SEATTLE –- For nearly 20 years, Siegfried Linke has owned and leased a commercial building that sits a one-second walk from the Mercer Mess and, on some days, two hours from his Stanwood home.
“I don’t even want to come in the city,” Linke said. “I come in to do my business and I can’t wait to get out.”
With South Lake Union now growing faster than ever, his concerns are growing, too.
“I like to see the growth, but the transportation system has to go along with the growth,” Linke said.
It is a concern he first raised at a public hearing in 1993, when Seattle was considering the idea of concentrating growth in urban centers and villages.
“Everybody has at least one car,” Linke said in 1993. “So you know you’re going to add 20,000 cars to the Mercer Mess, where are you going to put them?”
Nineteen years later, how does he feel?
“I was right on,” he said. “The mess did not stop, it got worse.”
Actually, according to traffic numbers obtained from Seattle’s Department of Transportation, the number of cars driving the Mercer corridor is down since the mid-1990s. But Linke said it does not always feel that way, especially with the addition of so many new businesses and residential buildings.
He would like to see more public transportation in the neighborhood, arguing that South Lake Union’s streetcar just doesn't cut it.
“It’s a lot of money spent, but it doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t serve the purpose for public transportation,” he said.
The city is now considering a major rezone that could add 22,000 more jobs to South Lake Union. While some fear that could make congestion even worse, the city thinks that careful planning could actually reduce congestion.
“The short version is, yes, congestion is inevitable at a certain level,” said Seattle planning director Marshall foster. “It will be a hell of a lot worse if we don’t plan ahead.”
Foster said that elements of the rezone could help reduce congestion. For starters, the new zoning puts emphasis on residential building -– including affordable housing –- that could clear the way for thousands of new housing units. The goal is to have more South Lake Union employees living close to where they work.
Anna Sweeney, who started working at Amazon a year ago, lives within a mile of her job. It is a 15-minute walk.
“It takes longer to drive to work than to walk to work,” she said.
The city thinks new zoning rules would lead to more employees commuting by foot like Sweeney.
The rezone would also generate millions of new tax dollars that would go toward walking and bicycling improvements throughout South Lake Union, including better crossings along Denny Way.
But what about transit? As Siegfried Linke pointed out, the streetcar’s tracks do not cover a lot of ground right now.
So the city is designing plans that would extend the streetcar through downtown, connecting it with the First Hill line.
The city is also studying possible streetcar extensions to the University District and adding some form of high-capacity transit (possibly a streetcar) that runs to Ballard.
“All of this stuff is about taking pressure off the roads,” said Foster, the planning director. “It’s about getting people into another way of getting around.”
When the deep-bore tunnel project is finished in late 2015 or early 2016, three roads now split by Aurora Avenue (Harrison, Thomas and John streets) will be connected. That will hopefully take pressure off other heavily burdened roads, including Mercer and Denny.
That section of town could also be the site of a new transit hub, with a stop for the new RapidRide line that will run along Aurora starting in late 2013.
The South Lake Union Community Council created an extensive mobility plan, which features many ideas already mentioned, plus many others. The Seattle city council passed a resolution endorsing the plan.
“These improvements will make it easier to get in and out of South Lake Union, there’s no doubt about it,” said Jerry Dinndorf, president of the South Lake Union Community Council.
Experts say that congestion is often the price that is paid for all the benefits that come with incredible growth.
“We choose 10,000 well-paying jobs in this crummy economy over the fact that you can drive without hitting a stop light as you go from Lower Queen Anne to I-5,” said Mark Hallenbeck, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Center. “Sorry about that, but that’s the choice we made.”
Still, Siegfried Linke said he hopes more will be done to address the concerns he first raised 19 years ago.