October 1, 2023

Despite criticism from Amazon, the Sound Transit governing board voted Thursday to approve a future station site that will cause a traffic nightmare, during at least four years of lane reductions on busy Westlake Avenue.

The conflict involves the Denny Station promised to voters in the 2016 ST3 tax measure, along a future light-rail corridor from downtown to Ballard, projected to open in 2039. Seven years later, politicians and consultants are finally tackling some fundamental challenges to pick buildable sites in one of the Northwest’s most crowded crossroads.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed a new solution Thursday, which he said avoids an even worse blockage in one of Washington state’s top job centers. The new version shifts the voter-approved Denny Station so it’s a block north of Denny Way, directly below Westlake Avenue North. That way, workers can stage construction equipment on an adjacent corner lot, instead of taking up all of Westlake.

Amazon, which employs tens of thousands of workers in multiple office buildings, says the company is doing its share to revive downtown Seattle and the board should do its share by avoiding Westlake closures, testified Tom Florino, director of worldwide economic development.

Even to build the mayor’s version under Westlake would require two of Westlake’s four to five lanes to close for two years, while a temporary double-decked Westlake is built; full traffic is restored in four years; then for two more years, capacity shrinks again until permanent lanes are rebuilt atop the new station lid.

“This is about as good as it’s going to get when we look at all the alternatives,” Harrell said.

And this new variation, to build north rather than immediately south of Denny, adds $172 million the city and Sound Transit haven’t identified yet. Board Chair Dow Constantine remarked he doesn’t consider it a cost, because land sales or other deals can recoup it after construction. Already, the West Seattle-downtown-Ballard corridor is estimated at $15.1 billion in 2023 dollars, of which Seattle must raise more than $500 million to account for features the city added over the years.

Thursday’s debate follows months of trial and error in planning and public outreach, examining some options:

  • The original station spot, presented on the 2016 campaign and outreach map, is just south of the clogged Denny Way/Westlake intersection. It would fully block Westlake for four years, worse than the partial blockages in Thursday’s concept. Two weeks ago, Harrell supported this version, while hoping to reduce the traffic mess. After more reflection, “almost anything is better than that,” he said Thursday.
  • Another alternative, a block east under Terry Avenue North near Denny, ran the risk of cutting into regional telecommunications fiber.
  • A so-called “west” version, which Amazon, Vulcan and many other parties support. This would condemn a $200 million corner parcel that’s now a basketball court, marketing office and lawn, and would leave Westlake open. But it creates a tight bend and quarter-mile distance to a South Lake Union Station on Harrison Street, where the city desired easy train connections with the E Line bus coming from Aurora Avenue North.
  • To make the west version work, planners mentioned canceling that SLU Station on Harrison, which would save $440 million. Denny Station would then be a “consolidated” stop. But community and political support in Seattle is zero for building one station instead of two in the vicinity.
  • To avoid Westlake tearouts and still have dual stations, the SLU site could only be built at Memorial Stadium, staff say. Harrell opposed this, as it risks an unacceptable eight-year delay to an already approved stadium rebuild.
  • So the board voted to join the mayor and prefer the “shifted north” concept, to be the front-runner for further environmental studies.

The Amazon statement, issued Wednesday night, said tearing open Westlake Avenue will make access “terribly difficult” for Seattle’s largest private employer. “As we’ve all started to see our city, foot traffic, and businesses begin to bounce back, we’re mindful that now we cannot lose that momentum,” the company said. Amazon called on Sound Transit to find some way to build both the Denny West and SLU-Harrison stops. Foot traffic has already rebounded 82% in the past year, the company testified.

Keeping the SLU Station at Harrison is top priority, testified Julie Holland, president of the South Lake Union Community Council.

“Ridership and transit data support this station, without even considering the projected growth, over 100 years,” she testified Thursday. Holland urged another look at Terry, to “ensure a short-term problem does not interfere in the larger vision of this exciting project.”

If the SLU Station at Harrison were scrapped, staff predicted 8,000 people would stay on the bus, and typically lose a few minutes, rather than transfer to trains. Others might walk five minutes longer to reach the Seattle Center or Denny Station, or take the Seattle Center Monorail to Westlake Station. Total transit use wouldn’t significantly change, said Cathal Ridge, the agency’s Seattle corridor development director.

That’s OK with Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, a Sound Transit board member. He argued there’s a $600 million total savings to shift Denny Station west and scrap the Harrison stop. Sooner or later, engineering or financial constraints could make it smart to keep a “consolidated” station an option, he suggested.

“By that logic, we shouldn’t build any stations, we could save a lot of money,” replied board member Claudia Balducci, of Bellevue.

Ada Healey, chief real estate officer of Vulcan Real Estate, testified she believes it’s possible to build Denny West and a Harrison Station between Highway 99 and Fifth Avenue, close to bus users.

Vulcan owns the crucial corner lot at the northwest corner of Westlake and Denny, also known as the SLU Discovery Center.

Sound Transit is required to designate a preferred alignment under federal law, for the environmental impact statement. Already, changes and add-ons between Sodo and Ballard have forced the agency to split those studies off from the Sodo-West Seattle portion, and compile a supplemental draft environmental impact statement.

Harrell said he’s making a bold move to prevent more process delays. “I am trying to stop the hemorrhaging now and come up with a decision.”

Afterward, Healey said the agency was underestimating the blockages on Westlake, including relocation of two sewer mainlines. She also said she’s eager to problem-solve for a two-station solution and keeping Westlake open.

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