contacting property owners about condemnation when we don't even have a plan?" Foley asks.

It was not, however, the first time Foley had heard of the idea of making Mercer Street two way. "Vulcan came up with the two-way Mercer," he contends. "Nickels took it hook, line, and sinker."

Steinbrueck and Conlin, both of whom are generally supportive of the mayor's plan, confirm Vulcan lobbied them about a two-way Mercer before Nickels took office. Crunican tells another story. She says that when Nickels recruited her, he mentioned fixing the Mercer Mess. Now she has studied the issue and come up with a plan. She listened to Vulcan, but the corporation didn't drive the project. "People are looking for a villain, and they focus on Vulcan," she notes. "Vulcan doesn't get everything they want."

Vulcan's Nank says the projects are not for one person's benefit but to help the entire area: "There are no instances where there is going to be benefit gained by one person and not another."

THE MAYOR'S OBJECTIVE is to make investments on Mercer and Valley streets work with the overall vision of the neighborhood as a 24/7 happening place. He wants to change Mercer from a one-way, four-lane congested arterial to a tree-lined, two-way boulevard. Meanwhile, Valley, currently with five lanes, would become a pedestrian-oriented park promenade designed to be friendly frontage for the 12-acre South Lake Union Park, slated for a $28 million, public-private makeover.

The costs are considerable. The Mercer corridor work between Aurora and I-5 will cost $75 million to $95 million, Crunican estimates. The needed changes between Seattle Center and Aurora will require another $55 million to $80 million.

Foley says don't turn off the calculator yet. For the mayor's Mercer corridor plan to work, he claims, it will be necessary to reconnect the streets across Aurora Avenue North. He points out that the mayor's plans for a two-way Mercer and a skinny Valley reduce the overall number of lanes and traffic will flow less quickly along the boulevard and park promenade. Therefore, it will be necessary to connect streets across Aurora or face real gridlock. "It would make the worst traffic nightmare in the country," he claims.

Council member Conlin cautiously agrees that restitching the street grid will be necessary to make the mayor's Mercer corridor plan work. He, Steinbrueck, and Foley also say Vulcan lobbyists talked to them about the need to reconnect the grid before Nickels took office. Says Ceis, "It would be a tragedy to do something on Mercer without reconnecting the grid." Now, streets dead-end at Aurora, which severely limits their utility or their development potential.

Crunican is working out ways to reconnect the grid, including lowering Aurora and putting in overpasses ($210 million to $240 million) or putting stoplights on Aurora and creating working intersections just north of the Battery Street Tunnel ($35 million to $40 million). The cost is enormous on the former, and the impact on Aurora's traffic flow is tremendous on the latter. Put together the price tags of the Mercer corridor plan and reconnecting the street grid and you have an estimate of between $165 million and $415 million.

City Council Transportation Chair Richard Conlin is a streetcar skeptic. (Robin Laananen)

CRITICS SAY IT'S not a priority for the city. The mayor's Mercer corridor plan "is a real-estate play to make the park more accessible," says City Council member Licata, a populist fiscal watchdog. The studies show there would be no improvement in the time or the number of autos moved through the corridor, he argues. "What are we gaining?" Licata believes people want transportation money to go to the basicsnot into social engineering that will benefit big developers.

Architect Irene Wall, who serves on the state leadership group on the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, believes the Mercer corridor plan and restitching the grid are low on the list of the city's real transportation needs. "This is hardly a transportation priority for the city of Seattle," she says, suggesting that replacing the viaduct, the Highway 520 floating bridge between Seattle and Bellevue, and crumbling arterials should be higher priorities.

Critics and fans alike want to know how the mayor plans to pay for the projects.

VIADUCT TAPE

Nickels hopes to pay for the streetcar through the Regional Transportation Improvement District (RTID), a project list and financing plan that politicians want to put to tricounty voters (in King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties). The mayor hopes to divide the Mercer Mess costs between RTID and the viaduct-replacement megaproject, which might be financed with tolls and regional, state, and federal money. The mayor hopes to squeeze re-connecting the grid into the viaduct replacement, as well.

He has made some progress, getting $3 million in streetcar funding from the state Legislature through Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and $3 million from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "We are working aggressively on funding for the streetcar," Ceis says. "We're starting to piece it together." Nickels has also gotten $20 million for the streetcar and $71 million for the Mercer corridor placed on a draft list of projects that RTID would fund.

Opponents say tricounty voters will never approve this pork. "If they tie the Mercer projects to RTID, they will help bring it down," predicts Matthew Fox, a slow-growth advocate who watches South Lake Union closely. "It will be red meat for an opposition campaign."

WHAT WILL BE included in the viaduct replacement is also a contentious issue. Initial estimates by the Washington Department of Transportation run so highas much as $11.5 billionthat the planners are scaling it back. "You don't need to connect up South Lake Union and the west side of Aurora to solve a seismic problem on the viaduct," points out architect Wall. "That's just piling on."

The Nickels administration and Vulcan will continue to push to get these projects included, however. Both have lobbying might.

Ceis has some other ideas for scaring up dough. The mayor and Vulcan have been pushing the Legislature to allow Tax Increment Financinga controversial funding mechanism that would require changes in state law. Ceis also floats another suggestion. "Transportation-impact- fee proposals are being looked at and will be presented for the mayor's consideration the first of next year," he says.

Vulcan's Nank blanches at the thought of growth paying its own way, through development fees. "It would be way too early to even start looking at that," he declares.

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
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