By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Walking into the Sound Transit (ST) System Expansion Meeting (SEC) almost 10 minutes late, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott laid down a bag from McDonald’s and a drink.
It was one of many oddities in a meeting on March 9 that seemed to reveal an underlying tension, even greater than in past meetings, among ST board members and community members giving public comment.
McDermott, who is usually straight-laced and serious, chewed on his meal for over an hour. University Place Councilmember Kent Keel, vice chair of the SEC, surreptitiously took bites of either a sandwich or large cookie.
The meeting was highly anticipated in the community since the SEC was slated to possibly deliver a final recommendation on station placement to the ST board about a new transit hub.
For community advocates on both sides—some advocating Fourth Avenue, others for a station outside of the Chinatown-International District (CID)—it was cast as a life-or-death struggle, with the other’s side inevitably leading to the extermination of the neighborhood.
In the end, the pressure that officials seemed to exude in various ways, some apparently out of character, may have also resulted from the fact that they decided to postpone the decision for another two weeks.
“We’ve heard great testimony” for both sides,” said Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, who was asked by Chair Claudia Balducci to make the motion to effectively postpone the decision. “This approach is to [leave it to be determined]. That’s a wise approach.”
Community tensions as the end approaches
There were other reasons for the tensions, despite the fact there were far fewer residents of the CID present. In fact, the smaller numbers seemed to make it more personal, to spotlight opposition between the opposing camps.
Supporters of a Fourth Avenue option argued that the neighborhood would dry up, businesses would shut down, unless a new station brought new riders from outside the CID to infuse it with new money and numbers.
“We cannot support the businesses and shops,” said Nora Chan, founder of the Seniors in Action Foundation. “We need people from other parts of Seattle to come here.”
Such a position seemed to reflect how the points of contention have shifted, as other supporters hammered on this point.
“I used to be one of the no build folks,” said Betty Lau, co-founder of Transit Equity for All. Lau said there were challenges in building on Fourth Avenue, but since railroads had been built alongside the thoroughfare, it should be possible.
For their part, supporters of options outside the CID, such as a station north of the neighborhood, mostly argued that a decade of construction and traffic detours would displace residents and businesses and inevitably lead to the destruction of the CID.
“The Chinatown in Portland was shut down in 18 months,” said Bettie Luke, longtime community advocate, adding that construction for a north of the CID station would be much shorter.
Unlike a number of past meetings, when throngs of senior citizens were led by Chan to turn out, this time, there were more supporters for a station outside the CID.
Many echoed Luke that if Fourth Avenue were chosen, it would mean the end of the CID. They asked the ST board to preserve one of the few remaining Chinatowns in the country.
One member of the CID Coalition, a nurse at Harborview, said a station north of the CID would also serve her patients.
But perhaps because the final decision was so imminent, individuals seemed unable to constrain themselves and made mute appeals to the board members.
Even while Luke was giving public testimony, for instance, a tableau unfolded that has never been seen before.
Luke sat on the left of a table facing McDermott, Balducci, and others.
But as she spoke, the person who had spoken before her—in opposition to her position—remained seated by her side, rather than vacating his seat, as was customary.
Even though his allotted one-minute time to offer comment was finished, he not only remained in the seat by her side, but he held up a sign in opposition to her position, almost touching her head as she spoke.
Balducci, who otherwise kept order among speakers, allotting extra time, or asking people to wrap it up, did nothing about the irregularity.
In announcing that the much-anticipated—or, rather, dreaded—decision would be delayed, the officials seemed to offer hints of what it might be, when the full board meets on March 23.
Balducci said it was clear that most board members were no longer considering Fifth Avenue, which the entire community has advocated against.
But she seemed to offer positive feedback about Fourth Avenue. Stations outside the CID would increase time for riders from the Eastside by about seven minutes, she said, including transferring. A Fourth Avenue “shallow” option would involve only an additional two minutes, meaning riders from her district—including those who work for many of the high-tech companies there—would save five minutes if the new hub were built there.
“And it will be that way forever,” she said.
Balducci also mentioned funding issues, and it was not immediately clear if she might still be working on securing additional funding for a Fourth Avenue option, which is apparently more expensive than one to the north of the CID.
She said it was not at all determined that the county would contribute funding.
Meanwhile, a slide in a presentation by ST staff stated that collaboration with the Mayor’s Office could engender up to $400 million in funding for different parts of the system, namely involving “publicly-owned property” and “value capture from increased development.”
It was not immediately clear if this meant housing that would be generated from property seized by ST or the results of increased investment from gentrification that usually follows transit construction.
In another apparent irregularity, before asking the SEC members to vote on the motion, Balducci opened up the floor for discussion among officials.
Other SEC members asked for clarification about the move.
After Balducci had shared her concerns, community members who supported Fourth Avenue raised their arms and waggled their hands in support.
Apparently moved, or perhaps relieved—although she is generally highly responsive to public comment—Balducci said, “Thank you for the hand waving.”
McDermott said he still had unanswered questions from the ST staff and would continue to ask them “about how best to serve the CID.”
Immediately after, Keel said, “No matter what decision we make, somebody’s not going to like it.”
Still lost in translation?
Balducci also praised the ST staff for community engagement. She attributed much of what she described as an increased comprehension by community members and the ongoing turnouts to the work done by ST staff in reaching out to the community.
However, there were signs that, in at least one critical case, there still remained the kind of lacuna in understanding between ST leadership and community advocates—even after over a year of engagement.
During his presentation to the SEC, ST Executive Corridor Director Cathal Ridge revealed what to supporters of a station outside the CID was tantamount to a false equivalency. Ridge said that a station outside the CID would markedly reduce construction and traffic disruption to the neighborhood. But he also stated that such a station would provide less easy access to residents. He called this a “trade off.”
But such a characterization failed to capture the existential threat which opponents of Fourth Avenue assuredly believe will happen to the neighborhood if that site is chosen. For them, it is not a “trade off.” It is destruction versus survival.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.