Nickels names desire: streetcar to South Lake Union
Seattle Times staff reporters
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels wants a new 2.5-mile streetcar line to run from Westlake Center to the city's South Lake Union park and on to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The city's blueprint calls for public outreach to start later this month and construction to begin by mid-2004 — if the city can round up the necessary financing, estimated at $40 million.
The streetcar is key to billionaire Paul Allen's plans to develop 10 million square feet of office and residential space in the South Lake Union area. Nickels said Allen and other property owners who could benefit from a streetcar line — including The Seattle Times Co. — would be asked to help pay for the project.
The model for Seattle's new streetcar proposal is clearly the 4.7-mile line that helped to spur development of a chic new Portland neighborhood, the Pearl District.
"Obviously that's a very exciting model and a success story in a city not as dynamic as Seattle," said Nickels.
Financing Seattle's new streetcar project could be very difficult, Nickels acknowledged, but streetcars are relatively inexpensive. Portland's line cost $56 million to build, or $12 million per mile. Sound Transit's light-rail project would cost about $150 million per mile.
Allen and other property owners are expected to contribute about $20 million, or roughly half of Seattle's new streetcar startup cost. For Nickels' plan to work, property owners would have to agree to impose a tax on themselves through a mechanism called a "local improvement district."
In Portland, property owners contributed about $10 million to the streetcar through such a tax.
Nickels did not want to announce his streetcar plans until he gave his State of the City speech later this month. But The Seattle Times learned some details of the city's plans through a public-records request, prompting Nickels to disclose more.
"It's an aggressive schedule," Nickels said of the city's streetcar timeline. "I think there's an opportunity for the streetcar to be a catalyst for South Lake Union taking off."
20,000 new jobs
The mayor's office hopes that the area will become a job center for the biotech industry, as well as a growing residential area.
The city forecasts 20,000 new jobs in the South Lake Union area in the next 20 years.
"The area is currently very underserved by transit, and this lack of service is a great development inhibitor," said Mary Jean Ryan, director of the city's Office of Policy and Management. "We think by linking the neighborhood via the streetcar to Westlake Center — location for the bus tunnel, monorail and Sound Transit — that we will greatly improve mobility for workers and for residents."
The route would be Seattle's second streetcar line. Metro Transit began operating a historic trolley along the waterfront 20 years ago. The new streetcar would feature sleek new cars built in the Czech Republic.
Development of the streetcar line comes as Allen's company, Vulcan, has begun redeveloping the 50 acres of property it owns in South Lake Union — much of which sits along the proposed route.
The company is building two biotech facilities on Westlake Avenue and hopes to break ground this year on a mixed-use development at Denny Way and Westlake Avenue that would include a grocery store, condos and offices.
Vulcan has pushed the idea of streetcar lines in recent presentations about its plans for South Lake Union. The company also envisions routes running east and west, providing connections to Seattle Center and the proposed Ballard-to-West Seattle monorail and the Sound Transit light-rail line.
Vulcan spokesman Michael Nank yesterday stressed that the project would be a boon for other businesses as well.
"Transportation would definitely help any business in South Lake Union, be it Vulcan or be it Guitar Center," he said.
Parking among the issues
Concerns about the proposed streetcar are already beginning to surface in the neighborhood; chief among them is whether the tracks would take up valuable parking space.
"Parking is one of the biggest issues for businesses in the area, and things like that begin to spell the death of who is there today," said Mike Foley, a board member of South Lake Union Friends and Neighbors. The city is supposed to brief the neighborhood group on the streetcar plan Jan. 20.
Other issues will also have to be addressed, Foley said, including how streetcars would affect traffic as they crossed intersections with the congestion-prone Denny Way and Mercer Street.
Kerry Coughlin, spokeswoman for The Seattle Times Co., said the new streetcar project "sounds intriguing." But Coughlin said the company, which has roughly 1,500 employees in the area, doesn't "know enough at this point to say we do or do not support the project."
Other major property owners in the area include the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Clise Properties.
Developer Al Clise, who owns property in the Denny Regrade along the proposed route, said the streetcar idea is promising, but he hasn't seen enough details to know for sure if he'll support it.
Biggest problem: money
Nickels conceded that money was the chief obstacle facing the new streetcar.
It's not clear where public financing for a streetcar would come from. The city will seek money from federal, state and regional sources.
One possible option is the three-county Regional Transportation Investment District, which hopes to present a package of proposed transportation improvements and tax increases to voters this fall. A draft project list for King County, unveiled last month, includes $20 million for the South Lake Union project.
Metropolitan King County Councilman Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, a member of the district's executive board, said he added the streetcar to the list at Seattle's request.
"I think Vulcan and the city have some very positive designs for that area (South Lake Union)," Pelz said. "The streetcar would be part of that redesign strategy."
But the draft list represents the negotiating positions of Pelz and other players in the regional debate more than it reflects consensus. And the streetcar isn't eligible for funding under the year-old law that created the Regional Transportation Investment District.
Among other things, the law requires that regional money go only for projects associated with major state highways. Pelz, Nickels, King County Executive Ron Sims and others hope to persuade the Legislature to change the law to allow more spending on transit.
Getting money from the regional package is a long shot, Nickels admitted.
The city has a long list of transportation needs — and not enough money for them. Nickels said the city's transportation budget could be tapped to pay for preliminary design work on the streetcar. But the City Council would have to approve any substantive financing for the project.
Councilman Richard Conlin, who chairs the council's transportation committee, emphasized the importance of having property owners along the streetcar route help pay for it.
In its first year, the Portland streetcar line had 1.35 million boardings, and city officials are working to extend the line. The streetcar is run as a nonprofit organization, with a $2.4 million annual operating budget. It recovered only $69,000 in $1.25 fares in its first year, as two-thirds of its line runs through the city's "Fareless Square" — an area like Seattle's downtown, where transit riders are not charged.
The Portland system collected an additional $250,000 in sponsorships. Most of the rest of its money came from a regional transit agency and parking-meter revenues.
The city of Seattle has hired Ken Johnsen to manage its nascent streetcar project. Johnsen's consulting firm — Shiels Obletz Johnsen — was instrumental in bringing Portland's streetcar to life, and the firm plays a part in running it.
Johnsen stressed that one of the benefits of the streetcar is that construction can occur quickly because the tracks are laid close to the street surface and don't require relocating utility lines.
"In Portland, the mantra was 'three blocks in three weeks,' " Johnsen said. Seattle hopes it can build its new streetcar line in 15 months, he added.