By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Light rail does not just appear one day in a neighborhood where it didn’t exist the day before.
Years of construction follow years of planning.
Some of that construction is preceded by demolition – tearing down homes and businesses that, to put it bluntly, are declared to be in the way.
That will happen to some in West Seattle. Just where, and how many homes and businesses, won’t be settled until the route and station locations for the due-to-open-in-2030 line are finalized. But some people for whom it’s a possibility are already grappling with it. This past Wednesday night, dozens of them gathered at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center with pointed questions for Sound Transit – questions that in many cases, ST reps said, it’s too soon to answer. Most of the people in attendance were from nearby streets where construction of the Delridge station might push them out, depending on what location is chosen.
The briefing/Q&A event was organized by a neighbor, Dennis Noland, who opened by saying, “It was devastating news to me” to find out that Sound Transit’s West Seattle light-rail plan might cost him and some of his neighbors their homes. Noland took it on himself to personally talk with neighbors after that revelation last fall.
The next step in that was organizing the meeting, intended for neighbors – “specifically a two-block area” bounded by, as he explained it:
SW Genesee on the south
SW Dakota on the north
West side of Delridge Way SW on the east
26th SW transecting 25th SW on the west
We recorded the 2-hour-plus event, but our video is mostly just of use for the audio as the projected slides could not be captured – they’re all in this slide deck (7 MB PDF) – and we didn’t have a separate crew member to zoom from person to person while we took notes. Nevertheless, here’s the recording:
Now, our chronicling of what happened:
First, Noland asked how many knew – before he started going door to door – that their homes might be in the path of the future light-rail station, and how many did not. (We took the top photo during the responses.)
On stage and introduced were Sound Transit’s Leda Chahim, who led the briefing; Stephen Mak, West Seattle project-segment lead; Andrea Burnett, community outreach; Erin Green, environmental; and Patrick Sullivan, real property.
City Councilmember Lisa Herbold – who is a member of ST’s Elected Leadership Group for the West Seattle to Ballard decisionmaking process – was pointed out in the gallery.
The deck for the meeting started with background on the system expansion funded by the voter-passed Sound Transit 3 measure, and even all the way back to early discussion 50 years ago. This also included a primer – the “representative project” refers to what voters passed in 2016 and covers a West Seattle line opening in 2030 and a Ballard line opening in 2035. Design is 2022-2025 and construction 2025-2030; a “preferred alternative” of route/station locations, for environmental study, is to be chosen in a few months.
Chahim recapped the two levels of review already completed in the one-year-and-counting process (here’s an explanatory report we published one year ago) of deciding on that and explained that it’s now on to a third, with one more round of wide public input to be held soon, the “scoping” phase.
She also explained the groups involved in the process – the Stakeholder Advisory Group (here’s our most-recent coverage; at least one West Seattleite from the SAG, Brian King, was at the Youngstown meeting) and Elected Leadership Group (here’s what they did at their October meeting). And she ran through a list of more than 20 public briefings and events, including this one, held in the past year or so.
Mak, the West Seattle project segment lead, recapped how the review process for this leg had gone so far. As he started reviewing the routing options, fairly early on, someone called out the big question, “How can you tell which houses will be demolished?” (They were asked to save the question.) He recapped feedback themes that led to the Level 1 alternatives, and more. Five options were advanced to Round 2 for study (here’s our report on that from June).
In one of the alternatives studied in Level 2, there was an option studied that “tried to minimize [West Seattle] golf-course impact,” Mak noted. He then focused on the key differences between alternatives, through a North Delridge prism.
“Key differentiators – station location, residential/business effects, guideway [elevated track] height.” The route shown with a brown line would have a guideway more like 150′, while those shown with the orange and blue lines would be closer to 50′ to 60′. The higher number sent a near-gasp rippling through the room.
Someone asked, “For reference, how high is the West Seattle Bridge?”
140 feet clearance, was the reply.
Mak then recapped the September “neighborhood forum: (WSB coverage here), which in general supported a lower height along Genesee. Here, by the way, are the “visualizations” that ST released (and we published) just before that event:
And he continued going through the Level 2 discussion – an overwhelming amount of information if you haven’t been following along previously – followed by Level 3.
Now they are considering “end to end alternatives” – routing options for the entire West Seattle to Ballard project, under the titles: The “representative project,” “West Seattle Elevated/C-ID 5th Avenue/Downtown 6th Avenue/Ballard Elevated,” and “West Seattle Tunnel/C-ID 4th Avenue/Downtown 5th Ave/Ballard Tunnel.”
ST is working on technical studies right now, and the results of those will be presented to the public when ready, said Mak.
Burnett then went through the next list of meetings (as presented at the recent SAG meeting):
She said there will be new “visualizations” for the end-to-end proposals as well as technical evaluations, and there will be two meetings coming up in West Seattle, including one in Delridge.
The upcoming “scoping” period is a federally defined 30-day period, explained Green. That will include several opportunities for comments, including an “online open house” for those who can’t participate in the in-person events. ST will have a voice=messaging system too.
She then explained the goal of the Environmental Impact Statement and what it will look at, as also detailed at the previous week’s SAG meeting. It’s meant to look at both operational and construction effects of the project, as well as indirect effects.
“There’s a lot of planning yet to go,” the group was told.
Next, Burnett and Sullivan talked about the acquisition/relocation process.
Sullivan, whose focus is property acquisition, said that when the time comes – in “final design,” which starts in 2022, after the ST Board’s final decision on project routing/station location – the process would start with a letter going out to property owners, regardless of whether their property might be sought for purchase in its entirety or in part.
“It will also include a draft depiction of property rights we would like to acquire.”
Burnett picked up that the first real idea of which properties would be affected would come around late 2020. In the meantime, residents can contact ST to set up times to talk one on one about the process, in which, she said, property owners would receive fair-market value and moving reimbursement, among other things.
Then, Q&A (and comments):
1st question: If board selects an alignment (routing/station locations) that costs more than what voters approved in ST3 and alternative funding sources were required, but not identified by start of EIS, would the proposal still be carried through or dropped?
Reply – They’ll get cost estimates around the end of this month. They know the stakeholders might make recommendations with and without third-party funding.
Mak pointed through the planning-process checklist again and said things don’t get locked in until the board decides what’s to be built. Ultimately, it’s a “board conversation.” Engage now and advocate for what you want to see built, they stressed.
Next: What happens to the value of homes that MIGHT wind up having to be demolished? How do people keep living there? “It kind of sucks right now” to be in that kind of limbo, the attendee said.
Another person noted the level of change happening in Seattle right now and observed that this seems to be taking away homeowners’ chances to sell before 2025, with this cloud hanging over them.
“There’s no motivation for people in our position to keep maintaining our house,” one man insisted.
Sullivan talked about how their property would be appraised. He said ST offers money for relocation among other things but “you have to wait until we make the offer.”
“So what do you do for the next six years?” pressed the resident.
Reply, repeated: “We have to know what it is we’re going to build. … We have a lot of projects we’ve worked on … do we just not tell property owners a thing and then suddenly ‘surprise!’ … it does put property owners in a bit of limbo, but they want to know as early as possible” that acquisition is a possibility.
Yes, but what if you have to move for your job sooner? someone else asked.
Attendees reiterated: The early FYI is appreciated but there’s nothing we can do about it, so we get to stress about it for six years:
“There are 20 households that could be affected by this …” but the process doesn’t allow them to get out of that situation until 2025. They’re “locked in and can’t do anything, and (nothing they say) during the scoping process is going to change that,” added an attendee.
Another speaker: “it seems all these options go by my house but not through my house – do they all go over the golf course?”
Mak, the lead for the West Seattle segment of the project, said it’s still a “general analysis right now.”
“So if the place is built on the south side of Genesee, does my side of the street just disappear?” the attendee asked. “Do you only get bought out if (ST needs) the actual space?”
Sullivan replied that the law only requires ST to buy what’s needed to build and maintain the train line. They “acquire property for the guideway alignment that exceeds the edge of the rail.” Added Green, there’s not a specific distance from the rail/guideway that is considered to be affected, but they look at factors including visual impacts.
Next question: Is full project funding required before acquisition? (The asker had just read about the latest 30-dollar car-tab measure.)
Kimberly Reason from ST explained, from the gallery, the various sources of funding that “all get wrapped together.” If some piece were to be lost, that would affect the project, but hard to say how much.
Next: So let’s say you go with the blue line down the middle of 26th and 25th – would you take properties on both sides?
If that exact alignment is chosen, the draft Environmental Impact Statement will show that, Mak replied.
You’ve answered that question the same way as every other question, said the attendee, who never did get a “yes” or “no” answer. Chahim then tried to explain, that’s because it’s “early in the process.”
The next person asked how soon a homeowner is legally required to disclose to a potential buyer that there’s a chance the property could be in the path of a project like this. (ST didn’t have that answer handy, promising to get back to the questioner.) Another person noted the ongoing redevelopment in the area and wondered why permits are still being granted for projects that might have to be torn down within less than a decade. “Developers … aren’t putting their lives on hold (for this),” said Sullivan, and since ST pays fair-market value, they wouldn’t be losing money.
Also: “There’s ethics both ways” – this is only a proposed project for now. “We are working very closely” with partners, said Chahim. Councilmember Herbold chimed in that developers will generally take the risk.
Would the Delridge station have a park-n-ride? they were asked. Answer: No. But they would talk with the community about development “around the station.”
Then: Are past ST deals public record? Reply: You can make a request through the Public Disclosure Act (here’s how).
What other construction mitigation would be done for impacts on Delridge? asked community advocate Pete Spalding. Mak said they want to hear from community members about what possible impacts they’d like to see studied. Added Burnett, the community outreach group is responsible for working with neighborhoods “to integrate our construction site, because we know we’re going to be there for several years.”
Would impacts include zoning? they were asked. The city would take the lead, was the reply, and Herbold said it’s a city priority to do “neighborhood planning around station areas,” starting in 2020 for Delridge and The Junction.
“We’re surprisingly resigned to what we’re hearing,” assessed one person, who wondered if any neighborhood had managed to bond together and turn the planning process away from coming through heir area. Reply: “Our alignments have shifted or changed or been informed by public comment.”
Another speaker addressed Herbold and a previously introduced representative for County Councilmember and ST Board member Joe McDermott. The blue alignment, he said, would take the homes “of most of the people in this room” and that “seems capricious,” he said, noting that it pits the people at the top of the (SW Genesee) hill against the people at the bottom “and that’s a dynamic that in West Seattle we all know about.”
Mak pointed out that a lot of refinement already had happened and it was all the result of commenting. Over and over again, the reply was “be engaged in the process and comment.”
Another questioner went back to the fact that lots of dense construction had happened in the neighborhood in the past few years. Many new homes are connected – townhouses, rowhouses – with one driveway connecting multiple residences. So how could they temporarily take access for the project and leave someone cut off? They wouldn’t do that, was ST’s reply.
Another community advocate, Michael Taylor-Judd, said he’s “been at this a long time” and “one thing is starting to concern me.” He suggested that things hadn’t changed much from the “ST3 preferred alternative” though “there’s been overwhelming opposition to that even before the  vote.” The whole point of the EIS process is to get into the details of ridership, etc., but he fears the EIS process will study the wrong things – the height or whether it goes by the bridge, for example. “You guys have been great about capturing comments but … Sound Transit has ignored almost all the comments that have been suggested through this process.”
Chahim acknowledged that they’re “narrowing” focus from a “broader” section of alternatives and that the process has gone this way because they are hoping to shave a few years off the process. Mak said that if you feel the EIS should look at another alternative than the ones in play – including ones thrown out in the first or second levels – please say so in the next round of feedback.
Herbold suggested that it would be helpful if ST sent out the full document that evaluated 17 differen possibilities.
Why did the purple route (a Level 2 possibility) get scrapped? asked another person. Herbold said she had voted to keep it but others in the ELG voted it down because it would have cost more than $1 billion beyond what was projected for the original project.
Spalding noted that the purple line was the preference in most if not all local meetings. Another attendee wondered why ST couldn’t come up with an alternative closer to that rather than “ST’s preference.” Chahim insisted that ST didn’t have “a preference.”
Why couldn’t it have been run up Andover where there are few residences? Why has the winnowing down continued to push toward the blue line? the ST reps were asked. Repeated Chahim, “We want to hear what’s important to you and what you want us to study.” Even if it’s one cast aside earlier in the process, she added.
The crow was thinning by that point, as the 2-hour mark (9 pm) arrived.
Another person brought up the point that when built in 2030, this would only be going to SODO where riders would have to transfer.
Next question: Where did the numbers of possibly affected properties (that ST has previously cited) come from? What thought went into that process? Mak’s reply included a mention of buffers ranging from 55′ to 100′. So that has to be on a map somewhere? pressed the attendee. Mak promised to get back to him.
The next resident begged for answers sooner rather than later, saying plaintively that their neighborhood is a great place to live, already has great transit access and more – “this is our life, this is our quality of life.”
Herbold said ST was trying to keep the decisionmaking process as compact as possible, and asking for more options to be studied would just stretch things out longer.
“But would it be possible to meet in the middle?” countered one man, who said he might be able to guess where his life will be in 2022, but not 2026.
And others: Don’t make us wait years beyond the decision for money. Even now, they don’t feel they can sell their homes.
They have constraints in the process, explained Green – they can’t acquire the land until a design is on record, for example.
Another attendee asked: Is there any way to say “no, I don’t want to sell my house”? That answer was basically no – ST has the power of eminent domain. But Sullivan noted, ST goes “above and beyond” – they don’t just “throw a number down on your kitchen table and say ‘take it or leave it’.” Eminent domain is meant to protect the property owner, he contended.
What if she has one house on he porperty but could build two more and does that before all this plays out? The property’s highest and best use is how the fair-market value would be determined, replied Sullivan.
“So the more I put into my house from now on, the appraisal would be higher?” she pressed.
The reply – basically, yes. But: “There are some remodels and renovations that might make a house worth more and some that might not.”
Herbold wondered what ST’s experience is in a situation like this.
Sullivan said they’ve had past situations in which a “speculative buying frenzy” ensued because of what’s happened when “those systems are in place” so they haven’t seen anyone who can’t sell when in a situation like that.
Could a real-estate person sit down with residents now to talk about this? asked Herbold. Short answer: Yes.
But what about the effects of a giant light-rail track right next door in the future? asked the next person. And, another wondered, what does “highest and best use” valuation really mean?
Just a few people were left by this point. A zoning discussion ensued. Taylor-Judd pointed out that some property in the area already is zoned for more density than the single-family homes it holds.
Finally, as the 9:30 deadline for vacating the room drew near, the meeting wrapped up.
“This was a hard conversation to have,” acknowledged Chahim.
WHAT’S NEXT: The Stakeholder Advisory Group meets January 30th, the Elected Leadership Group February 1st. Those meetings are usually downtown. At some point in February, the next official public-feedback round will start – though that requires federal consultation since part of this project is to be federally funded, so if the shutdown goes on much longer, that could be delayed. Questions or comments? ST contact info is here.