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Tuesday, November 02, 2004 - Page updated at 02:31 P.M.

Mercer widening plan gets council's blessing

By Bob Young
Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Seattle City Council yesterday endorsed the idea of turning Mercer Street into a two-way, tree-lined boulevard, although the proposal would not improve traffic and travel times in the area.

The vote was 8-1 for the plan, first promoted by Paul Allen's development company, Vulcan, which owns about 60 acres in the area. Vulcan's holdings include properties along Mercer Street that it bought from the city in 2001. The city would need to reacquire some of that land to widen Mercer Street from four to six lanes, while narrowing adjacent Valley Street from five lanes to two.

Mayor Greg Nickels also pushed hard for the proposal in hopes of making the South Lake Union area more attractive for residents, visitors and the biotech industry.

"We're on our way to transforming Mercer from a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad freeway on-ramp to a two-way walkable green boulevard," Nickels said in a statement released after the council's action.

Technically, the council yesterday agreed to spend $1.8 million to further study the plan. But council members made it clear that they supported the boulevard vision as more than a transportation project.

Council President Jan Drago predicted that it would help create jobs and develop housing in the burgeoning South Lake Union area. Councilman Peter Steinbrueck said it "restores the urban fabric" of the neighborhood.

Critics said the fabric was too expensive, particularly when the mayor's own study showed that it would be no better for travel times in the area than doing nothing in the next 25 years.

"It's more like a gambler's bet that it will stimulate real-estate development in South Lake Union," said Councilman Nick Licata, who cast the only dissenting vote after failing to get his colleagues to redirect the money to the city's backlog of bridge-maintenance needs.

Licata also questioned the pedestrian and transit benefits that would supposedly come from the Mercer Boulevard project. He noted that more idling traffic would result in more pollution, which would make the streets less attractive to pedestrians. He also doubted that people would ride buses stuck in traffic.

The project would cost at least $70 million just to reconfigure Mercer and Valley streets between Fairview and Dexter avenues. It could cost roughly $150 million to include other related improvements, such as reconnecting streets now severed by Aurora Avenue North as it cuts between the South Lake Union and Queen Anne areas.
 
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The city does not have money for the Mercer project but hopes to get it from federal and regional sources.

John Fox, an affordable-housing activist and a leading critic of the mayor's South Lake Union agenda, said the council's action might lead to a legal challenge.

The city's Department of Transportation wants to expedite Mercer planning by proceeding without a full-blown environmental-impact study. But the department declared earlier this year that the project could have "significant" impact.

Fox called the department's change of course "unorthodox and possibly illegal" under state law.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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