Urban Politics #263: Vulcan Circles Its Wagons – Council Speaks Up

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

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.


It’s Thursday, October 02, 2008, and it’s been a busy 48 hours since I sent out my last Urban Politics #262 which announced this coming Monday’s Forum on Sidewalks and the Mercer Project. This 48 hours began with a couple of news articles critical of the Mercer Project, one in Cross Cut and the other in the Stranger:

Also the day following my UP, and it probably was by chance, that Paul Allen’s Vulcan held an early morning Wednesday meeting in the Port of Seattle offices for the individuals or organizations that formerly comprised the Mercer Corridor Project Stakeholders Committee, an organization that Vulcan was instrumental in forming.

I say ‘instrumental’ and not something more finite because the formal role Vulcan has always been difficult to recognize. Vulcan’s informal role is generally acknowledged by everyone as one of being just another party promoting the development of South Lake Union. But their formal role has been deliberatively obscure, perhaps because any visible leadership role as the primary promoter of SLU development might draw attention to their considerable self-interest since they own fifty plus acres of real estate there.

Vulcan has sought to work through the SLUFAN (South Lake Union Friends and Neighbors) organization, which is at times is described as a neighborhood group, however by their by-laws only one slot is reserved for someone who lives in the neighborhood. For the most part it is dominated by property owners and developers, including a number of employees of businesses in SLU who are interested in urban design and development issues. Vulcan was also ‘instrumental’ in forming SLUFAN since its membership closely parallels their own development interests, more so than the prior existing group in SLU, the Cascade Neighborhood Council which is largely made up of residents.

Nevertheless despite having had kept a low profile Vulcan must have felt it necessary to quickly pull together a meeting since they had their own staff making calls to urge those who had attended the earlier stakeholders meeting to attend this very important gathering to save the Mercer Project. The Director of SDOT (Seattle Dept of Transportation) attended and gave a wrap up of the progress they were making in moving ahead with the Mercer Project. Its value or effectiveness was never questioned, in other words there was no room on the agenda for an informed critique.

I find it ironic that the one meeting that did not allow for an open discussion on the merits and problems presented by the Mercer Project was the one that Vulcan organized and sponsored in part by SLUFAN. Meanwhile in the past month I have attended a number of neighborhood groups and District Council meetings where both I and SDOT staff, or a pro-Mercer Project Council Member, have made presentations side by side. The result has always been a good discussion with a number of hard questions directed toward both presenters. In many instances if the District Council did not call SDOT, someone from that department would call them, sometimes within a couple of hours after confirming that I would be speaking, to request appearing on the agenda with me.

It was also announced at the Vulcan meeting that the rest of the City Council Members were going to sign a letter in support of the current Mercer Project. I heard about it later that morning from a participant at the meeting. I hadn’t been approached by anyone on the Council about the letter until it was dropped off at my office at the end of the day – fait accompli. Too bad.

I had talked to each of the Council Members in one-on-one sessions to review the traffic analysis in SDOT’s Environmental Assessment Report which revealed that the two-way Mercer resulted in a measurable increase in traffic congestion.  I also reviewed the more cost effective prior approved plan that the former Mayor and past Council had approved along with the neighborhood group. The response varied but several expressed concern about the high cost and questionable benefits resulting from the project. Consequently I was hopeful that some members were still open to evaluating this project in light of information which is just now becoming known.

Being an optimist I hope that if some of them attend Monday’s Forum and stay for the evening they may have a change of mind. A number of them have said they intend on being there. After I received their jointly signed letter, I sent out an email thanking them for sharing it with me and assured them that I would make it available at the Forum and that each would have time to address the audience if they wished and at their convenience.

I differ most primarily with their specific statement that they have made the Two-Way Mercer Project the City’s second highest priority for transportation capital projects because it will improve mobility for vehicles, freight, transit, pedestrians and bicyclists. All of the evidence to date released by SDOT shows that mobility is hindered rather than improved for vehicles, freight and transit through the corridor with this project. Pedestrian mobility is improved on Valley but not on Mercer since the increased congestion will likely result in a higher incidence of pedestrian collisions. However, under all scenarios including the alternative and retaining the current configuration, wider sidewalks, better signalized crossings and landscaping would be added. Mobility for bicyclists would be improved with this project over the previous alternative plan or the current configuration, but an addition of bicycle lanes on Valley in the alternative plan would address this shortcoming.

If you have the time, stop by the Forum this Monday, October 6th. It will be one of those rare occasions where a major public project will be subject to an expansive intelligent debate on its merits.

Monday, October 6

Doors open at 6pm with refreshments, presentation begins at 6:30pm

Bertha Knight Landes Room, City Hall, 4th Ave and James

Presentation by Council Member Nick Licata

Councilmember Licata proposes redirecting a $43 million bond allocated to the Mercer Project to building new sidewalks in Seattle, funding the recommendations of the Bicycle Master Plan, Pedestrian Master Plan, and providing a long-term capital program for meeting our freight mobility needs.

Reply to Presentation by SDOT

The Seattle Dept of Transportation (SDOT) has been invited to explain why the Mercer Corridor Project is needed and the $43 million should be spent on creating a two-way Mercer Street and a narrowed Valley Street.

An array of residential communities, business and employee groups, and transit advocate groups has been invited to make short statements in response to the presentations. Elected officials are also invited to comment and address the public.

Audience members will be polled on which approach achieves more transportation choices, lowers carbon emissions, encourages greater transit ridership, and promotes economic development.

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