(Note: Updated March 16, 2009.) There has been some controversy since the Council voted 8-1 to continue work on the two-way Mercer Street project. Some see the project as a boondoggle designed only to benefit Paul Allen and his interests in the South Lake Union neighborhood. Others view it as a waste of money because the promise of traffic congestion relief is minimal at best.
Still others argue that competing projects, such as north end neighborhood sidewalks originally promised in the 1950s should have higher priority for the limited public funds available.
I voted with the super majority on this issue and here's why.
First, the two-way Mercer Street project is about a lot more than just traffic congestion relief, although that certainly is a worthy justification. This project is one of several to improve our city's livability and it must be viewed within an overall strategic framework. The big picture goal is to reunite two important neighborhoods, South Lake Union and the Uptown neighborhood (lower Queen Anne, to many) while also creating a link or union between the lake, Seattle Center, and the central waterfront.
Two-way Mercer is also one of several steps aimed at reconnecting the east and west sides of Aurora Avenue North and returning neighborhood cohesion to this important area of our city. The other steps are re-opening three streeets across Aurora at Thomas, Harrison, John Streets and extending Sixth Avenue North all the way to Mercer Street. These moves would significantly improve the street grid throughout Uptown and South Lake Union and, along with two-way Mercer, improve traffic flow and access.
Another part of this overall strategic framework made possible by the changes described in the paragraph above is the addition of bike lanes on both Valley and Roy Streets, and the incorporation of the formerly-named "Potlach Trail" into the new street grid connecting South Lake Union to the central waterfront through the Uptown neighborhood.
These street changes also need to be considered as part of the city's overall Urban Mobility Plan which is currently being developed in our effort to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel and surface street along Alaskan Way that will allow us to remove the viaduct and revitalize the central waterfront.
Last, but certainly not least, two-way Mercer, along with the other steps I've described, allows the streets immediately adjacent to Lake Union Park to be transformed into a pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle friendly area serving as a gateway to the park.
So, I voted in favor of continuing planning, financial feasibility studies, property acquisition negotiations, and other necessary work because the two-way Mercer project is just one element of a broader strategic plan to improve two neighborhoods (Uptown and South Lake Union) that will accept more density and jobs in the coming years. The project makes good urban planning sense,good environmental sense, and wise financial sense when viewed in the context of the larger strategic goals for the area.
Second, I reject short-term, status quo thinking which is often a mask for a not in my back yard or anti-growth mentality.
We are well past the growth-no growth debate. Our region, and our city, has adopted a growth management plan that calls for Seattle to accept more residents and to cluster these new residents in our Urban Centers. The Uptown and South Lake Union neighborhoods are both Urban Centers. The Mayor and the City Council have taken a firm stand on this issue and it won't be reconsidered. Seattle is going to see an increase in population over the next 20 years. The issue is how to accommodate this growth wisely and efficiently.
I keenly remember several projects in our city's history that were opposed because they (a) would contribute to growth, (b) cost too much, or (c) seemed to favor developers and property owners.
Remember the late 1960s when we twice rejected a light rail system because it would cause growth and damage Seattle's small-town atmosphere? You can ride our light rail system in Atlanta, Georgia today. City officials who fought hard for passage of the Forward Thrust transportation measure deserve kudos. Too bad we failed to follow their bold leadership!
Remember, too, the opposition to Pacific Place downtown? It was cast as a give-away to a private developer, a waste of city resources. Pacific Place is the single most important anchor development that contributed to the revitalization of our downtown business core.
It's a great example of a public-private partnership that resulted in huge public benefits to our city, primarily strong economic transformation of our downtown. I appreciate the leadership Mayor Norm Rice and others demonstrated to win approval of that project.
Third, I'm grateful when property owners want to maximize their investments and contribute to the welfare of our city. Rather than detest Paul Allen and his colleagues, I appreciate the fact that he is willing to invest in our city and create jobs and wealth. His investments in South Lake Union will result in new residents living close to our downtown core in an environmentally sensitive manner, tens of thousands of new jobs, and a resurgence of an area that urgently needed it. Twenty years from now we will likely praise Paul Allen for his initiative and entrepreneurial spirit. Don't you wish he owned the Sonics instead of the Portland Trailblazers? (In the spirit of full disclosure, employees of Allen's Vulcan Northwest contributed $1,600 to my campaign for City Council last year, but not Mr. Allen himself. The Vulcan employee contributions represent four-tenths of one percent of the total amount contributed to the campaign.)