The Alki Beach Academy stopped keeping a formal waitlist for any kid older than an infant. So many West Seattle families sought day care there that staff could no longer promise an opening before the children reached kindergarten.
If Sound Transit follows through on its preferred location for a station in the Delridge neighborhood, all that child care could disappear, said Jordan Crawley, the academy’s administrative director. The Fry Commerce Center, where the academy is housed, would make way for elevated tracks and a station just west of the West Seattle Bridge. The day care center would be one of at least 20 businesses uprooted, as well as supportive housing for people who have struggled with homelessness.
Of the options presented to the Sound Transit board for building a stop in Delridge — with service set to start in 2032 — analyses show the “Delridge 6” option by the commerce center, west of Delridge Way Southwest near Southwest Avalon Way, would displace the fewest residents while seeding good opportunity for new development. It would also be significantly cheaper than extending a planned tunnel farther into West Seattle, as some neighborhood advocates have called for.
But the picture on the ground has proved more complicated and sensitive than what appears on paper. Affordable child care and housing for people who have struggled with homelessness get at the core of some of the city’s most pressing crises and a station that could raze both has struck a nerve.
“How can you, Sound Transit board, choose a route that destroys a child care center and an agency that serves people with disabilities?” resident Lucy Barefoot asked at a recent meeting. “They are the very same people you’re building this light [rail] train for.”
The conflict in Delridge is being repeated to varying degrees with each new station Sound Transit plans as part of its nearly 12-mile, $14 billion line from West Seattle to Ballard. It’s the natural result of building a mass transit system in a city that is already built. The balance is between providing as much benefit to a community with as few drawbacks as possible.
“There’s so many — so many — different places where we have to make these decisions,” said Claudia Balducci, Metropolitan King County Council member and chair of Sound Transit’s system expansion committee. “It’s been quite challenging. There aren’t, in many places, very easy ways to do everything we would like to and avoid all the impacts we’d like to.”
Weighing the alternatives
The Sound Transit board looked at eight options for Delridge, some only slight variations from another. All eight enter the neighborhood from the direction of the West Seattle Bridge, then either follow Delridge Way before banking west on Southwest Genesee Street, swing immediately west on Southwest Andover Street, or split the two routes toward Avalon Way.
It’s not official policy, but Balducci said she and other board members tend to avoid evicting people from their homes when considering new station placement.
“It just can be very challenging for people to have their lives displaced,” she said.
The option near the commerce center would force out the fewest number of residents, at 48, according to the draft environmental impact statement on the West Seattle to Ballard line, and would cost the least, at $400 million. Other options would cut through nearby Youngstown, uprooting nearly 200 people, and cost as much as $700 million.
The stop is estimated to see 5,600 riders a day.
There’s nothing glorious about the commerce center, which is made up of flat-walled buildings with dark-tinted windows. Many of the offices sit vacant.
Nevertheless, the option would affect 20 businesses, the most of the alternatives considered by the board.
Among them is the Alki Beach Academy, although the environmental study never mentions it by name. The relative emptiness of the surrounding buildings is what allowed the day care center to grow with demand. An outdoor play area extends into the parking lot, and the sound of children brings some life to the suburban-feeling campus.
According to Sound Transit’s Racial Equity Toolkit report, placing a station there could spur up to 260,000 square feet of new commercial space and 160 new residences, but zoning regulations and nearby industry complicate development.
Transit access could also be trickier — current designs have riders crossing busy Andover Street and walking near Nucor Steel, creating potentially unsafe conditions.
Nowhere to go
Many of Transitional Resources’s clients struggle with yearslong addiction and severe untreated mental illness, such as schizophrenia. CEO Darcell Slovek-Walker said the organization puts a premium on placing housing near services, so clients can access them on short notice.
Near Avalon, Transitional Resources owns supportive housing, assisted living, outpatient behavioral health offices and administrative offices. Sound Transit’s preferred option would necessitate the demolition of the organization’s main office, on-site supportive housing and an adjacent apartment building under the organization’s control.
“Thirty-one people would be without housing, and they can’t just be housed anywhere,” said Slovek-Walker. “That whole concept of pairing housing with services, they would lose that. It’s not an easy thing to do to find housing for 31 people.”
Down the road, Alki Beach Academy can currently accept 174 kids, capacity that it has built over years of slow growth into neighboring spaces. Crawley said the center is planning for another expansion that would increase admissions to 300. That would make it one of, if not the largest in the city.
“It’s impossible to find child care,” said parent Tiffany Jones. “You’re on waitlist after waitlist. I have friends that are starting here next month, and they’ve been driving to Burien from North Admiral and back every day because it was the closest child care center.”
There’s not space in the city for 300 kids, said Crawley. And moving the academy’s operations is not so simple. The landlord charges the center $1.50 per square foot — half or a third of other spaces Crawley’s seen. Relocating would likely mean looking for space in South Park, Georgetown or even Burien.
“We’re looking at minimum two years, but probably closer to three years, for a full renovation of a new space, because there’s not 20,000 square feet of education space already identified as education space available anywhere,” said Crawley.
Exhausting all options
Although the Sound Transit board voted for the Frye Commerce Center option, which kicks off a longer and deeper period of study, that support has come with some hedging as advocacy on behalf of Alki Beach Academy and Transitional Resources has found traction. The board directed Sound Transit staff to study how to improve access and mitigate displacement.
Sound Transit board member Joe McDermott, who represents West Seattle on the Metropolitan King County Council, said he needs to see safer connections to transit and a plan to help Transitional Resources to continue supporting Delridge 6. But among the options, it has the best rail alignment as the train enters West Seattle, he said.
Conflict is inevitable, he said, and other options near Southwest Dakota Street induced similar community outcry.
“This is the most challenging line Sound Transit has built in our history and it’s because we’re building in an urban environment already,” he said. The agency doesn’t have the option to follow a preexisting highway.
The Seattle City Council backed off its support of the station location as well, amending its nonbinding endorsements at the last minute to state “no preference” for Delridge. Future backing by the council of the Delridge 6 option is contingent on support for Transitional Resources and the Alki Beach Academy.
Asked if she was confident the Delridge 6 option is the best one, Balducci said, “No, in fact, I’m not confident.”
“Is there a way to do Del-6 and avoid taking those two buildings?” she said. “Is there any way to thread that needle? I have no idea if there is, but I want to make sure that we exhaust all the options there before we make a decision.”
No easy choices
When acquiring properties, Sound Transit seeks an appraisal for fair market value before making a purchase. That could be an option for Transitional Resources.
For tenants on a property, like Alki Beach Academy, the agency has fewer obligations. Sound Transit offers relocation assistance, in the form of moving expenses and help finding a new property. But “ultimately it is the displaced business owner’s responsibility to locate a suitable replacement site,” according to Sound Transit’s relocation handbook.
Crawley estimates it would cost around $2 million to move. Working down the list with Sound Transit staff recently, he believes $1 million of that could be classified as moving expenses.
“It’s not like we can turn around in the next three years, raise over a million dollars and get ready to move somewhere else, probably not in the community,” he said.
In written and public comment, some have pushed for Sound Transit to swing the tracks farther west and to extend the short tunnel planned for the West Seattle Junction.
“It was hurting my heart to hear people say, ‘It’s just another half mile [tunnel]’ because just another half-mile tunnel in Bellevue cost us over $200 million,” said Balducci.
The final environmental impact study of station options will be published in 2023 before the board makes its final decisions on construction of the West Seattle to Ballard line. Service is scheduled to begin in West Seattle in 2032.
In a vacuum, Balducci can understand the push to spend more for a given station. But repeated over the entire city — in Chinatown International District and Ballard, for example — it adds up.
“We’re gonna have to prioritize, we’re going to have to think about where we stretch, because we can’t afford to stretch in every single location, where every single interest would want us to stretch,” said Balducci. “That would truly be unaffordable.”