Closing Occidental would have small impact on SoDo traffic

Should the city eliminate a one-block stretch of Occidental Avenue South?

SEATTLE - It is one lonely block, that soon may be at the center of the hottest debate in town.

Should the city eliminate a one-block stretch of Occidental Avenue South?

Seattle Arena investor Chris Hansen's proposal to do so will get a public hearing in two weeks.  His investment group has asked the city to vacate Occidental, in order to build a new NBA/NHL arena. However, the Port of Seattle and Seattle Mariners have strongly objected, citing traffic concerns in particular.

"It really is the tipping point," Port Commissioner Stephanie Bowman said at a meeting last month. "This is the battle we need if we want to preserve manufacturing industrial jobs." 

Bowman, and others have argued the road is a vital release valve for freight trucks, and the loss of the road could inhibit growth.  The Seattle Mariners front office has argued that the road would hurt the ingress and egress near Safeco Field.

SDOT and the Seattle Mayor's Office have countered. In their recommendation to eliminate the street, they said the road was "not necessary to freight movement" and "will not negatively impact" Safeco Field. Hansen has offered to build new sidewalks, a pedestrian overpass, public park, and access road in exchange for the elimination of the street.

KING 5 closely observed the spot on three different occasions in February, finding very little freight traffic.

On February 4, a KING crew sat for an hour in a spot located in the middle of Hansen's proposed arena site, watching traffic from 3:45 to 4:45 in the afternoon. The crew did not see a single big rig.  However, large freight trucks were breezing through Holgate, Edgar Martinez Way, and 1st Avenue.

On February 11, KING's crew watched Occidental traffic from 12:10-1:10 p.m., seeing just one semi-truck in that time. Again, traffic was observed to be flowing without problems on the neighboring roadways.

On February 26, the roadway was monitored from 10 to 11 in the morning, and again the crew observed just one large freight truck.  In one 45-minute period, the crew 129 different cars and box trucks, or around 3 per minute.

There was no congestion on First Avenue in any of the three periods of time.

It will be up to the Council to decide whether this section of Occidental should be vacated. But there is precedent.

Starting in 1996, the Seattle Mariners and the Stadium Public Facilities District asked for a very similar vacation of Occidental. 

KING 5 dug through Seattle's Municipal Archives, and unboxed long forgotten documents related to the building of Safeco Field.  They show broad support for eliminating the stretch of roadway, which runs parallel to First Avenue South.

The Seattle Times, in a column dated May 8, 1996, which is part of the archives, says: "Practical Seattle gets a practical ballpark site", in what is the "most hassle-free spot."

That was despite claims from the Seattle Marine Business Coalition, and head Lise Kenworthy, who wrote the Council to say "Freight mobility is essential to Seattle's economic health, in a letter. William Feldt, of the Manufacturing Industrial Council, in another letter, expressed concerns about the future for Nordic Cold Storage.  The International District Improvement Association also wrote letters suggesting the stadium would "limit, deny and impede traffic flow."

But the PFD, which was created by the Legislature and King County Council to govern Safeco Field, saw it differently.

The PFD, in a lengthy, written, street vacation briefing on October 14, 1996, laid out the case as to why Occidental needed to be eliminated.

It wrote that "the street right-of-way must be vacated in order to accommodate the necessary building footprint and associate facilities", and classified Occidental as a "local access street."

The PFD wrote, in the prepared documents, that Occidental was used "primarily as an access to the truck loading bays for businesses that front along it, rather than as a link to arterials used by the general public," "the pavement surface of Occidental Avenue South is in poor-to-fair condition," and "traffic volumes currently on the segment requiring vacation are low (approximately 2,000 vehicles per day)."

The document also claims that the presence of the Mariners "provides a public benefit to the citizens of the County."

The Port is not listed as a vocal opponent of Safeco in the nearly two decade old history of the ballpark, and Port officials were deeply involved in a concurrent project, known as the "Kingmaker." It exists today, in a variation of the original plan, and helps get freight traffic in and out of the Port on SR 519 next to Safeco Field.

The Mariners also advocated for the street vacation.  Then-Mariners Vice President Paul Isaki, in a letter dated October 8, 1996, provided talking points for Stadium advocates.  His letter lists "bullet points for street vacation letters", and noted "the street proposed for vacation is used for local access only".  He wrote, "Through traffic will be diverted to alternate routes, with no appreciable difference in travel time".
He added, "The Council should approve the street vacation and keep the ballpark on track and on schedule."

The publicly financed ballpark opened in 1999.

How has it worked out for SoDo traffic over the twenty years later since the Council first took up the issue of the street vacation?  It depends on who you talk with.

"It definitely put a bottleneck to and from I-5," says Tom McQuaid, the owner of Nordic Cold Storage, whose future was a discussion point in those 1996 and 1997 talks. "The City gave it away." He says his trucks, which carry perishable merchandise, can no longer freely use Occidental as a result of the Mariners' stadium, and it's a cautionary tale.  But all the dire predictions never rang true. "We're still here."

The Seattle City Council will hold a public meeting on proposed street vacation on March 15.

-- Follow Chris Daniels on Twitter:@ChrisDaniels5.


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