Nothing concentrates one's mind, it has been said, like the imminence of hanging.
This is the case as policymakers and ordinary citizens consider options to shore up the financial system and avoid an economic depression. People are concentrating as well on state and local decisions knowing that, at the least, an economic downturn lies ahead and that tax revenues will be reduced. Belt tightening is in order. Projects involving big public money, such as plans to fix the perennial Mercer Mess from I-5 to Seattle Center, will be getting increased scrutiny. Or so I hope.
Vulcan Inc., which has received 9-figure subsidies from Mayor Greg Nickels and the Seattle City Council for its South Lake Union commercial real-estate development (including money to build the streetcar), convened a rally Wednesday morning at the Port of Seattle offices of the Mercer Stakeholder Committee, a nominally independent group loaded with supporters of Vulcan's preferred version of a Mercer Mess redo.
Vulcan and Nickels want a Mercer retrofit which would not reduce traffic congestion in the area, would actually increase point-to-point travel times to and from the Mercer area, and would cost an estimated $200 million or more to achieve. An alternative plan, originally drawn in 1999 by former Mayor Paul Schell and now sponsored by City Councilmember Nick Licata, would cost an estimated $40 million. It was originally approved by the then City Council and the Neighborhood Council but was rejected by Nickels when he became mayor. The Schell/Licata plan would not facilitate sidewalk-widening and later construction of high rises as the Vulcan/Nickels plan does.
The Vulcan/Nickels proposal has never been the subject of a formal City Council hearing. Nor has it been been vetted for cost-effectiveness and traffic facilitation as compared to Schell/Licata. Vulcan/Nickels has been publicly opposed by the Magnolia Community Club, Rainier Beach Community Club executive board, Queen Anne Community Council, Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council, Othello Neighborhood Association, Columbia City Community Council, North Seattle Industrial Association, Aurora Avenue Merchants Association, Fremont Chamber of Commerce, Ballard District Council, and Seattle Community Council Federation.
A first showdown between Vulcan/Nickels and Schell/Licata will take place at a public hearing next Monday, October 6, at a 6 p.m. City Hall forum sponsored by Licata but where state and city transportation officials and advocates of the Vulcan/Nickels plan have been invited to participate as well. Licata proposes to redirect a $43 million bond now allocated to the Mercer Project to citywide transportation improvements.
Nickels did not mention the Mercer Project in his budget presentation Monday, but since then he has reiterated publicly his intention to drive it forward. Vulcan and its supporters will assert that its version of the Mercer Project would lead in time to a neighborhood with greater amenities and liveability. Now, traffic along Mercer flows in one direction, eastward, and the westbound traffic from I-5 has to weave around in a large S. Opponents will claim that alleviation of traffic congestion was the reason a Mercer Project was proposed in the first place and that public costs and benefits must be taken fully into account before final decisions are made about the project in any form.
My own view is that while I like the look of Vulcan's South Lake Union development and wish it well, public officials have a responsibility to see that public money is spent efficiently and for the right purposes. That is why our mayor and council members should not be rubber stamps for a commercial venture whose success should not depend on public subsidies.