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West Seattle’s light-rail path finally takes shape, at a price

From their back kitchen windows, Marilyn Kennell and Alan McMurray can visualize a Sound Transit light-rail bridge soaring 150 feet above the Duwamish River, from where trackways would slice the tip off deciduous Pigeon Point on their path toward Nucor Steel.

Looking out the front door, the future’s less panoramic. Neighbors across the street received official letters saying their houses could be condemned to make room for concrete trackways.

“The trees will be gone, the houses will be gone. We will not have a neighborhood,” Kennell said.

So the couple joined Rethink the Link, a coalition that seeks a “no-build option,” when transit board members vote on a final route in 2024. Some skeptics want more neighborhood protection. Others want to cancel the project, but virtually no political momentum exists to turn back on the voter-approved 4.7-mile extension.

The mission, according to a Federal Transit Administration fact sheet, “is to bring improved mobility to a sector of the city that is historically more isolated and with fewer mobility options.”

Seven years after the Sound Transit 3 tax measure, the light-rail map is finally taking shape in West Seattle, where transit staff recently showed off new diagrams at in-person and online open houses. Three new train stops on the peninsula, connected to an expanded Sodo Station, are now scheduled to open in 2032, two years later than the original target.

One takeaway is that residents of the semisuburban community should brace for growth in the 2030s, including at least 1,200 housing units in 16 buildings, just on the lots Sound Transit will first use to store construction supplies and machinery.

Another is Sound Transit’s inability to deliver megaprojects as quickly as hoped. West Seattle Link’s slog compares with eight years for Washington to choose its deep-bored Highway 99 tunnel, and nine years for skirmishing interests in Seattle and the Eastside to coalesce around the six-lane Highway 520 bridge replacement. A 14-mile monorail effort imploded three years after winning its tax vote.

In theory, Link’s never been more popular. Some 84% of Seattleites said they support light-rail expansion in a KOMO News poll, while a Seattle city poll found 77% agreed “we need to make it easier to live in Seattle without a personal vehicle.” Full buses and full roads have returned post-pandemic, a reminder of why people voted for rail.

“I’m excited about it, especially with all the growth that’s happening in the Junction,” said Christine Mackay, executive director of the West Seattle Junction Association. Two apartment buildings with minimal parking are mostly completed right now, while others on the drawing board cater to younger adults who will walk more, and prefer transit, she said.

Responding to community feedback, Sound Transit’s diagrams this fall show 53 fewer housing demolitions than last year’s version, and the paths don’t block a single road or parking lane, but instead outline a short tunnel to Alaska Junction Station. A looming scramble for money could complicate this tightrope walk.

The newest layout would remove an estimated 148 housing units and 66 business units, compared with a February 2022 forecast of 201 homes and 35 businesses displaced.

West Seattle cost estimates have risen from $2.3 billon to $4 billion.

Opponents question whether the sacrifices are worthwhile to move a projected 28,000 daily passengers, many of whom already take buses.

Transit-board chair Dow Constantine, who is a lifelong West Seattle resident and current King County executive, endorsed growth, to make increased use of the four-car, 600-person trains.

“The three West Seattle station areas should be able to accommodate considerably more housing, in particular, than is currently zoned, within easy walking distance of light rail,” Constantine’s staff replied by email to Seattle Times questions. Existing land-use zones, which are the city’s responsibility, allow seven-story buildings for only a few blocks along the route, and two accessory dwellings with each single-family house.

“There is good reason to allow buildings higher than seven stories above and adjacent to stations, as those residents and businesses will have maximum access to excellent, regional transit and reduced need for personal vehicles. Again, this type of rezoning exercise in an established neighborhood — including a commercial neighborhood — benefits from a keen eye and a sharp pencil, rather than a broad brush.”

Here’s what new studies show:

Sodo Station

Sound Transit retreated from an earlier scenario to condemn Pacific Iron and Metal along Fourth Avenue South after workers and managers testified last year their recycling business couldn’t be replaced. New diagrams show the main station entrance relocated to South Lander Street, alongside the U.S. Postal Service garage.

Light-rail tracks would run on the surface, while a new Lander overpass carries cars and trucks above the trains. Retailers on Lander (Esquin wines and Cannabis City) would be demolished for construction and redevelopment.

Delridge Station

Residents asked for a lower profile, and route designers delivered by trimming 15 feet, to boarding platforms 55 feet high, according to land-use planner Sloan Dawson.

The station jeopardizes Alki Beach Academy, a day care that serves 127 children in an underused office park. Another 74 kids will arrive in January, and a further expansion for 60 to 70 children is in the works, said assistant director Jordan Crawley.

Small businesses in the path of Sound Transit have historically been hamstrung by the state constitution’s ban on gifts of public money. While landlords can demand fair appraisals and fight in court for a full buyout in condemnation, tenants like the academy get only a moving stipend.

Crawley said he supports light rail in West Seattle, and dislikes it when Link opponents use Alki Beach Academy as an argument. But he also denounces the process.

“When it comes to the actual re-establishment of the business, Sound Transit provides next to nothing,” he said, as babies whimpered behind his office wall at naptime. In talks with transit staff, he said, the standard moving benefit is $50,000 and a best-case scenario could be $350,000, compared with his estimated $2.1 million to secure and renovate another building.

City Council members formally requested that city departments make an inventory of “community facilities” near future Delridge and International District/Chinatown stations by April 1, 2024, to understand how child care, low-income housing, and human-service providers can be maintained.

Years ago, the city handled firestorms over displacement by seeding a $50 million Rainier Valley Community Development Fund before light-rail construction, and offering merchants $650,000 during a Central Area road rebuild.

Sound Transit’s proposed layout would block Nucor Steel’s longtime truck entrance off Southwest Andover Street. “It didn’t seem to make a whole lot of logical sense to us,” said Nucor controller Walter Reese.

In a new design, Sound Transit sketched a new truck road and Delridge Way traffic light, north of the station, Reese said this path creates a tight turn radius and restricts truckers to only the lower swing-bridge.

“We’ll make it work,” Reese said. “The whole city has grown up around us.”

Instead of a pedestrian skybridge, Sound Transit’s design calls for street-level crosswalks, where buses and cars will constantly turn off Delridge and circulate toward drop-off zones. Separate traffic-light phases will protect people walking, as they reach an attractive corner plaza, transit staff said. But in Seattle streets it’s commonplace for people to walk or scoot through red lights while rushing to transit, and for bus drivers to run reds, a safety hazard that deserves public scrutiny.

Avalon Station

Continuing west and uphill, trains would enter a trench parallel to four-lane Fauntleroy Way, turning toward Avalon Station.

The latest plans mostly avoid disturbing Transitional Resources, a behavioral health provider that provides apartments and counseling, and would be difficult to put someplace else.

Instead, aerial tracks would displace a self-service storage building, making landfall near 32nd Avenue Southwest, where Kennell and McMurray own the landmark Cettolin house.

Fausto Urbano Cettolin built the three-story villa from 1926-39 after his shifts in the steel mill. He and wife Erma raised six children there. The Italian-style house, with terrazzo floors and hand-molded columns, is nominated for city landmark status.

Kennell and McMurray once though it might be demolished. Now they worry about losing tranquillity.

“As one of our next-door neighbors said, the worst thing isn’t having our home taken, it’s having the house next door taken and having to deal with the noise and pollution for six to eight years” of construction, said Kennell.

McMurray predicts the best case will be concrete walls similar to freeways, or a chain-link fence. Sound Transit has replanted such areas along its 2024 Lynnwood extension.

Trains would descend from surface to tunnel at a shallow Avalon Station, that swallows the triangular lot occupied by Starbucks and Taco Time.

An option to scrap Avalon Station remains in play, to save $80 million and preserve 48 homes. It’s not far from Delridge or Alaska Junction, and the ridership estimate is 1,200 daily boardings.

But without, people in Avalon Way apartments face a steep walk to trains, while the agency blows a fortune crossing the river for just two stations. Avalon Station provides connections for Route 21 buses to High Point and Westwood neighborhoods. Growth will arrive anyway, because Alki Lumber plans to move and be replaced by 506 apartments.

Alaska Junction Station

Leaving Avalon Station, the preferred route follows a so-called medium tunnel into an underground Junction terminus below 41st Avenue Southwest, a strategy championed by Constantine.

Why tunnel? Leaders were unwilling to block road lanes with columns, and caught an earful from homeowners demanding a tunnel not aerial concrete next door. Also, a station or columns on the roadside would have required razing apartment complexes at exorbitant expense, bolstering Constantine’s argument tunneling doesn’t cost much more.

The project would likely destroy Jefferson Square shopping center, where planners are eager to condemn this practical but perpetually-shadowed block of 78 apartments plus retail shops, to redevelop after Link opens.

“Jefferson Square’s the preferred alternate and it’s going to get annihilated,” predicted Mackay, the Junction association director. To her surprise, there’s little outcry.

School of Rock, where more than 300 families practice music, and some perform at community festivals, was poised to expand within empty Jefferson Square space and sign a 10-year franchise agreement, until new plans emerged two months ago, owner Phil Gustafson said. Now he intends to preemptively move in late 2024.

“We’ll do whatever we can to stay open somewhere in West Seattle and serve the community,” he said.

More housing, more money

Sound Transit estimates 1,200 to 1,364 apartments can be built next to the peninsula’s three stations on surplus land, said spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham, led by 800 units at the Alaska Junction. The open-house diagrams show 16 such buildings, mostly 75 feet tall.

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office wouldn’t describe what additional growth he might support, pending more community engagement. Station-area planning won’t begin until the federal government issues a “record of decision” and the city writes a comprehensive plan update, staff replied. (Comp-plan talks have been underway since 2014 in the Ed Murray administration.)

Costs continue to increase, by $130 million including a full buyout of Jefferson Square, a Sound Transit research memo said.

Board members have said Seattle needs more tax dollars or other sources to support city-requested improvements, for West Seattle and an $11 billion line from Stadium Station to Ballard.

Constantine and Harrell endorse “value capture,” to harvest fees, royalties, taxes or partnership income from redevelopments near stations, but neither of them has issued a plan yet.

This sort of real estate income potential is limited by state law requiring Sound Transit take only the land it needs for construction, and a 2015 law that 80% of leftover land go to 80% affordable units.

By comparison, British Columbia last week required that city governments permit 20-story buildings within 200 meters of SkyTrain rail stations, and eight stories within 800 meters, the Daily Hive reported.

West Seattle Link’s functions extend beyond its local ridership estimates, which could change drastically in real life.

New trackways in Sodo can connect with a proposed second tunnel to Westlake Station, making citywide service resilient when one downtown tunnel is blocked.

Light rail supports efforts to help with the city’s housing shortage, for which West Seattle should do its share, said Mackay.

And it boosts the regional network. The original ST3 plan by former CEO Peter Rogoff calls for West Seattle trains to eventually reach the University of Washington and beyond. As many as 48,000 passengers per hour could travel downtown each direction, along three overlapping train routes.

But without an affordable project, easy station access, and more housing, West Seattle would merely be staging 240-foot trains to serve other parts of town.

This article originally appeared on The Seattle Times.

Photo: Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times

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