POOR KING STREET STATION. The 94-year-old red brick train depot and clock tower gets no respect, and gives little to its patrons.

Wedged in at


The little engine that can't

Seattle's most neglected landmark, King Street Station, sits crumbling in the middle of downtown's boom.

POOR KING STREET STATION. The 94-year-old red brick train depot and clock tower gets no respect, and gives little to its patrons.

Wedged in at the end of three dead-end streets, the station greets Amtrak's down-market customers with a sagging canopy well-populated with pigeons. A dreary waiting area is fluorescent-lit from a dropped ceiling installed during a 1963 station "modernization." Winter heating comes from electric overhead units—"kind of like what they use at Dick's," as Stan Suchan of the state Department of Transportation puts it. The building's upper two floors of office space are abandoned, full of trash and piles of office furniture. The 245-foot clock tower, topped with sooty glass tiles, has not told correct time in years.

"The condition of the station is not anything anyone's particularly proud of," says Gil Mallery, the head of Amtrak's Western division. And it stands in remarkable contrast to train stations in Portland; Vancouver, BC; and Spokane—not to mention many East Coast cities—which have all been lavishly redone.

King Street's decrepitude is all the more striking given what's sprung up immediately around it in the last few years. As Paul Allen has more or less taken command of the neighborhood between Pioneer Square and the Kingdome, hundreds of millions of dollars of public and private investment has occurred, and more is coming.

Right at the station's feet lies the rubble of the Kingdome, leveled to make way for Allen's new football stadium. Across Fourth Avenue, the old Union Station building has been beautifully restored for Sound Transit's white-collar headquarters. Behind it a spectacular new glass edifice, vaguely in the shape of a speeding train, will soon house one of Paul Allen's companies; a second office tower behind that has been built for Amazon. A gleaming new $5 million pedestrian bridge carries these digital warriors over the train tracks. And another just-completed complex called King Street Center—the new home of King County government staffers—rises up, its back to the station, just a few feet away.

But King Street Station itself, once the symbol of Seattle's economic might, has sat ignored for decades, despite frequent "feasibility" studies and rescue initiatives. "The discussions have gone on ad nauseum," says longtime rail attorney Tom Allison. Since at least the mid-'90s, signs posted inside the station have heralded a rebirth—promising imminent restoration of the building's original vaulted ceiling, gold leaf tile designs, ornate terrazzo floors, large airy windows. But to date, the station remains as homely as ever, its renovation still just a dream—with blueprints.

The state Department of Transportation is hoping that its latest financing scheme— under which a private nonprofit company will re-do the station, then lease it back to DOT—will finally set the rehab in motion. But the plan requires approval from the state Legislature, which failed to give its okay during this past session.

Senator Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island, who declined to bring the DOT bill before her transportation committee, says: "People are gun-shy about state participation in these kind of public-private partnerships." With the train station finances still rather fuzzy, Haugen says she's concerned about the state's ultimate liability on the project.

However, station boosters may have some bigger guns behind them when they approach the Legislature next year: A complicated new land trade agreement being finalized over the next few weeks will partially tie the operation of Paul Allen's new stadium and exhibition center to passage of the DOT's King Street legislation. That could give the DOT some extra persuasive power in the 2001 session.

THE TRAIN STATION is an economic and political orphan for many reasons. Its owner, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, has been out of the passenger rail business for some time and now handles only freight. Pati Otley, government affairs director for the company, says the building is simply "of no operating use to us."

Since the station is designated a national and city landmark, however, Burlington can't just demolish the structure to make way for a new office tower. Nor can it afford to spiff the place up, because regulatory restrictions severely cap the amount of income the building could generate.

"Over the last 20 years we've looked at [redeveloping] it ourselves, but our partners said it does not pencil out," says Otley. "There are constraints because it is a historic structure. You can't build out over the tracks. You can't have an elevator in the tower." Plus, she says, "the seismic issues are huge. It costs too much to fix it. That's why it falls on the public sector."

Seattle officials examined the project in the early '90s but ultimately took a pass. "The budget was $50 to $60 million at the time," says Ron Borowski of the city's transportation department. "It looked like quite a bit of money and we hadn't received expressions of interest from Amtrak."

The project was next kicked over to the DOT, an agency that is primarily in the business of building freeways, but which does have a small rail division that helps fund and manage Amtrak's popular Cascades service.

DOT convened a group of citizens, who called themselves Friends of King Street Station, to serve as an advisory board for the project. As Stan Suchan, communications director for the DOT's rail unit, observes: "DOT hasn't done a lot of historic restoration. It's outside our area of expertise."

Over a period of many months, some of the board members hatched a plan to raise money from private donors and redevelop the station themselves. The board hired Maria Barrientos—a local specialist in historic renovation—to examine the costs of the project and to evaluate some of the options to pay for it.

Then, about six months ago, the DOT told the citizens' group that its services were no longer needed. Barrientos says her research indicated that a private fundraising effort would fall short because "there wasn't enough perception of public need."

John Primeau, a communications executive who served on the citizens' board, disagrees. "People in this community are more apt to give to a group of their peers than to a government agency," he says. Another ex-board member, Olympia lobbyist Tom MacGowan, says, "There weren't enough people with credibility to go ahead." The most obvious fundraising target, Paul Allen, was "never there," according to MacGowan, who says Allen did contribute $50,000 to help study the project, "but it was token."

Another deep pocket in the neighborhood, Sound Transit, which has lots of tax money to spend, has no particular need for the station. Though the transit agency is upgrading tracks and canopies at King Street in preparation for its commuter rail service (which kicks off in September), Sound Transit customers will not actually pass through the station. The commuter rail platform connects directly to the street, bypassing the building altogether.

BARRIENTOS MAY NOW oversee the development herself, on behalf of DOT. She has suggested that the agency contract with a private nonprofit company, which would issue tax-exempt bonds to pay for the project. The DOT would cover the costs by placing money it already has in an interest-bearing account, and annually drawing down the payments. After 30 years, as specified by IRS rules, the building must revert to public ownership (though to whom is not yet clear).

The project's current price tag is down to $42 million, and Suchan says there's no room for it to be cheapened any further. He says the project has some $23 million "in hand"—from a combination of federal grants, state funding, and Amtrak support—but he notes that the funding picture "seems to change every week. Our belief is we're close enough to get there with the sources we have."

Burlington Northern has indicated its willingness to donate the King Street building—and sell the land underneath it at a discount—so long as the company can secure a tax benefit in the process. "The only way we can rationalize giving away something that's on our books at $9.5 million is by getting a tax credit," says government affairs director Pati Otley. The new financing scheme, by installing a nonprofit group to take the donation, helps make that possible.

But securing enough money has been only part of the battle. "There are a lot of perimeter issues we're struggling with, besides just the renovation," says Jim Slakey, head of the DOT's rail division.

Specifically, King Street Station is caught in the middle of a years-long, complex negotiation between the city, county, and Paul Allen's stadium company, First & Goal, over the fate of the parking lot just north of the Kingdome rubble. Among other issues at play, Paul Allen asserts he has the right to commercially develop the North lot, and the city and county insist that if he does, he include a significant amount of housing. But those plans threaten even the minimal amount of parking that King Street Station now has available. "You can't make the biggest train station in the region work without some good short-term parking," says DOT's Stan Suchan.

However, Allen has some needs as well. The exhibition center he is building alongside the stadium needs some extra space for parking and for staging the big home shows and boat shows. So the parties have been working out an exchange: The DOT will allow the exhibition center to use some of the state's property nearby; in return Allen's company must allow Amtrak patrons to use some of the parking stalls at its big North lot retail/residential complex.

The parties are still working out the final terms of the deal, but Mike Wilkins, who is negotiating on behalf of King County, says the complicated multiparty agreement will be contingent on DOT getting the legislation it needs from Olympia to make the King Street renovation happen. That means some bigger money players than just humble Amtrak passengers will have a stake in the plan.

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