Was the Mercer Megablock Deal a Megablunder?

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The Mercer Megablock site is 2.8 acres abutting Mercer Street and Dexter Avenue. (JLL)

On August 7th, Mayor Jenny Durkan finally unveiled the winner of the contest for the most coveted real estate parcel in town: the 2.8-acre publicly-owned Mercer Megablock site in South Lake Union. Turns out the Mayor selected a $143.5 million bid from Alexandria Real Estate, a publicly-traded real estate investment trust (REIT) specializing in biomedical campuses. The Mayor has not yet released the details of the other proposals, which included one from the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and some offers built on ground leases rather than sales. (Update: Erica C. Barnett did publish the proposals on her website–with some redactions.)

A ground lease would pay dividends in the future, advocates argued, by keeping the valuable land in public hands. The Mayor ultimately decided to sell off the property to maximize the payoff. Some of that payoff is immediate since Alexandria agreed to pay $5 million of the sale price now so that the City could make an immediate boost to homelessness funding–although the City has yet to disclose exactly how that money will be used. The rest of the cash will be at closing, which is expected in early 2020.

“This is a generational opportunity for Seattle,” Mayor Durkan said in a statement. “Cities our size rarely get the chance to take an underused property we own and make bold investments to create jobs, create more affordable and mixed income housing throughout the city, and build more safe transportation connections. I believe that years from now, people will look back at this chance and say we seized an incredible opportunity to make our City better by reinvesting the proceeds directly in housing across Seattle. I look forward to working with the City Council in the coming weeks to deliver these investments in housing, jobs, great public spaces, and transportation projects across Seattle.”

The Mercer Megablock Coalition, which had pressed the City to build primarily affordable housing on the site–a site that is large enough and zoned dense enough to accommodate nearly 1,400 homes in towers up to 27 stories tall. Among those advocates is Cary Moon, who ran against Mayor Durkan and lost in the general election. (The Urbanist endorsed Moon and the Mercer Megablock Coalition effort.) Given their differing visions for public land, it appears the fate of the Mercer Megablock was sealed in the 2017 mayoral election.

“A city shouldn’t sell off publicly owned land for a quick hit of cash to backfill programs, no matter how good those programs are,” Cary Moon said in an email. “Participating in the hot real estate market in this way, instead of building permanently affordable housing to dampen hotness and provide residents relief from it, only exacerbates the problem of wealthy people (Alexandria REIT shareholders) making bank and local regular people getting pushed out. This is an example of the city as capitalist, the mayor as gentrifier-in-chief.”

Alexandria envisions the three acres becoming a “fully integrated, mixed-use life science campus,” a senior executive said–the office towers are expected to be about 16 stories tall. The proposal also includes 30,000-square-foot public community center, protected bike lane extensions, and 175 affordable-housing units. Additionally, Alexandria purchased the neighboring privately-owned half-acre Copiers Northwest site (for $28.5 million) to build housing and expand the campus. The community center will be operated by Seattle Parks and Recreation and pay no rent for 40 years.

Mercer Mega Block mixed-use massing example. (Tiscareno Associates)

Though it didn’t go the way the coalition wanted, the Mercer Megablock going on the market did raise awareness of the issue of underutilized public land and the need to put more land, not less in public ownership. In fact, responding to advocates, the City Council passed a new public land disposition policy last summer that made it easier for the City to give publicly-owned land to nonprofit developers, with Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda leading the way.

“Last fall, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution stating that when possible, city-owned property should be used to build affordable housing,” Josh Cohen recounted in Crosscut. “Advocates argued that using the Mercer Megablock to build thousands of units of affordable housing in the heart of the city would be a logical step in the face of Seattle’s ongoing affordable housing shortage. But Budget Director Noble said the private sale has facilitated far more housing and other public benefit at a lower cost to the city.”

“We would’ve forgone way too many things,” Noble said. “For one, we would’ve had to find revenue for building the housing, which, as we know, we have a shortage of.”

For Moon tackling the larger revenue issue is the point.

Minor Improvements Planned for West Seattle Bus Routes

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The Seattle Squeeze is still on, affecting bus routes to and from West Seattle. Until a new pathway opens on Alaskan Way in 2021 as part of the Waterfront Seattle program, King County Metro is left with limited pathways and solutions to ease the pain for riders headed into and out of Downtown Seattle. This week, Metro outlined several strategies that the transit agency and Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) are pursuing in the interim. Some of the strategies are based off of ideas that riders themselves provided to the agencies.

Approximately a dozen West Seattle routes are still routinely affected by the ongoing Seattle Squeeze. These include Routes 21X, 37, 55, 56, 57, 113, 120, 121, 122, 123, and 125 as well as the RapidRide C Line. To complicate matters, buses are running along First Avenue between Edgar Martinez Dr S and Cherry Street to reach Downtown Seattle instead of the Alaskan Way Viaduct due to its closure, forcing them onto surface streets sooner and delayed by congestion and stoplights.

Target locations for changes this year are on First Avenue and nearby streets where West Seattle bus routes are currently operating. Improvements to be deployed involve adjusting signal timing. Several intersections will get revised signal timing, including 1st Ave S at S Dearborn St and Alaskan Way S at S Dearborn St, to improve bus operations. Along the First Avenue corridor in Pioneer Square generally, SDOT will give priority to north-south traffic at stop lights. Other changes will target pre-game times in the area with special signal timing adjustments to keep buses moving.

Show Up for MASS Transportation Package at Council 2pm Friday

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Green New Deal and Seattle Streetcar supporters drove turn out at this transportation committee hearing. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

The Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) coalition is pushing for safe streets and has a package of transportation legislation they want passed by the end of year. If the City is serious about climate action, it simply must make it easier to get around without a car since transportation emissions are by far and away Seattle’s largest source. At 2pm on Friday, August 9th, members of the coalition are presenting the MASS Transportation Package to Seattle City Council. We urge you to attend the meeting at City Hall (and RSVP on Facebook) or call your Councilmembers in support of the MASS package.

MASS is teaming up with Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Abel Pacheco to hold the briefing on the MASS Transportation Package at a special meeting of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee. MASS is asking City Council move on the first three pieces of legislation right away, with more in store for budget season stemming from MASS’s overall vision for the package. Those first three pieces are:

  1. A Bicycle Safety Ordinance: It would require that when the City does major road work, it also makes any improvements listed in the Bicycle Master Plan at the same time. If the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) doesn’t follow the Bicycle Master Plan, it must explain to the City Council and to the public why this isn’t possible.
  2. Request More Funding for Bicycle Implementation Plan: A resolution requesting that unfunded projects in the Bicycle Implementation Plan be funded, including all South Seattle projects (currently only funded for study) and two-way bike lanes on 4th Avenue in Downtown Seattle.
  3. Off-Sidewalk Bike and Scooter Parking: A resolution requesting that in 2020, SDOT double the number of planned off-sidewalk bike and scooter parking spaces (bike corrals) to ensure pedestrian access on sidewalks and continue to rebalance the allocation of street space for people, rather than just for cars. 

If you cannot attend, please take a moment to send Mayor Jenny Durkan and the nine City Councilmembers an email in support of these three measures. You can use this handy form to email them all simultaneously:

Email the Mayor and Councilmembers now!

Levy Oversight Committee Picks Neighborhood Street Fund Projects

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On Tuesday night, as Seattle awaited the first results in the primary election, the Levy to Move Seattle Oversight Committee selected which projects across the city would receive around $8 million in grants for street improvements.

The projects were submitted by Seattle residents earlier this year, then prioritized via online survey, and finally the most popular projects were put to a vote earlier this spring. After more than 6,500 online votes as well as some in-person voting opportunities that the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods created to hear from a broader segment of the city, the top projects were forwarded over to the dozen or so members of the oversight committee to make the final choices.

Neighborhood Street Fund Process (City of Seattle)

The levy oversight committee was encouraged to focus on projects that would disproportionally serve communities in Seattle that have historically been underrepresented in transportation spending. That suggests focusing on projects that were higher-rated by the more widely representative in-person voting events which stood in contrast with the online voting, where respondents skewed older and whiter and District 6-er.

This is the second round of locally prioritized grants that has been paid for via the Move Seattle levy, with many of the projects selected in 2016 now completed. One notable exception, however, is the safety project at Mercer Middle School in Beacon Hill that was essentially cancelled after neighbors pushed back against traffic calming.

Because the first round of grants ran over budget, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) had reduced the amount available in this round of grants, but ended up allowing the board to pick almost $8 million, or just under $2 million more than had been allocated, by taking the money from the last round of street fund grants in 2022. This makes a certain amount of sense, as there were projects that were worthy of getting funding and projects will cost more in three years as a result of inflation.

Here are the winning projects that were selected Tuesday night:

Committee Greenlights $9 Million to Continue Center City Streetcar Project

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First Hill Streetcar with Smith Tower in background. (Credit: Doug Trumm)

Last week the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) requested $9 million to keep the Center City Connector streetcar project moving. Yesterday, the Council’s transportation committee voted in favor of making the appropriation and moved it to the full Seattle City Council, which will vote on Monday.

The $9 million would tie up the remaining loose ends for engineering and designing the line and result in an actionable plan with clarity on the budget shortfall, now estimated at $65 million, and on the timeline. A large portion of the budget shortfall stems from the project’s delay, which means escalation in construction costs. Slated to open in mid-2020 before Mayor Jenny Durkan paused the project, SDOT is now aiming for a 2026 opening with the Mayor vowing support for the project.

Public comment on the streetcar was overwhelmingly positive both last week and on Tuesday. A variety of benefits were cited, from helping seniors and low-income riders get around more easily to lowering climate emissions to boosting tourism along the line. Some folks also stressed the promises of a connected streetcar network that were made to communities when they accepted construction impacts from the First Hill Streetcar. The Center City Connector is the missing link to make that happen and create a consolidated line uniting the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars.

The Center City Connector closes the key central gap in Seattle’s streetcar network. (Seattle Streetcar Coalition)

The $100 Million Question

Before transportation chair Mike O’Brien voted for the appropriation, he asked for (and did) a little budget math to understand what’s at stake. While SDOT’s latest budget for the project is about $208 million with another $77 million for utility work, most of that money cannot be recovered by canceling the project. For starters, SDOT has already spent about $45 million on the project and $75 million is in federal grants that are not transferable. Some other budget items are likewise not recoverable or come with closeout costs. In short, SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe said of the $285 million budget, only $100 million could be recovered for other projects if the City cancels the streetcar.

After crunching budget numbers and discussing ridership projections, Councilmembers O’Brien and Abel Pacheco voted in favor of the appropriation. The rest of the council will get a say on Monday. Councilmember Lisa Herbold has been a vocal critic and likely to vote no, but most others seem amenable. That said, it would be prudent to send the Council an email or give them a call to make sure they vote the right way.

Projecting Ample Ridership

SDOT presented a projected daily ridership projection of 18,100 for the consolidated streetcar network in its memo to council–a 230% increase over existing streetcar ridership. However, an SDOT spokesperson noted that figure was from 2018 modeling using a hypothetical 2019 opening, and SDOT would update that figure for a 2026 opening once design funding is approved by Council. The updated ridership projection appears likely to be considerably higher.

Climate Leaders Are Hammering Out the Details of Seattle’s Green New Deal

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Youth climate activists rally in front of Seattle City Hall. (Photo by author)

“We’re on the right side of history, the Green New Deal,” sang the Seattle Raging Grannies during public comment at the beginning of yesterday’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee meeting. The grannies, who sing songs for social change, brought a spark of optimism to the serious topic of the climate crisis, which Councilmember Mike O’Brien, long a champion of environmental causes on the council, appears to be taking on with zeal during his final months in elected office.

Councilmember O’Brien has sponsored two important pieces of Green New Deal legislation that are planned to go to a full City Council vote next Monday. This vote comes a little over a month after the Council voted unanimously to endorse the Seattle Green New Deal, representing a potentially rapid turn toward climate action for a city that first recognized the “crisis of global warming” in a resolution passed back in 1992.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien spoke at a press release before the City Council announced its intention to endorse the Green New Deal for Seattle in June. (Credit: Seattle Channel)

In press conference held directly before the committee meeting, organizers with 350 Seattle and Got Green demanded that the City Council take immediate action by calling for the City Council to follow in King County’s lead and pass an immediate moratorium on all new fossil fuel infrastructure in the city and Port of Seattle. The organizers have also called for Seattle to follow Berkeley’s example and prohibit fossil fuels from being connected to new residential and commercial buildings. Last month, Berkeley became the first U.S. city to ban natural gas in new low-rise buildings and homes.

“The first step to getting out of the climate hole is to stop digging it deeper,” said Jess Wallach, a 350 Seattle organizer who helped lead the King County campaign. Wallach was also a presenter during the discussion of resolution that would outline the Green New Deal’s specific goals and identifies actions necessary to meet those goals. Also discussed at the meeting was an ordinance which would establish a Green New Deal Oversight Board as well as an interdepartmental team to advance the Green New Deal policies and programs.

While an initial framework for the Green New Deal seems to be taking shape, many important details remain to be defined. Councilmember O’Brien has also called on the public to contribute their thoughts and opinions on the proposed legislation prior to Monday’s vote, and he has pledged continued public engagement and responsiveness throughout process of transforming the Green New Deal from vision to action.

2019 August Primary Election Results: Early Returns

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As of 8pm this evening, the early returns for the 2019 August Primary have been posted. Counting will continue over the coming weeks, usually with daily counts being released after 4pm. The Urbanist Election Board made endorsements in several Seattle and King County races last month, but some of our preferred candidates look headed for defeat in the Top 2 primary.

On the plus side, Seattle City Council candidates Tammy Morales, Kshama Sawant, and Shaun Scott all appear headed to the General Election in their respective races. Scott will have a showdown with car activist Alex Pedersen, who leads handily in Council District 4. Also note that Urbanist-endorsed Abigail Doerr automatically advances to the General because she is the only challenger against incumbent King Council Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles.

Below is a roundup of the early results, including non-endorsed races across King County and Snohomish County.

Key: Bold Text = leading, I = Incumbent, * = Endorsed Candidate/Measure

King County

  • Proposition No. 1 – Parks, Recreation, Trails and Open Space Levy: Yes* 67%, No 33%
  • Council District No. 2: Girmay Zahilay 52%, Larry Gossett (I) 39%, Stan Lippmann 8%
  • Council District No. 8: Joe McDermott (I) 82%, Michael Neher 12%, Goodspaceguy 5%

Snohomish County

  • County Executive: Dave Somers (I) 93%
  • Council District No. 2: Anna Rohrbough 36%, Jennifer Gregerson 13%, Megan Dunn 12%
  • Council District No. 3: Stephanie Wright (I) 78%, Willie Russell 11%, Meier Lowenthal 10%

Port of Seattle

  • Commissioner Position No. 2: Sam Cho 28%, Grant Degginger 26%, Preeti Shridhar* 17%
  • Commissioner Position No. 5: Fred Felleman (I) 70%, Garth Jacobson 22%, Jordan Lemmon 8%

City of Seattle

  • Proposition No. 1 – Property Tax Levy Renewal for The Seattle Public Library: Yes* 73%, No 27%
  • Council District No. 1: Lisa Herbold (I) 48%, Phil Tavel 34%, Brendan Kolding 18%
  • Council District No. 2: Tammy Morales* 45%, Mark Solomon 25%, Ari Hoffman 14%
  • Council District No. 3: Kshama Sawant* (I) 33%, Egan Orion 24%, Pat Murakami 14%, Zachary DeWolf 13%
  • Council District No. 4: Alex Pedersen 45%, Shaun Scott* 19%, Cathy Tuttle* 13%, Emily Myers 11%
  • Council District No. 5: Debora Juarez (I) 42%, Ann Davison Sattler 28%, John Lombard 14%
  • Council District No. 6: Dan Strauss 31%, Heidi Wills 23%, Sergio García 15%, Jay Fathi 14%
  • Council District No. 7: Andrew Lewis 29%, Jim Pugel 27%, Daniela Lipscomb-Eng 10%, Michael George* 9%

Seattle Public Schools

  • Director District No. 1: Eric Blumhagen 40%, Liza Rankin 37%, Michael Christophersen 12%
  • Director District No. 3: Chandra Hampson 55%, Rebeca Muniz 24%, Benjamin Leis 20%
  • Director District No. 6: Leslie Harris (I) 53%, Molly Mitchell 33%, Crystal Liston 11%

City of Bellevue

  • Council Position No. 1: John Stokes (I) 61%, Holly Zhang 20%, Martin Acevedo 18%
  • Council Position No. 3: Jeremy Barksdale 58%, Stephanie Walter 38%, Kya Michael Aatai 4%
  • Council Position No. 5: Janice Zahn (I) 57%, Mark Wilson 17%, JD Yu 16%
  • Council Position No. 7: Jennifer Robertson (I) 58%, James Bible 22%, Marguerite Ye 14%

City of Redmond

  • Mayor: Angela Birney 54%, Steve Fields 35%, Andrew Koeppen 11%
  • Council Position No. 7: David Carson (I) 41%, Carlos Jimenez 29%, Osama Hamdan 17%

City of Renton

  • Mayor: Armondo Pavone 28%, Marciee Maxwell 27%, Ruth Perez 23%
  • Council Position No. 3: Valerie O’Halloran 34%, James Alberson 32%, Linda Smith 24%

City of Shoreline

  • Council Position No. 4: David Chen 50%, Doris McConnell (I) 31%, Ginny Scantlebury 18%

Public Hospital District No. 2 (EvergreenHealth)

  • Proposition No. 1 – Bonds for the EvergreenHealth Hospital and Medical Campus: Approved 58% (needs 60% or more to pass), Rejected 42%

Every 40 Days Train Collisions Happen in the Rainier Valley

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Collisions have happened near Othello Station due to the lack of crossing barriers at the intersection. (Credit: Doug Trumm)

Sound Transit has been operating Central Link since 2009, and in that time period, the light rail line has been consistently plagued by collisions throughout the Rainier Valley where it crosses intersections at-grade. Of the 92 collisions along Martin Luther King Way, Jr. S, 69 have been with vehicles. Another 16 collisions have been with pedestrians. On average, a collision in the Rainier Valley occurs every 40 days.

Generally speaking, collisions are not the fault of light rail vehicle operators. Rather, a mix of the existing infrastructure and inherent conflict interaction with other road users lend the system to occasional collisions.

By design, light rail vehicles are supposed to have the right-of-way and equipment is installed along the at-grade sections to reduce the likelihood of collisions. For instance, some pedestrian crossings require opening of a gate or zigzagging to cross light rail tracks and blinking warning signs notify motorists of approaching light rail vehicles. Nevertheless, collisions are frequent and heavily concentrated in the Rainier Valley where the light rail line is not grade-separated.

Collisions create numerous problems:

  • Collisions pose considerable safety risks obviously. Any time there is a pedestrian-train or bicyclist-train collision, the stakes are high for a fatality or severe injury. (Sound Transit says most pedestrian collisions are accidental incidents, not suicides or homicides.)
  • Train-on-vehicle collisions often result in significant damage to the vehicle and train, and can lead to serious injuries or fatalities in vehicles.
  • Collisions disrupt light rail service and often cause cascading impacts to the overall transit network. This will only be more problematic as light rail extensions are integrated into shared sections of the Central Link system.
  • Longer-term impacts of collisions can mean that light rail vehicles have to be taken out of operation for extended periods of time for repair (typically about three weeks). That can put Sound Transit in an operational crunch.
  • Collisions can create exposure to high financial liabilities.
  • Additionally, even when collisions are averted, train operators may be forced to slam on the breaking system, which can be incredibly abrupt to passengers, risking their safety. Likewise, near-collisions for bicyclists and motorists can still result in personal injuries.

In terms of service disruptions in the Rainier Valley, part of the reason why collisions are so acute in system-wide disruptions is that Sound Transit has to close at least one track and reroute trains off the affected track. Crossover tracks in the Rainier Valley are spread across the corridor near S Walden St, S Othello St, and Rainier Beach Station. However, that is not enough to minimize the inevitable service impacts.

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