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Bike lanes OK"d for North Mercer - Mid-block `connections" for walkers in the Town Center also considered at City Council meeting on street issues

By Ruth Longoria

In what turned out to be nearly a half-dozen hours of sometimes-heated discussion, the City Council took on a slew of Town Center and street-related issues during the June 6 council meeting. Designs were discussed and debated, and by the end of the night, a few decisions had been made.

Those decisions involve:

? Which of three design options will best suit the selected route for bicycle traffic on S.E. 24th Street.

? What, if any, additions or changes should be made to the current design standards for the rapidly developing Town Center.

With nine large-scale developments in various stages of construction, there are already enough changes in the Town Center area to have prompted some residents to pick up their phone, pull out their pens, or type up an e-mail to pour out their opinion of the projects to City Council members, the newspaper, and anyone else who will listen.

The council meeting offered a chance for council members to show some of those residents they are listening to public comments, said council member Dan Grausz.

``People have told us we need to step back and take a look at what's happening downtown,'' he said. ``We need to see if those changes are pointing the Island in the direction we want to go.''

One item on which council members could agree was the design for changes to S.E. 24th Street to accommodate bicycle traffic. In March, the council voted against accepting Sound Transit's design for bicycle paths on North Mercer, opting instead to divert cyclists to S.E. 24th Street. At the time, Sound Transit representatives told the council they would not support the 24th Street plan, but has since agreed to pay a portion of the cost, up to about $30,000, said City Manager Rich Conrad.

Three design options were presented at the council meeting.

The first option was a basic plan to add signs along the existing road and shoulder, which would force bicyclists to use the road with vehicle traffic. That plan would cost about $5,000.

Another option was a shared-use plan, which would combine both directions of bicycle and pedestrian traffic into a single 10-foot wide strip along the side of the roadway at a cost of about $180,000.

City staff suggested a third option to widen the roadway to allow two 10-foot-wide traffic lanes and two four-foot side-paved shoulders for bicyclists, one on each side of the road. It is expected to cost $140,000.

Costs for the bicycle segment is in addition to the $365,000 approved in March for resurfacing improvements to that stretch of roadway, said Clint Morris, city street engineer.

The council voted unanimously to move ahead with the city staff's suggestion of the widened roadway project option. Staff chose that option because it creates a new area adjacent to both traveled lanes for bicycles to ride in. It also retains a dedicated pedestrian walkway along the entire project length.

However, the council went along with Grausz's suggestion to change the original plan to retain raised buttons along the side of the roadway, rather than agreeing to a staff suggestion, preferred by many bicyclists, to use painted striping instead. Grausz contends that the buttons are uniform with the rest of the Island, and some believe they are safer for letting bicyclists and drivers know if a vehicle is leaving the roadway.

Construction should begin on S.E. 24th Street in September and be completed by late October, Morris said.

Design Commission chairman Fred Glick presented the issue of mid-block pedestrian connections at the meeting.

Glick said there is a need for smaller distances between crossing areas in the downtown area because some of the blocks currently offer shoppers little choice but to get in their cars and drive short distances to shop at more than one retailer. The presentation was based on ideas Glick fashioned after a popular pedestrian-friendly area, the Pearl District of Portland, Ore., where Glick previously lived. Glick envisions the Island's version of mid-block connections to offer benefits for residents and retailers.

Those benefits haven't been apparent enough to the current Town Center developers, who were given the option of giving up portions of their property to facilitate pedestrian connections as one of several options in exchange for additional height for their projects. According to previous design standards, buildings had to be two-stories or less, but by adding some of the exchange options, the developers could add more stories, up to a total of five stories. Other exchange options included water or art features, public amenities, or including affordable housing.

Of the list provided by the city, no developer chose the option of adding affordable housing elements and the option of easements for pedestrian connections was only selected by one developer, James Cassan who is building the Mercer -- a set of five-story mixed-use retail and residential buildings on the corner of 77th Avenue S.E. and S.E. 27th Street.

However, Cassan's pedestrian connections can't really be used for anything, unless whoever develops the property next to his also adds the pedestrian element, Grausz said.

``If it's just one developer adding connections, we'd have connections that don't connect to anything.''

Although no decision was made at the council meeting concerning pedestrian mid-block connections, Mayor Alan Merkle will likely appoint members of the council, Design Commission and interested residents to a committee to further study the needs of the changing Town Center. Those needs will probably include possible pedestrian connection options, Grausz said after the council meeting.

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