Landowners hop aboard Lake Union streetcar line
Seattle Times staff reporter
Construction of a new South Lake Union streetcar line is expected to start in the spring, now that the vast majority of area property owners have agreed to pay $25.7 million — slightly more than half the total tab — to build the 1.3-mile line.
The official protest period for property owners opposed to the streetcar ended last week with only 12 of the affected owners objecting. They represent just 1.5 percent of the property that would be assessed a charge for the line.
To stop the project, owners representing 60 percent of the proposed assessments would have had to protest.
The streetcar, with an expected construction cost of $48.2 million, would run between Westlake Center and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, mainly serving residents and workers in the growing South Lake Union neighborhood.
"We got gigantic approval from property owners," Michael Mann, deputy director of the city's strategic-planning office, said about the local improvement district that would be created to pay 53 percent of the construction tab.
Mann said the city has hired a builder, Stacy & Witbeck of Portland, and is negotiating to buy three streetcars for roughly $3 million apiece, with service scheduled to start in late 2007.
Unhappy landowners met Wednesday night to discuss options and vent frustrations. Several said they might sue to stop the streetcar, although the cost of that could be prohibitive.
Others said they felt steamrolled by the streetcar plan, which has been backed by Paul Allen's development company, Vulcan, Mayor Greg Nickels and the City Council. They're also disturbed that some owners, including The Seattle Times, got their proposed assessments reduced in recent months.
"We're not trying to stop the makeover of the neighborhood. We're only fighting for small businesses to pay a fair share for the streetcar," said L. Monty Holmes, who owns the Athletic Awards company property near the corner of Ninth Avenue North and Republican Street.
Holmes led two campaigns in the 1990s to defeat the Seattle Commons project, which would have created a huge park in the South Lake Union area, displacing some merchants. Holmes has no illusions that he and a small band of property owners can stop the streetcar.
"The only way to stop it is if you grab half of Paul Allen's money and go against him with it," said Holmes, 76, who was born on a Lake Union houseboat and started driving trucks in the area in 1949.
Holmes argues the streetcar would not benefit his property, which is already well-served by buses, and says his proposed assessment of $14,162 is excessive. Assessments may be paid in a lump sum or in installments over time.
Mann insists the process has been fair. Following orders from the City Council, Mann hired an appraiser to study benefits that landowners likely would derive from the streetcar.
The appraiser considered 760 parcels that would be inside the area's local improvement district and concluded the streetcar would spur nearby development and increase property values in the district by $68 million.
The appraiser, Deborah Foreman of Allen Brackett Shedd in Bellevue, assigned each parcel a share of that benefit and a proposed assessment.
Allen's company, which holds 60 acres in the area, would pay more than any owner — $8 million.
But John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition noted that a dozen landowners, including The Seattle Times, had their initial assessments reduced a total $657,141 in recent months. Fox believes these owners got a chance to argue down their charges, but that others didn't.
Not so, responded Mann and Foreman. They said owners of all 760 parcels were sent letters in July that showed their estimated assessments and invited them to learn how the city arrived at the figures.
Some owners disagreed with their assessments, which led Foreman to look closer and revise some assessments. The largest reductions went to the owners of Pacific Place ($209,235), The Seattle Times ($156,853), Comprise Venture ($141,897) and Denny Park Lutheran Church ($65,218), according to city records.
In the case of Pacific Place, Foreman said, she discovered the shopping mall's usable space was less than what King County data showed.
In the case of The Seattle Times, Foreman said she miscalculated the redevelopment potential of several parcels, treating two large ones as if they could be developed into offices. But company spokeswoman Jill Mackie pointed out that one property was already used for offices and The Times had spent millions to renovate it, and the other is the company's main parking lot and can't be used for any other purpose.
Foreman said she must substantiate such claims or they might not might survive legal challenges by other owners.
Mann urged property owners to e-mail city employee Kim Nunes (email@example.com) if they want to review their assessment with Foreman. He and Foreman agreed the city might save money if owners raised questions now rather than next year, when assessments can be appealed to a city hearing examiner.
The City Council is expected to approve final assessments in early 2006, the last step before streetcar construction starts.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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