Council approves condemnation measure for Transit Center

August 1, 2008

By James Spung

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After voicing concerns about the process of open conversation, the City Council unanimously approved a measure to authorize condemnation proceedings to make room for the Newcastle Transit Center Project.

The council vote, taken in a July 22 meeting specifically for public discussion on the issue, will allow the city to rework a section of Newcastle Way near the intersection with Coal Creek Parkway Southeast to allow for bus lanes, bike lanes, several crosswalks and increase pedestrian visibility. Sound Transit will pay $4 million of the $4.6 million project.

The plan, however, requires cutting into four existing properties along Newcastle Way.

The ordinance allows city officials to take between three and 10 feet of land near the roadway out of the properties for compensation at an appraised value. The affected properties are three on the north side of Newcastle Way, owned by a Bales-Denton/Five Star Development partnership, and one on which the fruit stand rests, at the corner of Newcastle Way and Coal Creek Parkway Southeast.

None of the buildings on any property will be cut into by the project, Councilwoman Lisa Jensen said.

Condemnation discussion has drawn objections from property owner Martin Seelig, owner of the property at that corner.

Many, including him, supported a delay in plans and a re-examination of alternative designs for the transit center that would not require taking property.

“The council has said there might be a problem with getting Sound Transit’s money if it’s not voted on this evening,” Seelig said. “In their whole history, that hasn’t been true.”

Seelig hired William Popp, of William Popp Associates, a private transportation planner and engineering firm, to examine the city’s plans and find a way for the project to carry through without any property acquisition.

Popp did draw up an alternative plan for the council in March, but after studying both plans, the council advocated the original.

“The proposed alternative was done with the goal of not taking any public property, but the purpose of the project is to enhance access to transit,” Councilman Sonny Putter said.

The city’s adopted plan was also more in line with the overall Downtown Plan, intended to provide a more pedestrian-friendly downtown feel, Councilwoman Jean Garber said, adding that Popp’s design was not.

In response to calls for more discussion about the issue – including a deferment of the measure to the Planning Commission – Mayor Ben Varon reminded everyone that the project has been in the works since 2006.

“This isn’t something that we just decided to enter into over the last month or over the last year,” he said.

Councilman Steve Buri said while he understands Seelig’s call for further consideration, the city could indeed lose Sound Transit funding if no action is taken.

“These projects that are funded so heavily by outside agencies are exceedingly rare, and if we don’t do anything, we run the serious risk that we could lose the funding, and nothing is done,” he said.

Perhaps most at issue for several residents and council members, however, was an alleged lack of open conversation and a failure to involve key stakeholders as plans for the transit center progressed over the past two years.

“In the past, we haven’t had good discussion on everything. I would encourage the council to be more open in the future,” resident Stuart Allen said.

Howard Seelig, Martin’s brother and co-owner of the fruit stand property, said the council’s lack of consideration of outside comments and concerns “smacks of cover-up.”

Deputy Mayor Daniel Hubbell took offense to the accusation.

“I agree that some parts of this have not been perfect in many ways,” he said. “But I take offense at the intimation that anybody on this council has ever acted in any subversive way.”

Other council members admitted that while the process could have been more open and inclusive, they could only move forward at this point.

“As a new council member, I find it a bit frustrating to be confronted with a situation that might have been avoided if we had a better process,” Jensen said. “But we are where we are.”

Councilwoman Carol Simpson said she even considered voting against the measure to express her disappointment with the process, despite being for the measure.

With the measure passed, petitions were sent to property owners July 30 to agree to allow the city to use the property in question in exchange for fair payment, said Mike Kenyon, special counsel to the city.

If property owners don’t agree within about eight weeks, the petitions will be taken to King County Superior Court, although Kenyon said he doesn’t believe it would get that far.

“I’ve done 70, 80, 90 condemnation cases, and only one has been taken all the way to court,” he said.

If the issue does get to court, and the property owners lose the case, it would take between five and eight months before city officials could begin the building process.

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