October 7, 2004

Transportation overhaul for South Lake Union

  • Fixing the Mercer Mess and adding streetcars are key to the evolving Seattle neighborhood's success.


    South Lake Union is poised to become another thriving community within the city of Seattle. A long underused industrial neighborhood, it is one of Seattle's best opportunities to create a great urban environment that rivals any in the United States.

    The new South Lake Union Park will reclaim a neglected area of waterfront right in the heart of the city. The changes have already begun. New housing, office and research buildings, retailers, restaurants and a college have arrived. To complete the transformation and become a neighborhood that benefits the city as a whole, South Lake Union must be the product of very thoughtful planning.

    In South Lake Union, as well as in all neighborhoods in our region, planning must address many issues, such as: creating a balance of housing and jobs; competition for increasingly scarce resources; basic infrastructure; and finally, transportation mobility.

    Transportation solutions

    Mercer Street
    Images by Urban Design Associates Pittsburgh
    To improve the Mercer Mess, the Seattle Department of Transportation has proposed a six-lane, two-way Mercer Street creating a direct route on and off Interstate 5.

    There are two proposals being addressed by the city regarding transportation that will be key to the successful growth of South Lake Union: development of the Seattle Streetcar and changes to the Mercer Street corridor, otherwise known as the Mercer Mess.

    Ironically, it is transportation planning that played a huge role in isolating South Lake Union for the last 50 years. The construction and expansion of Interstate 5 and Highway 99 in the 1950s and 1960s created a landlocked South Lake Union. Because of this, many people's experience of the neighborhood is limited to driving the Mercer Street corridor en route to other destinations. Rarely is it a destination in itself.

    In the last 40 years, the city and others have conducted approximately 50 studies of transportation, land use and open space for South Lake Union, and considered about 30 different alternatives for the Mercer Corridor. While many options have been considered, no action has been taken to address the transportation problems in the area.

    The current Seattle Streetcar and Mercer Street corridor proposals are positive steps toward reclaiming the neighborhood and come at the right time. The city estimates that by the year 2020, growth in the area will result in over 20,000 new jobs and 10,000 new housing units.

    Why streetcars?

    Streetcars are a proven success around the United States and the Pacific Northwest, including Tacoma and Portland. The initial line of the Seattle Streetcar would run 2.6 miles, connecting downtown, the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union, including the new South Lake Union Park and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

    The Denny Triangle and South Lake Union neighborhoods are underserved by transit and the forecasted growth mentioned above demands a solution. Being ahead of the growth curve is rare in Seattle's transportation planning, but the initial streetcar line could be operational by as early as 2006.

     South Lake Union neighborhood
    Proposed transportation changes in the South Lake Union neighborhood would benefit pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit users.

    Because streetcars attract new users to public transit, including locals and visitors, they are an environmentally friendly choice, taking the strain off roads and creating pedestrian-friendly areas. The streetcar would serve local neighborhood circulation needs and connect riders to other transit modes like the monorail, buses and light rail. And based on the willingness land owners to pay for over half of the capital costs, the streetcar is a smart economic choice for the city.

    Cleaning up the Mercer Mess

    The Seattle Department of Transportation's preferred proposal to address the Mercer Mess calls for a six-lane, two-way Mercer Street and a small Valley Street.

    Currently, drivers using the Mercer Street off-ramp from I-5 are filtered north to Valley Street, which is overburdened with vehicles, severely limiting access to the southern shore of Lake Union and impacting the livability of the neighborhood.

    In the proposed plan, Mercer Street would serve as a direct route on and off of I-5, eliminating the circuitous route demanded of drivers wanting to access neighborhoods to the west such as Queen Anne and Magnolia.

    The two-way Mercer plan improves the environment for transit, eases the flow of freight through the area, and provides easy access to the new South Lake Union Park. The plan would create a Mercer Street boulevard with wide sidewalks for pedestrians and appropriate bicycle lanes.

    For a neighborhood planning to accommodate increased residential growth, the changes would allow people living in the area to take the most important step in fixing our city's traffic problems — reducing their dependence on automobiles.

    Concentrating new development within urban places like South Lake Union that have attributes of location, access, infrastructure and amenities is smart growth. The proposals for a two-way Mercer street and the Seattle Streetcar are part of making it happen.

    Scott Wyatt, FAIA, is NBBJ's managing partner, overseeing the talents, accomplishments and business strategies of the firm's seven offices in the United States and abroad.

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