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October 5, 1999

City sorting station-area ideas

Journal Staff Reporter

The fun part of station-area planning is almost over, for now.

In March, community members joined city, county and Sound Transit staff to create design concepts for areas surrounding Sound Transit's 16 light rail stations staggered along the proposed 24-mile route.

Now that the citywide brainstorm is winding down, a more tedious task awaits: City staff representing various departments will sift through the harvested ideas, bundling them into a packet of recommendations for the City Council to approve early next year.

"There's a high-volume of internal work to be done over the next couple of months," said Trang Tu, the city's Southeast Seattle station area planner. "It's been a very exciting and positive process, and now we'll be working with other city departments, such as the Department of Construction and Land Use, to work through issues like zoning changes."

Tu said the packets should be ready for review by the end of this year, although they won't go before the council until at least January 2000.

Planning for the quarter-mile radius around future stations moved more quickly than the city's three-year neighborhood planning process -- albeit the effort was on a much smaller scale, according to city planners.

Plans largely centered on having adequate car, bus and bike access to the stations, as well as safety issues and creating pedestrian-friendly environments.

"It's definitely a finer grain of planning than the neighborhood plans," said David Goldberg, the city's North Seattle station-area planner, "especially in North Seattle and downtown where the areas around the stations are already at development capacity. There's not a lot of large projects that can be done."

One problem complicating the process was that the exact station locations won't be set until the Sound Transit board makes a final decision on Nov. 18.

In the University District, the University of Washington and community are squabbling over whether the station should be built on the east side of 15th Avenue Northeast -- which would displace a university campus parking lot -- or a site west of 15th closer to the "Ave," where it would take out several businesses and the Malloy apartment complex.

There's only about a 150-foot difference between the two sites, but even that distance could dramatically affect the station design.

Goldberg said that since the City Council endorsed Sound Transit's locally preferred alternative, station-area planning was based on the station and route recommended by Sound Transit staff. Thus, U-District station designs generally assume that the structure will be built on the east side of 15th.

Despite the large number of existing developments and ones on the way, King County Metro and community folks want to try to squeeze in at least one major transit-related project in the U-District.

The county is considering a proposal to build an off-street bus overlay facility north of Northeast 45th Street, around 11th or Brooklyn avenues northeast. Plans are still preliminary, although a market analysis prepared in July shows the project could be successful, said Henry Markus, a senior project manager for King County.

The facility would be a full-blown transit-oriented development, or TOD. That means in addition to transit-related elements, it could also feature housing, retail and landscaping.

Markus said the idea for the project evolved last year, as a sort of compromise between Metro and neighborhood planners.

"The neighborhood was piecing together their plan, while Metro was considering doing an on-street bus layover facility," he said. "The two plans found each other, and residents asked Metro if they would do something off-street."

The county doesn't yet know if the project is economically feasible. A cost analysis is due out early this month, at which time county planners will know if the project is a go.

"Within the first few weeks of October we'll know whether we have a project or not, and who's going to build it," Markus said.

Southeast Seattle is also cruising toward significant change.

Unlike North and Central Seattle, there's plenty of room for new developments in the Rainier Valley, Tu said. Residents there can expect to see more mixed-use and commercial buildings pop up around transit hubs.

Rainier Valley residents suggested both affordable and market-rate housing near stations, as well as efforts to foster new, local businesses and revitalize existing ones. One idea popular with the community is making firms displaced by the rail part of the new mixed-use projects proposed, Tu said.

Tu noted that while citizen planners, Sound Transit and city staff are excited about the proposals, they are conscious about keeping a level head.

"Development in Rainier Valley is different than what you see in other parts of the city," Tu said. "We're trying not to overdo (the plans) and are paying attention to market realities. In the end, development will be driven by real estate."

What's planned for stations in other parts of Seattle varies according to location. First Hill residents want more housing, for example --a natural choice since zoning in that area accommodates high-density residential space. Downtown plans are focused on tailoring the stations to new developments already under way.

City staff said station-area projects will be delivered by public and private developers, as well as through public/private partnerships.

The idea behind the city's station-area planning blitz was to "beat Sound Transit to the drawing table" so that residents could have some say before stations designs were set, city officials said.

Barbara Gray, the city's Central Seattle station area planner, said that Sound Transit and city staff talk daily about how to coordinate development with light rail.

"We're really trying to work together on this, so that next year we'll have a strong plan in place," she said.

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