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Debate over proposed CID light rail station heats up

caption: Security guards overlooking the light rail station at Seattle's Pioneer Square.
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Security guards overlooking the light rail station at Seattle's Pioneer Square.

Sound Transit’s board of directors votes Thursday on “confirming or modifying the preferred alternative light rail route and station locations for the Ballard Link Extension.”

In other words, they're moving closer to deciding where to put a new station that will let riders head west — to a Ballard light rail station.

And while that may sound relatively simple, the options are complicated, specifically when it comes to a proposed Chinatown International District Station.

Last summer, the Sound Transit board proposed two options for the Ballard expansion, both in the CID.

One, located on Fifth Avenue, hasn't gained much traction.

"There wasn't support for it," said Doug Trumm, executive director of The Urbanist.

Trumm said that the new station would have covered about four blocks of the CID.

"And would have needed to either temporary or permanently take those buildings and either tear them down or, you know, impact them for the whole construction," he said.

So, the board is now considering two more options. The Fourth Avenue option is also sometimes referred to as the Fourth Avenue shallow option because it won’t be as deep in the ground. The station connects in Union Station, which already exists.

"But the catch there, is it's more expensive," Trumm said.

Construction would also take a lot longer than other station options. There's also concern that the Fourth Avenue location could result in similar displacement to the proposed Fifth Avenue station.

So, enter the north-south option, which is comprised of two stations. The northern one would take up an unused King County administration building, across the street from the King County Jail.

King County Executive Dow Constantine, who's also the Sound Transit board chair, spoke highly of the location in his State of the County speech.

"The county wants to redevelop its campus," Trumm explained. "They have this plan to get more use out of their seven-block campus in the south of downtown. They're right on the edge of the CID and he kind of saw the light rail station as part of that."

The second station — the south one — would sit below Uwajimaya in the CID, in what's currently a temporary Salvation Army homeless shelter.

Trumm said that site would be a 5- to 10-minute walk south of the existing station in the CID.

"So it would give some connectivity to the southern end of Chinatown International District," he said. "And it wouldn't connect anything else there. But it would be sort of close to the stadiums as well."

While it remains unclear how the board will vote Thursday, Trumm said he thinks it's likely they'll choose a new alternative site to go through an environmental study.

He added that Constantine's support for the north-south option likely gives it an advantage.

"The big question then is if they eliminate the Fourth Avenue option," Trumm said, or whether it remains as a backup while more studies are done.

There are also still big pieces of information missing, like how the King County executive plans to raise $400 million for the expansion.

"This is a big decision and we don't have all the details yet," Trumm said. "It's gonna be interesting to see how that board meeting goes. It could be a very long marathon."

Community response

This is a decision that people are really invested in and no matter what the board chooses to do, they’re going to upset someone.

"If if they don't move forward on Fourth, then it's going to be $57 billion in the toilet, said Amy Chen Lozano, a CID community member and advocate with Transit Equity for All. "You're building this mass transit system, that if it's inconvenient, nobody's going to use it."

Chen Lozano believes the Fourth Avenue option provides the most connectivity for the entire region. And she sees it as vital for keeping the area alive.

"We see the Fourth Avenue station as a first step towards reinvestment reparations for the community," Chen Lozano said. "Because once that transit hub is put in, we're going to have tourists coming in, and with tourists comes money. We need to have more money coming in to support all of our businesses."

Not everyone agrees.

"We believe that the Fourth Avenue option is just too risky, and that it would be a disaster for the Chinatown International District," said Christina Shimizu, executive director for Puget Sound Sage and a member of the CID Coalition. "Ten years of construction would be a disaster for the Chinatown International District, and we know that disasters are perfect opportunities for gentrification."

Shimizu is advocating for the north/south option for the expansion. She said it would better serve the needs of the CID community.

"The CID can't benefit from the new transit system if the CID is no longer here," Shimizu said. "And the rest of the region can't enjoy the CID if the CID is no longer here."

Shimizu said the north/south option would provide regional connectivity and access to the CID, while also avoiding the risk of displacement.

Puget Sound Sage and the CID Coalition are also pushing for Sound Transit to purchase land that they would offer back to the community for culturally relevant, community controlled development to help keep neighborhood businesses and residents within the area.

She said their goal is to see the CID remain permanently affordable and welcoming to all people.

"Regardless of income level, regardless of housing status, and regardless of citizenship, the CID has always been a welcoming home to working class immigrant Asians," Shimizu said. "And we want it to remain permanently welcoming to working class immigrant Asians."

But Chen Lozano said it’s an exaggeration to say that the station will result in the CID disappearing.

"I think it's just a lot of fear mongering," she said. "I mean, that's the easiest thing to stop anything is just invoke the most fear. And it's extremely easy, especially for a community that's been marginalized and forced out of areas for generations."

She said the potential for decades of construction might be less of a burden, if it’s done alongside other needed infrastructure improvements like the Second Avenue Extension Bridge, South Jackson Street Bridge, and the Fourth Avenue Viaduct.

"What we're envisioning is that part of the mitigation for this project is that Sound Transit, in partnership with the city and the county, just do all the projects while they're there," Chen Lozano said.

The Fourth Avenue option is more expensive than the north/south approach. It’s likely the city of Seattle would have to chip in.

Sound Transit’s board said it would be an additional $700 million for the shallow Fourth Avenue alternative, and $800 million for the "shallower" Fourth Avenue alternative. For Chen Lozano, that money is an investment in the CID’s future.

Shimizu believes the north/south option would accomplish a similar goal.

"It’ll mean that cultural preservation and the CID is not an afterthought to our community, that we are taking intentional steps to listen to communities of color," she said. "And to think about what a truly inclusive urbanism looks like in Seattle."

Sound Transit’s board will decide Thursday what options they’ll pursue.

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