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January 6, 2000

TOD plan for U District stalled by I-695

Journal Staff Reporter

King County's transit-oriented development proposed for the University District seemed like a slam dunk.

Three major tenants -- Safeco, University of Washington and King County Metro -- lined up to anchor the complex planned for a prominent site north of Safeco Tower, between 11th and Brooklyn avenues. For skeptics, the county-sponsored feasibility study offers a rosy forecast.

Even the neighbors want it.

But like lots of other government-supported projects in the state, the $9 million center, which would combine retail, office and residential space, plus a bus overlay facility, is on thin ice due to budget cuts wrought by Initiative 695.

Read more about TODs in: Developers eye TODs with interest but some concern
The concept came from local residents and Metro who both wanted an alternative to parking idle buses on the area's already cramped streets. In addition to bringing more Class A office space and housing to the area, the complex would include a bus depot large enough to allow wide turns and plenty of parking space.

Metro dropped the project late this year after learning it would not get $5.5 million in state grant money previously earmarked for the project.

"Officially, the facility is still in the county's capital budget," said Henry Markus, senior project manager for the county's transportation department. "But we're not going to get the state grants we thought would get, which would have covered two-thirds of the project."

"Unless we secure more money elsewhere, I don't see how we would finance the project."

A group of property owners calling themselves the University District Parking Associates was scheduled to vote last fall on whether to pick up the reins of the development. That decision will be postponed until April to give Metro a chance to re-enter the project.

"The impacts of I-695 to Metro won't be as severe as expected," said UDPA General Manager Mike Chartrey. "We think the county may still be able to help, and want to wait and see before voting to take on the entire project."

Markus said Metro isn't making any promises. Securing funds for the project depends largely on what happens in Olympia this Legislative session.

Metro's decision has riled many U District residents and business owners, who say it's not fair that the county is leasing land for the Overlake Park-and-Ride transit-oriented development in Redmond and may help build a similar structure near the convention center in downtown Seattle, but won't pay for one serving the U District.

Unless Sound Transit scrapes up enough money to extend its 18-mile light rail line to Northgate, Northeast 45th Street will be the terminus of the mass transit project. That means more people, more cars, more buses and no place to put them, which worries U District residents.

In a letter to King County Council members, Brian Ramey of the community group Friends of Brooklyn wrote that on-street buses are a serious air quality and health issue. With several Sound Transit rail stations and added density on the way, the county needs to ensure an off-street layover facility is built in the district, he added.

Markus shrugged off complaints, saying that comparing the U-District projects with ones proposed elsewhere is like comparing apples to oranges.

King County owns the Overlake site and will eventually get revenues from a large development there, he said. The county is also the majority owner of the Convention Place Station site, which straddles two blocks along Terry Avenue.

"We expect to make money on the Overlake and convention center projects," Markus said. "With the U-District project, we'd essentially be paying $9 million for the opportunity to lease office space there. That wouldn't be very prudent of us, especially considering the impacts we're facing due to I-695."

Langly Properties LLC of Bellevue, co-developer of the Overlake project, is assuming most of the financial responsibility for that project. The structure has housing and a day-care built atop a structured parking garage for use by both residents and commuters. Work on the $40 million project is set to start this summer, according to Langly Vice President Bill Angle.

A co-developer hasn't been selected yet for the convention center transit project. Markus said requests for proposals will probably be sent out in about a year, and he expects to get plenty of responses.

Meanwhile, the city's Strategic Planning Office is preparing to submit its recommendations to the City Council for transit-oriented developments along Seattle's portion of the 24-mile Sound Transit light rail route.

SPO spokesperson Laura Paskin said that the city won't step in for the county to pay for the U-District project because the city is sticking to policy-oriented recommendations. Rather than plan for actual developments, the city aims to smooth the process for private developers by updating land use policies.

"Development demands change over the years, so we want zoning to be specific and address the needs of the communities, while making sure that it's not too restrictive so that the private sector loses interest," she said.

Paskin said city recommendations -- which were drafted with public input during a series of community meetings last year -- will get a public review later this month and in February before going to the City Council for approval.

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