There Goes the Neighborhood
UW Determined to Screw Up Light Rail Plan
At a public hearing at the University Heights Community Center on August 30, speaker after speaker accused the University of greed and arrogance. "You're talking about putting people out of their homes and destroying several beautiful old buildings to save a parking lot," said John Hoffman of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. Area resident David Israel Sandlin added, "I don't want my tax money used to evict neighbors." Neighbor Chris Clow even brought his guitar up to the mic and sang a song he wrote that same day: "There goes the neighborhood, [here come] big lies and big money."
Harsh words. But when you compare the two plans for the new rail station -- one selected by the engineers of Sound Transit, the other pushed by UW administrators -- it's hard to argue. Under the Sound Transit plan, the new rail station would be built on the east side of 15th Avenue NE, on the university campus -- the UW would lose a few parking spaces and a few shrubs. Under the university's plan, the station would be on the west side of 15th, and six buildings would have to be either destroyed or emptied to make way for construction, including the Malloy, the Masonic Lodge, the Soap Box, MJ Feet, Bartell Drugs, and the 16 apartments upstairs from the drug store. Approximately 250 people would lose their homes.
The UW's plan would also evict people at a time when vacancy rates in the U-District are hovering around one percent. It would stick Sound Transit, the increasingly strapped-for-cash group charged with building a new public transit system to ease Seattle's traffic mess, with the bill for tens of millions of dollars in property acquisition and relocation expenses. And it would close NE 43rd Street permanently, making a sticky traffic situation even worse.
Given the massive damage associated with the UW's preferred plan, which has a real shot at passing, it was difficult not to see the story in terms of one politically powerful bully's determination to beat up its smaller neighbors for the equivalent of a single-serving carton of milk. Although several representatives from the UW did attend the public hearing, none had the courage to step up to the mic and speak. Even when Benjamin Ferguson, an assistant manager at the Malloy, testified that "every argument the university has put forward would be laughable if it weren't so despicable," no one from the UW protested.
"It's easy to portray this as UW versus the rest of the world," says Bridgett Chandler of the UW's regional affairs office, "but that's not really accurate." Chandler insists that the plan from the beginning was to have station entrances on both sides of 15th. But then Sound Transit had to change its plan for technical reasons, and the station was moved completely onto the UW campus, with 240-foot-deep entrances accessible only by elevator. The deeper holes meant that more university property would be needed as a construction "staging area," right around the same time the UW plans to construct a new law school.
Chandler says putting the station on UW property would infringe on law school construction and block a possible expansion of the Burke Museum. But the maps provided by Sound Transit show that the transit construction would not interfere with the law school construction, because the two sites wouldn't overlap. And the Burke expansion is a pipe dream at this point, with no funding.
Chandler also points out that the university wasn't the only party pushing to move the station closer to the Ave. A formal request for Sound Transit to study the option, dated July 22, was also signed by the University Chamber of Commerce, the Business Improvement Association, several churches, and the Roosevelt Neighbors Alliance. "A whole number of us had hoped that there would be an opportunity for economic development on the Ave," says Chandler. "A station on the Ave would give us more flexibility in our redevelopment plans."
But once the U-District business groups saw the level of destruction that such a station would bring, they backed off in a hurry. Bruce Manger, the president of the U-District BIA, says, "The cost is too high. If you take four years out of the heart of your business district, it's not going to recover."
Fred Hart, owner of the University Way store La Tienda, adds, "we lit a candle to shed some light on some options, and it turned into a forest fire.... Once we saw the costs, we said, 'No, please, stop, stop, stop.'"
The UW, on the other hand, won't be stopping any time soon. They've hired Rep. Ed Murray (D-43rd District) as a consultant to help protect their interests in the light rail debate. "Ed will be helping us out," says Chandler. "He's got a lot of experience on transportation issues. He is a person with a lot of skills."
Given Murray's inability to pass much of anything in Olympia, it's an open question as to whether he will help his new employers or hurt them.
Meanwhile, Sound Transit has an extremely sticky legal issue to contend with. Eminent domain does not apply to public property--meaning that if the UW says no way, Sound Transit can't forcibly buy the institution's property and proceed with construction. On the other hand, if Sound Transit caves to the UW and brings out the wrecking ball, they can expect trouble from local businesses, including a probable suit from the well-financed owners of the Malloy Apartments.
Once again, Sound Transit's engineers are stuck in the middle. Their necessary, eagerly awaited transportation system is in danger of melting away into practically nothing because of pressure from business interests downtown and neighborhood activists in the south end. The growing list of pimples on the ass of progress now includes the biggest employer in the University District -- and the biggest bully.