Our Sponsors:

Read more »

Our Members

Many thanks to Judy Chase and Louis Rowan some of our many supporters.

ALL MEMBERS »

$201 million later, the Mercer Mess will still be a mess

Neither the City Council nor Mayor Greg Nickels seems to care that the Mercer Street Corridor project — realignment of the South Lake Union street grid — will do nothing to mitigate traffic between Seattle Center and Interstate 5. It will simply beautify a neighborhood virtually owned by Paul Allen.
A two-way Mercer Street, as envisioned by City Hall. (Seattle Department of Transportation)

A two-way Mercer Street, as envisioned by City Hall. (Seattle Department of Transportation) None

The Vulcanization of Seattle elected officials was emphatically confirmed Tuesday, May 27, when the City Council approved a $93 million bond issue that will raise $43 million to begin work on the so-called Mercer Mess makeover in the South Lake Union neighborhood.

Council member Nick Licata cast the sole vote against this important step in a $201 million project undertaken at behest of Vulcan, the Paul Allen-owned company which has more than 60 acres of a commercial development in the area. This follows direct and indirect city subsidies, estimated in the hundreds of millions, for Vulcan projects and construction of the running-near-empty Allentown streetcar from Westlake Center to South Lake Union at a cost of some $50 million. The trolley monies came, in part, from cutbacks in bus service in outlying neighborhoods.

City studies have shown that the Mercer Mess makeover will, in fact, have little impact on traffic snarls in the area. Rather, it is designed to accommodate Vulcan plans.

Licata, casting his no vote, pointed to the "huge benefit" for Vulcan, as against the marginal or negligible improvements in traffic flow that the project will provide. He urged opposition in general to the eventual $201 million, which the Mercer Mess redo is estimated to eventually cost.

Council member Jan Drago served as Vulcan point person in support of the bond issue. She had filled the same role on behalf of the Allentown trolley, going so far as to sponsor a fundraiser to help Vulcan pay for a campaign on behalf of the trolley. She and fellow council members Tim Burgess and Tom Rasmussen were absent at Tuesday's vote. They are on an international junket. Before departing town, Drago characterized her Vulcan advocacy role as "true leadership."

Paul Allen, the co-founding Microsoft billionaire, has done some great things for brain research and university libraries, among other philanthropic projects. But that is no reason his commercial ventures should get rubber-stamp subsidies from Mayor Greg Nickels and the City Council when there are so many competing demands for public tax dollars.

Kudos to Licata. If Peter Steinbrueck still sat on the council, he doubtless would have cast a no vote, as well. But he chose to bail out at the end of his term.

SOS to prospective mayor and council candidates: Please, step forward for public service. Mayor Greg Nickels and the present council lack critical faculties and too often operate as wholly owned subsidiaries of those with political money and juice.

Ted Van Dyk has been involved in, and written about, national policy and politics since 1961. His memoir of public life, Heroes, Hacks and Fools, was published by University of Washington Press. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Thu, May 29, 7:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Questions: Will the improvement proposed for Mercer make it a better neighborhood and attract job and housing growth there? Looks to me like it will. That's a huge benefit for everyone, not just Paul Allen.

It appears to me that the currrent "mess" on Mercer isn't so much a function of traffic volumes as it is a function of zigs and zags and potholed long ignored really lousy bumpy streets. So I'm wondering how it is that people think a new straight street won't remove the "mess" from Mercer? Looks to me like it will.

The street serves anyone who comes from most anywhere to Seattle Center, not just Paul Allen. The current situation is ridiculous and it has been that way forever. Why not clean up the mess?

Does Nick Licata or Ted have a better idea that can win people over, make the neighborhood better, and clean up the mess? Or are they just using Paul Allen's money to make populist points?
Tarl

Posted Thu, May 29, 9:16 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Questions: Nick Licata and others (and others with more vision than Nickels and Drago) did offer a better and more effective fix which is articulated in Nick's "Urban Politics" newsletter.

"Under former Mayor Paul Schell there was an alternative design for the Mercer Corridor which was one-tenth the cost but with similar if not better transportation improvements than the one on the table. It provided for better west direction vehicle flow onto Valley, new sidewalks and greenery and could have accommodated a new bike trail. Those plans were abandoned shortly after Greg Nickels became Mayor."

Posted Thu, May 29, 9:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Congestion Tolling: They should have a toll on the Mercer ramps, getting onto I-5 and going into Seattle. It is ridiculous to think that anything short of fewer cars will have a lasting impact. The Mercer exit backs up traffic past 520 sometimes, and I don't really drive in Seattle that much, but it seems like a lot, especially on game nights.

Just think of all the good the city could do with the extra money. They might actually have to repave the streets then.

And it would fit in with Nickels green agenda and keep more cars off city streets. I wouldn't have been in favor of this a few years ago, but it's time that SOMETHING happen to make transportation around Seattle a little better.
keepkalm

Posted Thu, May 29, 12:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Commons: Not that my vote alone would have made a difference, but I so wish I had voted for the Seattle Commons back in 1995. I'm not sure what others' reasons for voting "no" were, but my (20-year-old) thinking was "sure, we'll get a park, but we'll destroy the neighborhood, and this is really just so Paul Allen can develop the edges. No thanks!" Now, of course, Paul Allen's developing the whole thing, the neighborhood is--while not "destroyed"; I really don't like using that sort of language unless it's actually true, as in the case of Yesler Terrace--definitely changed... and no park.

Honestly, I'm all in favor of development; I just wish we'd seen its inevitability and taken the opportunity to build a nice park in South Lake Union. Maybe people would actually ride the SLUT then.

Or did people just vote "no" because they didn't want to shell out the cash?

Posted Thu, May 29, 1:59 p.m. Inappropriate

So of course we do the more expensive, less efficient fix: and do it on our dime.

Since the day we created the Mercer Mess, there has been talk of improving it. the Pre-Nichols proposal was more efficient, less expensive, and thanks to the Seattle Process... the one we did not choose.

As I recall, (no pun intended) we voted down the Commons twice, only to have Vulcan buy up about 80% of the land. Having purchased a "Streetcar" for the development, we are now to buy the new, less efficient Mercer Plan... A plan that will cost about the same cost as Mr. Allen spent on his yacht. According to several boating mags, "...the Octopus cost Allen over $200 million and has a permanent crew of about 60. It has two helicopters, seven boats, a 10 man submarine and a remote controlled vehicle for crawling on the Ocean floor. The submarine has the capacity to sleep eight for up to two weeks underwater.

On average, owners must spend a minimum of 10 percent of the purchase price every year to keep these yachts in good working condition and cover crew salaries. Therefore "Octopus" which cost Allen US $200 million requires a US$20 million annual budget."

I would encourage Vulcan to re-live the past and do what Seattle developers USED to do: pay for their own streetcars and roads.

So far we have taxed ourselves to built him, and the Seahawks a stadium (350 million) and had to build the Expo hall (150 million) after we blew up the old dome with 25 years of mortgage left to pay off. We only voted against that twice. Then we built him a streetcar (52 million) even though the Benson Trolley is STILL in mothballs after 20 years of effort and a few years run time.

Now the new improved gloss over for the Cascade neighborhood, with little improvement for the vehicles that use it (201 million). So that would be 753 million to help the 19th richest person in the world improve his investments.

To be fair, he did give us the EMP (260 million), the Cinerama Redo (12 million) and Union Station redo (17 million... oh wait, Sound Transit re-embursed Vulcan and it's partner up to 19 mllion. For sake of arguement, we'll call it a wash)... So Mr. Allen has put up at least 275 million in public investments, along with his company "investments", which of course are private enterprize, and if done right will net him profit.

Please understand, I like the concept of light rail, a good stadium and investments in renovating the historic buildings, and good development (which I consider his projects to be). But when spending public monies, can we please attempt to be pragmatic as well as nice looking? And can we do it first to fix and improve infrastructure for the entire city, not just its bigger benifactors?

I find it amazing how fast the city responds to Vulcan, and yet ho hums the county, the port and other companies. Witness the Waterfron Streetcar. Amgen and the Port BOTH expressed interest in extending the Benson trolley to Pier 86 FIVE YEARS AGO. There was even talk of their help with investment. Now with a major cruise ship terminal being built at Piers 90/91, and with serious investment in the Interbay, the Benson Waterfront Trolley remains a back burner project as the City explores OTHER NEW lines to build.

At best we are years away from the other streetcars running, yet as our first new line and it's 6 street cars gather dust, the new Cruise Ship Pier will open next summer, along with Interbay's Whole Foods complex.

Perhaps we can convince Mr. Allen to Moor the Octopus at Pier 90/91. Maybe THEN the City will pay attention.

Posted Thu, May 29, 9:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Where is the solution?: I looked at Nick's Urban Politics and nowhere is the cheaper plan referenced or mentioned and his newsletters go back to when Schell was mayor.

I also feel that eliminating the zigs and zags will do something for the traffic. However I concede that traffic is increasing and the more efficient Mercer Street can only do so much to help a congested interstate and an inefficient city grid.
2cents

Posted Thu, May 29, 9:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Cities and jobs: Cities love jobs. Job attract people and generate taxes. Example: I live here because there's a job for me. So, well, you gotta love Paul Allen, Microsoft, The Gates Foundation, The Gates, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. This brain trust, bolstered by a world-envied monopoly, has brought Seattle a wealth and prestige which in turn has generated untold opportunities for its residents. My point: let 'em build buildings for more jobs!!

The tax revenue that shall pour into Seattle over countless years ahead will more than pay for the improvements in our city -- ones that are simply on par with Rainier Valley improvements underway. Heck, if it weren't for the Allens and Gates, I wouldn't be shelling out $7,000 per year in real estate tax to the city which, by the way, I'm happy to do despite the pain of it.

I have only to look at the Olmsted-era investments -- undertaken in shaky and trying times -- and their pay-off today to myself support any investment that beautifies the city ... particularly for folks on the move.

Go, Mercer!
markh

Posted Fri, May 30, 6:54 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Questions: It's important in matters like this to take it piece by piece.

The design is a seperate question from the funding, and even the design can be broken down into different elements.

It looks to me that the design has merit. The problem has been discussed for decades, I personally can remember 3 of them and I think there are at least two more prior to that. Paul Allen's role as a major landowner in the area has been a contributing factor to that resolution. His ownership of the property has been, on balance, positive, in spite of it's, on balance, negative, beginnnings.

Though I have not looked at the design in detail I do suspect that it can accomodate most of the South Lake Union Traffic as well as that from Queen Anne.

However there is a sleeping elephant in the design room - that is traffic that uses the corridor that does not originate locally. The viaduct replacement would conceivably improve north south transit routes through downtown - part of that is traffic that will seek to be accessing I-5 and 520. Again, not looking at the design in detail I'd conclude that likely this aspect is NOT considered.

In the end it may well be Viaduct activists Licata and Steinbrueck that win out of this debate in the final analysis - this proposed design may well preclude any expansion of capacity on the Viaduct corridor and force a surface only alternative.

In spite of the impact of reduced traffic flow on downtown business Allen will continue to profit due, in part to the residential components of his developments. In addition the free bus zone subsidized by Metro/KC will also continue to insure good connections between Allen's own holdings around town.

The downtown bus subsidy is one that deserves ongoing concern - giving downtown parkers a free downtown shuttle service while pass holders pay for it isn't exactly a progressive tax/fee policy. The subsidy on this street rebuild also appears not to be appropriate.

With viaduct expansion (and a six lane 520 bridge) the 'capping' of growth in Seattle will be limited with the only possibility for growth being in increasing the center's residential capacity.

Steinbrueck and Licata will win this one.

And Bellevue will emerge as the growth engine of King County, as well as 405. And in the region Tacoma and Everett will have a shot at stealing quite a bit of Downtown's thunder as well.

Posted Fri, May 30, 6:56 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Commons: How about we get Seattle Center working before we start whining about the Commons again, eh?

Posted Fri, May 30, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Where is the solution?: Maybe he didn't write about it in Urban Politics since it was May Schell's plan.

Why don't you do the next leg of research and ask Nick Licata's office for more information?

Posted Fri, May 30, 8:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Life in a pocket: I just want to thank you for pointing out in print what has been obvious for years-- Our good Mayor Quimby is a shill for Alan in particular and most other deep pocketed developers who want to make a buck at tax payers expense. My shock is how completely the city council has been coerced (I have no proof so will not say corrupted.) into following the mayor down his development at any cost to the tax payer path.

And then you read today that he is now taking aim at Pioneer Square and the International District where deep pockets need to maximize profits with higher buildings. He argues a benefit for climate control, while ensuring less affordable housing and greater profits for developers. He wants to extend the streetcar "system" along routes long eyed by developers as potential high end sites (ignoring routes that could serve to actually move people), and promises that the city government will implement coercive special property taxes on current residents and businesses in part to ensure that the adjacent properties will be available for those developers.

Who will stand up to him? Can anyone stand up to him? Will Mr. Lacata run for the office next year? One can only hope.

Quimby must go.

Posted Fri, May 30, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Where is the solution?: There was no plan just a some safety improvements and a proposal to study putting Mercer under Fairview. Since Nick Licata is touting that proposal as an answer today, where was he in 1998?

2cents

Posted Fri, May 30, 10:56 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Commons: This comment is totally unproductive. Dismissing points that you disagree with as "whining" is an immature tactic better suited to slog or sound politics. Your comment only shows how senseless the logic behind the anti-Commons vote was.

Sean

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »