At last Thursday’s eventful Sound Transit Board meeting, a large contingent of supporters of the 4th Avenue Chinatown-International District (CID) station showed up en masse, thanks to prompting from community activists and Seattle Subway. Although the Board did not make any further alignment decisions, they did authorize a contract modification to HNTB to extend EIS planning and preliminary engineering for the Ballard Link extension.
Back in March, the Board voted to approve the “North of CID” and “South of CID” station options as part of its preferred alternative. These were relative latecomers to the game: all previous options were centered around Union Station, either at 4th or 5th. Sound Transit Boardmembers cited lower costs and lower impacts from the North and South options, in spite of the loss of a station actually inside the Chinatown-International District and the connection opportunities it would provide.
Two big champions of the North/South CID options are King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell. A key linchpin in Constantine’s station preference has been the new Civic Campus Initiative, which he announced as part of the State of the County address back in March.
There are sensible reasons for redeveloping the civic center area. Most of the city and county’s key offices are located there and a number of the buildings are dilapidated tokens of modernist architecture. In recent years, the neighborhood has also contended with a large homeless population and street-level crime, particularly around the King County Courthouse.
None of these are good enough reasons to shift a future Link station out of an existing high-traffic hub into other areas merely on the basis of development potential. Prospects for infill TOD opportunities are always tempting to think about, but they wouldn’t warrant the loss of a station that would serve the thousands of existing residents between both the CID and Pioneer Square neighborhoods.
It’s also worth reexamining whether master planning the civic campus redevelopment is even the right approach in the post-COVID world. Rather than concentrating the bulk of key government offices in a single location, newer ways of working might instead warrant decentralizing the city’s and county’s real estate assets. Incentivizing developers to build a variety of mixed uses can help accomplish some of the initiative’s goals while still avoiding an eggs-in-one-basket situation.
But should the Civic Campus Initiative become reality, its success doesn’t hinge on the presence of a Link station right underneath it, especially if it’s at the expense of a much higher-trafficked area. The neighborhood is already extremely walkable: between the original Midtown and Jackson Street locations and the existing Pioneer Square Station, the civic campus would be well served by Link anyway.
Even if the county is keen on ensuring proximity to an ST3 station for its employees, there is no better place than the Jackson Street hub, which is already home to Sound Transit and Metro employees. The substantial amount of buildable capacity in the area also offers plenty of excuses to scratch any development itches that might otherwise be satisfied by the civic campus redevelopment.