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Wednesday, June 20, 2012 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.
Seattle's classic waterfront streetcars stuck at dead end
By Erik Lacitis
Seattle Times staff reporter
For the past seven years, a little bit of Seattle's soul has been sitting in a warehouse by Metro's bus complex just east of Safeco Field.
This bit of Seattle consists of the five classic, 1920s waterfront streetcars that ran from 1982 to 2005, their fate now in "limbo," says Metro.
Their chance for survival is precarious. The elegant streetcars, painted green and cream, constructed with beautiful Tasmanian mahogany and white ash, have been described as "capturing the elegance of travel in a bygone era."
These days, they don't easily fit the new vision for this city.
"I guess they went out of fashion with the powers in the city and the county," says Ira Sacharoff, 54, now a real estate-agent, who was conductor on the streetcars for their entire time.
"They gave a little bit of eccentricity, a little bit of individuality, a little bit of quirkiness to Seattle."
The new vision for this city can be seen in the South Lake Union streetcar line, with its sleek, new vehicles.
That new vision can be seen in the big ideas for the Seattle waterfront presented by the Manhattan-based landscape-architecture firm of James Corner Field Operations.
The ideas for which it is getting paid $6 million included a mini-beach by Pioneer Square for kayakers and small boats, a water fountain that would mist and "thermal pools" (hot tubs) on public piers.
Now, with the streetcars' maintenance barn gone to make room for the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park, the streetcars sit on tracks in the warehouse. To get a crane to put them inside — each one of the cars is 48 feet long and weighs 16 tons — a wall in the building had to be temporarily taken out.
They are lined up side by side, with maybe just a little dust here and there.
But the classic looks of the Australian-built passenger cars come through.
It is beauty that now the public doesn't see, only the infrequent Metro staffer who stops by to check on the warehouse.
Through the years, various officials have expressed concern about the fate of the streetcars, a labor of love on the part of George Benson, a five-term Seattle City Council member who died in 2004 at age 84.
He was a fervent believer in public transportation, and the waterfront streetcars were part of that vision.
Evelyn Benson would say about her husband, "He's never gone to bed one night without a transit magazine in his hand."
But the streetcars just stay in that limbo. It would have broken Benson's heart.
He proudly said in 1992, in a speech at a light-rail conference, "Many Seattle citizens would sooner chop down the Space Needle than scrap the streetcars."
So the affection that Seattleites have for these streetcars also reflects the affection they have for the memory of the unassuming Benson.
He was old school, he and his wife, Evelyn, running a pharmacy on Capitol Hill.
Benson didn't aspire to do seminars on very important policy issues at some graduate school.
But if there was a pothole that needed fixing, or if you were a small-business man butting heads with the city bureaucracy, Benson was the guy to call.
They threw a big party for him in 1993 when he retired from the City Council. That same night, Benson delivered a prescription to one of his customers.
He said he fell in love with trolleys when he was 3 or 4, growing up in Minneapolis.
Some would scoff at the pharmacist's streetcar project, calling it "Benson's Folly."
But on May 29, 1982, some 3,000 people lined up to see the first trip of the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar Line.
It ran 1.6 miles along the waterfront, from Pier 70 to the Chinatown International District. In 2003, some 450,000 passengers rode it, mostly in the summer. Many of them were tourists with cash to spend.
To find the streetcars, in 1978, Benson and his wife had traveled to Melbourne, Australia, where some still were being produced.
They got a bargain for the used streetcars at $5,000 each (around $18,000 in today's dollars), although shipping more than tripled that cost. Still, not a bad deal.
Benson loved those streetcars, making weekly visits to their maintenance barn, personally touching them up with paint if needed.
Then came changes, one blow after another to the existence of the streetcars.
The maintenance barn was on land that would become part of the Olympic Sculpture Park, which has art work such as giant granite eyes in sculptures called "confrontation pieces."
The barn was not in the plans for the park, and the museum had numerous reasons why the barn could not remain.
City and county officials hatched a plan to build a new maintenance barn on a parking lot in Pioneer Square.
It never happened.
Then came all the construction to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel, along with a remaking of Seattle's waterfront.
Last year, James Corner, of the architectural design firm with the $6 million contract, said he would like to see the former waterfront streetcars run along First Avenue, instead of along Alaskan Way, and for the new waterfront parkway to be served by "lighter, more nimble" forms of transportation such as bicycle cabs or jitneys.
Now the city says that the waterfront parkway would be able to accommodate streetcars, whether they're the old historic ones or the modern ones.
But such a system wouldn't be running until 2019, says Marshall Foster, the city's planning director — if that's what is decided.
For Ira Sacharoff, the former streetcar conductor, "it doesn't exactly sound like commitment."
Here is his suspicion about those five streetcars sitting in that warehouse:
"I think they're going to make them disappear in the middle of the night without telling anybody."
Sacharoff remembers those wonderful rides in the old, elegant cars.
"You wouldn't get to your destination in a hurry. But that was not the point," he says. "These waterfront streetcars, you know what they were? Kinetic art. A moving art gallery."
Art that 450,000 riders could understand.
News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or email@example.com
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