Friday Jolt: Sound Transit in Bellevue

By Afternoon Jolt July 13, 2012

Clarification: Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray says agency staff now have the authority to buy developable land for its Bellevue maintenance base, but won't make a final decision until later this year or early next. If Sound Transit buys the land but doesn't use it, it could recoup the cost by selling the land.

In a "protective acquisition," Sound Transit recently purchased a 10.5-acre piece of land along the East Link light rail alignment in the Bel-Red neighborhood in Bellevue for use as a maintenance and storage base for its trains. The facility, if Sound Transit decides to build the maintenance base there, would hold up to 180 train cars.

Seems pretty standard. So what's the Jolt?

The land Sound Transit purchased is ripe for transit-oriented development---the exact kind of development the agency has said it supports along the route. The site, which Sound Transit would transform into a squat warehouse for trains, is zoned for residential towers between 45 and 125 feet high. Building a maintenance barn there would preclude residential development directly adjacent to the light rail line.

Sound Transit says its "protective acquisition" won't preclude it from choosing another site; they just bought it (from International Paper, which closed its Bellevue plant in 2010) to ensure that the land doesn't get developed, pushing the price up. "There’s been no decision about whether that maintenance base would be located there," Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick says. If Sound Transit chooses another site--Patrick says they are considering several--they would sell the land, potentially to be developed.

If Sound Transit does choose the Bel-Red property for its maintenance base, it would hardly be the first time the agency had adopted policy that contradicted  its pro-density principles. In addition to failing to fight for higher-density residential zoning along MLK Way S.---a decision that can be seen in physical form, in the one-story strip malls and abandoned lots that litter the landscape along the south Seattle stretch of Link Light Rail---Sound Transit's planned rail alignment to Northgate and beyond will parallel I-5, an alignment that is cheaper, according to Sound Transit's analysis, but makes housing on the line virtually impossible.
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