Seattle’s vintage streetcar line deserves to live

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Historic Streetcars and Development

A recent Grist article on the transit development in Charlotte, North Carolina, highlights the role of a historical trolley in sparking the development. Resurrected by hobbyists and trolley fans, the historic car let thousands ride and learn about streetcars, while developers were similarly inspired, by the sight of something tangible in the form of transit improvements, to build near the trolley.

Neither the historic trolley or the airy talk about “TOD” can spark the development of light rail on their own- they must work hand-in-hand. But the actual ability to see and ride is doubly important in a land where talk is cheap, and many have never even seen a trolley or train.

The George Benson Streetcar took thousands of visitors to a waterfront that, arguably, hardly merited a visit otherwise. The City exercised a form of neglect that bordered on the criminal- on one midwinter visit I found small cardboard hutments built by the homeless under the Alaskan Way viaduct. It was left entirely to the shop owners and trolley volunteers to make the waterfront a welcoming place.

The boo-birds will sing about “playing with trains”, but what they’re really complaining about is that people like streetcars, and when they see it can be done, they wonder why it isn’t done more often.

So do I.

July 8, 2010   No Comments

Rebuilding the Waterfront

The Seattle P-I has posted an update of the process of planning the “new” waterfront to emerge when the viaduct is removed. This process will bear careful watching, not least because McGinn has demonstrated no interest in streetcars or rail transit upgrades- and how else are people supposed to get to the waterfront?

This is one of Seattle’s (literally) dirty little secrets- apparently it is assumed that because there is parking under the viaduct, and who goes there anyway?, that no real bus service is necessary for the waterfront. Nine acres of public space won’t go very far in providing parking and roads to substitute for real transit.

Don’t imagine someone is watching the store. The architects will produce their usual grandstanding idiocy, and it will be up to the public to get the train back on track. Stay alert for pubic meetings where you can raise the obvious questions.

July 7, 2010   No Comments

Keeping History on Track

I saw a rumor on the internets the other day, to the effect that the demise of the Waterfront Streetcar came about in the dark night that the tunnel deal was struck by the minions of Lucifer, and if the tunnel is built, the streetcar can never come back. This (need I say it?) is total B-S.

The streetcar, in fact, was edged out by the Waterfront Sculpture Park, pushed out, and then allowed to die by politicians who had other things on their minds.

And this is a good example of how the fervent opposition to the tunnel is trying to re-arrange the past and future to fit their narrative. In reality, the best chance of getting the streetcar back is to see the elevated AWV off the stage and bring in the streetcar to replace it- not as a highway, but as a qualified user of some of the upgraded waterfront we’ll have when the AWV is not overhead.

June 21, 2010   1 Comment

To Be, or Not To Be?

The New Pioneer Square blog has a post about the future of the George Benson Streetcar. The people they talk to say nothing is decided and whether the streetcar comes back will be determined later.

Let me translate that for you- if there is a persistent demand to restore the streetcar, it will be done. Otherwise, a swirl on the water will mark the submergence and disappearance of the Waterfront Line.

At least we have some eyes in the neighborhood watching what’s happening. Don’t fail to check The New Pioneer Square blog for news.

June 16, 2010   No Comments


That would be me, not the streetcar. Richard Borkowski, in a comment to a Ted Van Dyk post at Crosscut, says “However, with the advent of web 2.0 and social networking, we found that younger people are not interested in attending meetings, planning actions and making comments at hearings or even writing letters to the editor. So in 2008, we shut down our group.”

Mayor Mike McGinn can get a number one rating for more light rail in a poll posted at his website, but you sure couldn’t prove it by me. After 6 months or maybe a year of blogging here, I don’t see any on-the-ground effort at bringing back the George Benson Streetcar.

I could be, living on the Tahuya Peninsula, out of the loop. Who are we kidding, I’m so out of the loop I can’t even see the loop.

Could great things leaven from this new social ferment? Maybe so. And if so, a good place to start would be connecting the enthusiasm for light rail shown in the Mayor’s poll with the streetcar we once had.

Just sayin’…

May 30, 2010   No Comments

A Different Waterfront Trolley

Take the South Lake Union streetcar to the south end of the lake, and then walk up the lakeshore to the Fremont Bridge. This might, but probably won’t, take as much as an hour. If you keep following the shoreline, you’ll walk under the south bridge approaches and, a little further on, past the SPU playing fields, eventually reaching a small park and a public dock at the marine spill response unit.

Along the way, you’ll pass some public waterways, usually marked by signs. These are lands owned by the public, as are the streetends that reach the lake.

All of this, but particularly the stretch from south Lake Union to the Fremont Bridge, would make an excellent location for a historical trolley. The public waterways could be developed as mini-parks where the public could enjoy the water.

At the south end, you have the Center for Wooden Boats, with boat rentals, a museum and a public park, and at the north end you have a short walk to restaurants and taverns. Who wouldn’t want to spend a nice day here?

Pamper yourself, Seattle! Build the parks, get the historical streetcars running here, and Lake Union becomes a real jewel, a place where people can bring their families and spend the day without bringing their cars. And- need we say?- this could all be done for less than it cost to build a sculpture park.

Lake Union will never get any bigger. Make the most of what you have.

May 3, 2010   No Comments

Lobby the Waterfront Committee

As reported by Erica Barnett, Mayor McGinn and three members of the City Council have asked the Waterfront Committee to speed up their work in drawing up a laundry list of items to be included in planning the central waterfront. That’s “speed up” as in “wrap up by the end of April”, or, in human years, roughly tomorrow.

It’s time to stop telling me how nice it would be to see a streetcar on the waterfront and tell them. What? You don’t know where they are or how to tell them? Well, my excuse is that I live 50 miles from Seattle- what’s yours? Find out where they are- and when you do, leave it here in comments for the rest of us, s’il vous plait.

April 17, 2010   6 Comments

The Troubled Horizon

The waterfront today is charming in the spring sunshine, but across the street the future looks grim. Mayor Mike McGinn has been telling people we can save $1.9 billion by not building the tunnel to replace the Viaduct, but that money would be spent improving transit and other ways to deal with the people who drive on the Viaduct to reach Seattle, instead of passing Seattle.

The only way you save that money is by not doing anything to deal with the traffic changes when the Viaduct is taken down- and if the tunnel isn’t built, that will include a lot of people driving through Seattle.

In other words, you’re basically looking at a six-lane stop-and-go freeway where the Viaduct and parking are today. If you think the noise and pollution makes the area slightly unwelcoming today, think about what it will be like when it all comes down to ground level.

Of course, the chances are pretty good the tunnel will be built, and McGinn’s plan to prevent any improvements in the seawall is probably dead in the water (so to speak). We can only hope, because the waterfront McGinn has been working for would be a pretty grim place- essentially just streets behind the same type of seawall we have today.

You’ll notice there’s no trolley in this picture. McGinn has made no effort to bring back the Benson Streetcar or extend it north to the cruise ship docks, where over 800,000 people landed last year, and not one of them with a car to use.

It can be unpleasant to imagine what McGinn’s neglect and headline-grabbing might do to the waterfront, but it would be even more unpleasant to watch it happen.

March 24, 2010   No Comments

Look to Remember

It’s still a good time to wander back under the Viaduct to the buildings on the east side of the Viaduct, some of them pre-dating the highway towering above. You may find a Maritime Building there, although it is likely displaying beautiful furniture today. If so, find the elevator lobby and admire.

These were once fine buildings looking out on a fine prospect. Then the Viaduct was built and the prospect was cast in gloom and shadow. When, eventually, the Viaduct comes down, the buildings are likely to come down too, and be replaced by modern construction.

The winter can be the best time to look for the old buildings, when the sun slants low in under the Viaduct. With an unseasonably warm winter, there’s no need for delay.

And it’s a good time to reflect on how insufficient McGinn’s proposals- to route the Viaduct traffic on new streets along the waterfront and rebuild the existing seawall as it is today- really are. The new waterfront will not consist of freighters and fishboats unloading into railroad cars parked on the piers. It will need to connect the people of Seattle to their central waterfront in a meaningful way, and that’s going to take some thought and lobbying. Be there or be square!

February 28, 2010   No Comments

Arriving in Seattle on the ferry recently, I paused on the footbridge overpass to contemplate the Viaduct, which will be incredibly difficult to cut into pieces and haul away in dumptrucks. Below, the tracks still passes under the footbridge, but, alas!, we no longer hear the cheery toot of the whistle or the clang of the bell.

In a recent article on Crosscut, Jordon Royer tells us 216 cruise ships brought over 875,000 passengers to Seattle in 2009. It’s a darn shame the Waterfront Streetcar wasn’t there, ready to take hundreds of thousands of boardings and help with Metro’s financial problems. I wonder just how many lines in the city have the potential for over a million boardings in a year?

Why is extending the Waterfront Streetcar not a priority? Cruise ship passengers could see it from the deck of their ship- you wouldn’t even need to advertise.

So many questions. Before departing, I had a cup of clam chowder at Ivar’s. For auld ang syne. Refreshingly, no sentimentalizing was required- a good cup of chowder, a seat viewing the bay- even on an overcast weekday, these were drawing steady business at the chowder stand.

It’s not the people of Seattle who have abandoned their waterfront.

February 6, 2010   3 Comments