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Thursday, April 17, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Coveted landmark status puts monorail authority in a bind

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seattle Landmarks Board voted unanimously yesterday to make the 41-year-old monorail an official historic landmark.

The designation creates a political roadblock for the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority (SPMA), which plans to tear out old monorail columns on Fifth Avenue to make way for the new 14-mile Green Line.

The historic designation includes the greenish-gray pylons, as well as the elegant Alweg trains. Landmarks board members consider the parts one system, indivisible.

Ed Brighton, a preservationist, pointed out its unique features. The train cars are more than 10 feet wide, roomier than subsequent monorails in Japan. Their aluminum cladding makes them unusually lightweight.

Landmarks board member Tom Veith said the aluminum "encapsulates Seattle's way of thinking of itself as the Jet City. In the 1960s, Boeing was even a more important part of the city than it is now."

The landmark request was filed last October by architects Susan Boyle and Andy Phillips. Officials from the SPMA and Seattle Center urged the board to preserve the trains, but let the old concrete structures be demolished.

They are hollow structures, installed as a temporary demonstration project for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Then-Gov. Albert Rosellini considered extending a monorail to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and local engineers studied a monorail to Shoreline.

"The role of this board should be to preserve history, not to prevent it," said Zander Batchelder, president of the Belltown Community Council.

Green Line attorney Roger Pearce said new trains manufactured by Hitachi and Bombardier, the two leading contenders for the $1.75 billion Green Line, cannot travel on the old guideways.

Now that the old monorail is deemed historic, negotiations are expected among landmarks officials, the city and the SPMA, which will soon assume ownership of the old monorail from the city.

If the sides can't agree on removing the old posts, the monorail authority may appeal to a hearing examiner, and ultimately a judge. Marianne Bichsel, a spokeswoman for Mayor Greg Nickels, said the mayor would favor tearing out the old structures if needed. "What Mayor Nickels is hoping is that we can preserve this route, preserve the historic significance of the monorail, but have it be a 21st-century transportation system. He's supportive of the Green Line. We want to use that route."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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