Urban Politics #160: Resolution On South Lake Union


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Assisted by Legislative Assistant Lisa Herbold on this issue.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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CONTENTS:

  • Council Resolution On SLU
  • Transportation Improvements
  • Community Involvement
  • Economic Development

Council Resolution On SLU

After much discussion the Council acted last Monday (June 9th) and passed Resolution 30610 affirming the City’s commitment to revitalize South Lake Union (SLU). I believe that the Council worked collaboratively to support a healthier environment for SLU.

Some critiques have characterized this resolution as providing a cart blanch for the Vulcan Corporation which owns more than 40 acres in this area. I disagree with that characterization. The City makes no financial commitment to any projects through this resolution.

Furthermore, as part of that process I made a number of amendments to the Resolution to accomplish the objectives listed below.

1. Transportation funding for the Mercer Corridor should be subject to further review of configurations, impacts, costs and alternatives

2. Continue to assess transportation impacts of development projects

3. Continue support for the Comp Plan goals and policies developed through the SLU Neigh Plan, including a concern to keep SLU a mixed-use neighborhood.

4. Ensure proper public involvement that includes community members & councils, residents, businesses owners & managers, and developers

Transportation Improvements

The Mayor’s proposal for transportation improvements in South Lake Union includes an expansion of Mercer Street from a one-way configuration to a two-way configuration. This is may conflict with the Neighborhood Plan proposal and subsequent Comp Plan policy, because this plan would require significant right of way acquisition from private property owners, including a likely need to re-purchase 2-3 properties sold to Vulcan Northwest just 3 years ago.

The neighborhood plan process rejected a similar proposal after a transportation consultant studied the proposal and found that it would not alleviate the Mercer Mess, in other words it would neither decrease travel time, nor would it increase road capacity for vehicles.

Ignoring and thus upsetting residents, property owners, and employers by promoting a new plan for expanding Mercer Street without consulting them will make it more likely that solving the congestion on Mercer St. will be delayed through various lawsuits.

For this reason I amended the resolution to include the following recital: “WHEREAS, the Council reaffirms its support of Comprehensive Plan policies relating to transportation and South Lake Union, specifically: P13: Encourage Mercer/Valley improvements that support development of South Lake Union Park, city-owned parcels and other adjacent properties; P14: Favor a set of improvements that are reasonably fundable and that do not require excessive new right-of-way; and P15 Explore transportation improvements that would link South Lake Union and Lower Queen Anne.”

The City has paid for numerous transportation studies for this area. Two of these studies have come to the same conclusions that widening Mercer Street from a one-way 4 lane configuration to a two-way 8 lane configuration does very little to decrease travel times or increase road capacity.

The general public thinks that the Council is contemplating a $75-95 million dollar investment to “fix the Mercer mess.” Yet, for instance, the April 2003 South Lake Union Transportation Study by Parsons Brinkerhoff study shows that under the Mayor’s proposed two-way Mercer plan the travel time almost doubles from the Seattle Center to I-5 in comparison to just continuing the existing configuration. We need to know what we are going to get for this proposed $75 million expenditure.

We need to review the Parsons Brinkerhoff study and share its findings with the public. To that end I had the Resolution include a whereas that said the City would review this report ” and preliminary engineering data, and will continue to do further review of possible configurations, and costs and benefits, and will work with the community as various options are explored for the Mercer Corridor.”

In conjunction with recognizing the need to review relevant studies, I also added language that changes the direction that the Council is giving to the Executive in negotiating a Regional Transit Package. The original resolution gave the Mayor the go ahead to pursue funding in the Regional Transit Package that would only implement the Mayor’s proposed Mercer Expansion project. What if after review of the studies and further consultation with the community we decide that the Mercer Expansion is not a wise use of public money?

In answering that question I inserted language that said as we advocate for transportation funding for the Mercer Corridor we could also advocate for “alternatives (subject to further review of configurations, impacts, costs and alternatives) in the regional transportation funding package.”

This last amendment may be one of the most important ones for the future of the revitalization of South Lake Union. It allows the Mayor to include funding in negotiating a Regional Transportation Package for an alternative to the current proposed two-way Mercer proposal if it is shown to be more cost-effective. The City should have the flexibility to use funds for other South Lake Union transportation needs if the Mercer Expansion delivers too little in the way of actual transit related improvements.

Lastly I amended the resolution to say that the Council supports “Continuing the work identified in the scope attached to Ordinance 120767 to create a new methodology for characterizing transportation system performance and assessing impacts of development projects.” This refers to a long-term project by DCLU to study and identify a way to access transportation impact fees to fairly spread the costs of transportation improvements to the immediate beneficiaries.

Community Involvement

We mustn’t throw out the old, while bringing in the new. SLU has a neighborhood plan; we can make changes to it, but let’s do it collaboratively with broad involvement from community stakeholders. In the resolution we specifically mentioned the following stakeholders: “a broad group of community members, including residents, businesses, social service agencies, neighborhood planning stewardship group, community councils, and property owners, managers and developers.”

The Council has said that it will ensure “proper public involvement” to create an overall neighborhood character that is livable, attractive, economically robust, and a regional model of economic revitalization. In the past the City involved the neighborhood in creating a neighborhood plan. As we make changes to it due to receiving new unanticipated funding initiatives, let’s get the input of the people we’ve asked to plan as well as other interested groups.

It is important for both branches of government, the Council and the Executive, to be accountable in meeting this expectation and that we follow this model before we propose new spending on SLU public capital projects.

To let the public know that the City recognizes the objectives that have been identified in the past, the Resolution stated that there would be “Continuing support for the following Comprehensive Plan goals and policies for South Lake Union Neighborhood Character developed through the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan:

a. A mixed use neighborhood with an emphasis on small business and light industry.

b. Strategies that promote diversity of building types and inherent qualities of neighborhood sub-areas through development of design guidelines.

c. Vehicular access and adequate parking to serve area businesses.

d. Housing that does not conflict with the business character of the neighborhood.

e. Support the placement of social service facilities based on citywide siting policies.

f. Encourage development of incentives that encourage preservation, reuse and rehabilitation of historically significant structures in the neighborhood.

These are the issues that people tell me that they are worried about as we redevelop South Lake Union. With this language the Council is saying that our policy in the future development of SLU will strive to preserve the historic character of the neighborhood.

Economic Development

As we attract new and vibrant industries to Seattle, we must recognize and reduce the financial risk the City may face. This cautious approach should also be applied to making land use changes and public investments in SLU in order to attract the biotech industry.

Undue financial risks are not good for economic revitalization and can actually hurt long-term goals for the health of our community. I want to continue a fiscal policy of diversified infrastructure investment in all of Seattle’s neighborhoods while we pursue making Seattle an attractive locale for the biotech industry. As we pursue new industries let’s not do it at the expense of our traditional businesses in other neighborhoods.

Attracting more jobs and hopefully more housing to SLU, we lead us to need a new City Light substation at some point.

I had a concern that we may move too quickly to build a new City Light substation specialized to the specific needs of the biotech industry. In my discussions with City Light staff it appears that they are taking a reasonable step-by-step approach to meeting the new power demand needs of SLU.

Nevertheless, the Council must remain vigilant and make sure that we “build as we grow.” We want to meet the capacity needs of new City Light customers without creating “ghost facilities” if the customers do not end up needing to use the power. We also want to ensure that we do not burden the ratepayers with the debt associated with a new substation. Rates will increase for all ratepayers if we build a substation with debt and a sufficient number of new ratepayers are not added to pay off the debt. To that end I added language to the Resolution that said we should minimize “the City’s financial risk and disruption to the community”.

Keep in touch…

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