Story and photos by Jason Grotelueschen
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
“We have a real opportunity here.”
With regard to light rail and community planning in the Alaska Junction (and in West Seattle as a whole), that was one of the key themes Thursday night at the Junction Neighborhood Organization (JuNO) meeting at the Senior Center of West Seattle.
JuNO’s guest speaker was Lauren Flemister (pictured above), community planning manager from Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD), who gave an overview of the processes, how her office works with Sound Transit and how the public can get involved.
Flemister, along with leaders in attendance such as JuNO director Amanda Sawyer and Deb Barker (who was on the light-rail project Stakeholder Advisory Group and is on the West Seattle Transportation Coalition‘s board), agreed that with light rail coming to West Seattle in 2030, this will be a “long process” with many opportunities for public input. When Flemister was asked by Sawyer if the planning processes for the Alaska Junction and West Seattle are likely to be “typical” compared to other regional rail-expansion projects in the past, Flemister said no, because her office expects this latest process to be “much more robust.”
The junction has been a focal point for these light rail discussions — as we reported back in March, an overflow crowd gathered at the Senior Center to hear from Sound Transit officials, and back in November 2017 a top ST manager spoke at a JuNO meeting and promised “an interesting year and a half” ahead. (See our comprehensive light rail coverage here.)
Sawyer kicked off the Thursday meeting by putting in a plug for neighbors interested in serving as a JuNO officer to email email@example.com or go to wsjuno.org. The group will be holding elections during their September meeting for the positions of president, vice president, secretary and treasurer. With all of the development and growth in the area, Sawyer said, now is a great time to get involved to “help create a collaborative vision and future for the Alaska Junction.” Sawyer noted that it’s an intentional effort to have a slate of elected officers for JuNO, and that although she’s currently the leader of the group, she wasn’t “elected” officially. She added that the group needs strong voices, representing both longtime residents as well as new neighbors and renters and business owners, particularly as light rail will be bringing transit stations and added density to the neighborhood. “It’s a decade-plus of discussion,” she said, “we’ll have some decisions to make soon but for much of it we’ll be waiting until much later,”
Sawyer then turned things over to Flemister for the remainder of the meeting, to lead the discussion on neighborhood planning and light rail. Flemister acknowledged that she was relatively new to Seattle and that this was her first community presentation of this type in the city, but is no stranger to large regional transit projects in the area, having worked on projects in the Tacoma area and south sound (focusing partially on property value impacts). She stepped through a slide presentation (see below) and took questions from attendees.
REPORTER’S NOTE: This version of the presentation contains some changes that Flemister made after the meeting before sharing the file with us, to remove and correct some information, along with this clarifying comment:
…I want to clarify some verbiage that I am sure caused misunderstanding (Thursday) night. I understand that people think of community planning as the original neighborhood plans developed in the 1990s, which is closely tied to the Urban Village strategy. The current Community Planning programs focused on everything from Urban Design Frameworks to rezones to design guidelines to implementation plans and, in some cases, may not be explicitly tied to the urban village boundaries. Station Area Planning often looks at the ½ mile walkshed as a starting point, but we evaluate the appropriate study area based on several factors that are different. That work has not been initiated yet in the Junction but will take place as we pick up speed.
Raw notes from the Thursday meeting:
- HALA Mandatory Housing Affordability and upzoning: Most of the tall buildings in the area are 75-95 feet (8-9 stories, with 15-foot main commercial area then floors above that), which Flemister described as “pretty tall; the heights are generous; we don’t expect more major upzones.” She noted that if the light rail becomes an elevated line with guideways (the structures that hold up the tracks), we may see some additional transitions, but in general the Alaska Junction urban village is “right-sized” already. An attendee asked how many of the developers in the area are from out of state (she was concerned that many of the questions she’s asked of local crews have been referred to owners from places like New York and Texas, thus they may have less of an interest in the West Seattle area), Flemister said she wasn’t sure but would look into it.
- Urban design framework: Flemister said this will continue to evolve; when we know the station locations, then her office will want to help integrate the open spaces and “public realm” (the area between building faces; sidewalks and streetside seating and common areas). They have general principles and concepts in place but that will continue to evolve, particularly if the final track route is elevated.
- Station locations: The exact locations of the light-rail stations are TBD, and will be part of the EIS study, largely dependent on which stretches of track are elevated or tunneled. Flemister described the planning process as “a string,” which gets tugged and influenced in different directions depending on where other stations on the West Seattle / Ballard route end up being placed. Factors include the trains being able to turn corners effectively, engineering feasibility, cost and maintaining the “neighborhood fabric.
- Station area planning: Flemister said this part of planning focuses on a “10-minute walk shed” radius around each station (about a half-mile, but varies depending on hills and grades) and will be a factor along with the Urban Design Framework (UDF) discussions.
- Environmental review period: Flemister said the DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement) period has just started. Deb Barker noted that many neighbors in the room have been closely involved, providing scoping letters and feedback, and Flemister said her office provided a letter as well. One attendee asked which company is doing the EIS, and Flemister said she wasn’t sure but will ask ST. Project milestones include:
- DEIA ends (15% design) in 2020
- Final EIS ends (30% design) in 2022
- Permitting plan – 2022
- FTA (Federal Transit Administration) has their official record of decision – 2023 (this is when ST says “this is what we’re building,” Flemister said, and at that point “it’s no longer conceptual and schematic.”)
- How will the City of Seattle do station-area planning? Flemister said the station design will happen in 2020, construction starting in 2025. UDF discussions will be from now until 2022, and will focus on the area within 2-3 blocks of each station. Deb Barker commented that with regard to public input, “more is better,” and Flemister agreed that “it’s better for people to voice concerns early rather than later; we want people to weigh in on big issues so we’re not just picking at the margins.”
- Regarding the 2-3 block radius around the stations, Flemister said the eventual impacts could be both residential and business-related, because ST may need to acquire property. Attendees noted that there have been discussions about combining two of the West Seattle stations, and that similar station-location discussions will happen for the Delridge area.
- Question about how closely OPCD will work with other agencies; thinking about how the city is considering proposals like the golf course land usage recently covered by the Seattle Times. Flemister said her team works mostly with SDOT, sometimes with Housing and the Office of Sustainability and the Environment and Seattle Parks. Flemister noted that there seems to be a policy shift from the mayor’s office, and they’re waiting to see what that impact is. Follow-up question asking if Seattle Public Utilities has a seat at the table, given the likely disruption of buried utilities, and that we need to think about what’s under the ground now and potentially do maintenance and related projects at the same time ST is uncovering them, to be efficient — Flemister’s answer was yes, SPU will definitely be involved and that this topic comes up a lot. Big utility projects that were originally slated to happen later could move earlier if the light rail project is going to uncover them anyway, and there are also funding considerations and “infrastructure swap” negotiations that could be on the table, to get the most work done as possible.
- Question: If city agencies and ST look at a 2-3 block radius around a planned station and come up with another location that works better, is there a formalized document/revision process that happens? Flemister said her impression is that these discussions could come down to a variety of funding and political factors, but the first thing that needs to happen is for the baselines to be established so that it’s understood what the negotiation position is. Not entirely sure yet how that relationship is going to work.
- Question: Will the public be aware of OPCD’s preferred options, and all of the preferred options? Alex Clardy (in attendance) from City Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s office said that he’s not entirely sure if the city and OPCD will develop their own options, but the ST Board will likely vote on the options. What will definitely happen, everyone agreed, is that during the draft EIS process, the public can comment and ST is required to respond to every single comment, so that comment period is expected to very active. Flemister added that there are likely to be a number of organizations and bodies that take certain positions on the issue.
- Question: SPU is in the process of doing a citywide sewer analysis plan that won’t be done until 2023, which is after much of the ST planning is complete, so how will that be prioritized and managed? Could they do the WS sewer analysis? Deb Barker added that some of the utilities in the Alaska Junction are likely to be among the oldest infrastructure along the entire line. Flemister said that would be something to follow up on.
- When do we plan in West Seattle? The station area urban design framework will begin in 2019, community involvement and engagement in 2020, and “typical” neighborhood planning (scoped to half-mile walkshed) in 2023 when we know where the route will be and have 30% design completion. This prompted some discussion about whether neighborhood planning was happening for the entire urban village, or just for the stations (it’s a combination of both).
After the conclusion of Flemister’s presentation, attendees continued discussing aspects of neighborhood planning. Notes below:
- Amanda Sawyer said that there are still many things yet to be determined, based on the fact that the recent May 23rd ST Board meeting didn’t result in the definitive decisions that were originally expected. (See our complete article and video coverage of the meeting). Barker described that plans that have moved forward to-date, and what they entail.
- Barker stood up and offered her perspective, having worked as a land-use planner for the city of Federal Way for 20 years. She noted the political challenges involving regional transit projects, because it can be difficult to get suburban support for urban projects in Seattle.
- Sawyer mentioned a recent editorial in the Seattle Times that was critical about ST pausing to look at more complex (and expensive) alternatives such as tunneling, which “basically said to forget about the tunnel, just get light rail done.” Another attendee noted that former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn has also been vocally critical of tunneling. Sawyer said she has been surprised by the anti-tunnel messaging, and said it’s important to note that support of the tunnel “is not about keeping the Junction exactly the way it is; we know there will be changes.” Attendees discussed the possibility of the group writing an op-ed to the Seattle Times in response.
- Barker reminded attendees that during the 2020 DEIS phase, there will be public opportunities to comment and ST is required to answer all of those comments. Sawyer added that when JuNO gets copies of the DEIS (which can be “long and technical and boring”), the group may take volunteers to divide the document up and read it in sections, but until then “it’s a waiting game.” Barker added that the issue of finding 3rd-party funding for portions of the project will be increasingly important, and that County Councilmember/ST Board member Joe McDermott will be a likely ally in those discussions.
- Question: If the number of stations is reduced and we end up with one fewer station, then could that cost savings be passed on to alleviate tunnel funding concerns? Other attendees noted that this could likely happen, but that there is some sentiment from ST that they’ve promised a certain number of stations and that’s what was voted on, so that’s what they need to deliver.