Burning Down the House

The city's fire levy is way over budget. Station 20 helps explain why.

Station 20 is home to a single fire engine and four firefighters— one of whom has to sleep in the kitchen, because the West Queen Anne firehouse is among Seattle's smallest. But last week, after a year of analysis and planning, then input from neighborhood activists, the City Council decided it'd be best if he keeps bunking next to the dishwasher. It rejected a plan to tear down the 57-year-old firehouse and build a much larger station on its footprint and that of three nearby houses.

"There are viable alternatives to a [new] fire station in our community," neighborhood leader Valerie Paganelli announced in council chambers on July 31, trying to head off the destruction of three homes to make way for a controversial new fire station in West Queen Anne. Council member Peter Steinbrueck, for one, agreed.

"I have been in a dilemma over this and have searched my soul," he said before leading a 5-4 council rejection of the teardown plan, acknowledging that the plan might not only destroy residences but tear out the heart of a neighborhood.

The plight of Station 20 is exemplary of the sort of gridlock that's steered a citywide firehouse replacement program toward $100 million in cost overruns.

The city had proposed razing three homes to make way for a new, improved Station 20 on the corner of 13th Avenue West and West Dravus Street. The current station, which also stood to be obliterated, is wedged between two of the homes, with a third around the corner. Each is a single-family residence, assessed at $250,000 to $400,000, but marketable for considerably more, particularly a handsome, near-century-old renovated Craftsman on the corner.

One of the homeowners, Garriel Keeble, wryly notes that she lives "in the only spot in the known universe" where a new Station 20 can be built. She is comfortable coexisting with the firehouse next door, even sleeping through those 3 a.m. alarms. "They can keep that little station there as long as I live," she says.

After spending an estimated $2 million to obtain and clear the properties, the city would spend another $4.3 million for the new station. The 8,000-square-foot, two-story building would be triple Station 20's current size, with an extra truck bay and better living quarters. Yet, for the immediate future, it still would house just one truck and four firefighters.

Starting with 21 potential new sites, 11 of them in the Interbay earthquake liquefaction zone (the neighborhood is built on landfill), fire and city real-estate officials took a year to narrow the field. Besides the added cost of condemnation and loss of dwellings, the 13th Avenue site had another drawback—it's in an earthquake slide zone. Ultimately, the department reasoned that since the old station has survived since 1949, a new, retrofitted station probably could, too.

A better site for the new station, some council members and neighbors agreed, was down the hill and south on 15th Avenue West on a vacant, city-owned patch of land abutting Interbay Golf Course. But fire department officials think this is a risky locale—at times, emergency vehicles would have to cross a busy street to respond to an alarm, and that "could be dangerous," says Fire Chief Greg Dean.

Yet the department has stations on busy streets in other parts of town, where entry is made by controlling stop lights, and the site on 15th already has stop lights. The site also affords a straight shot up West Queen Anne along Gilman Drive West. But the fire chief remained unconvinced. The golf course site would put the station too far south, Dean says. "Intuitively," a word he used often when explaining the department's Station 20 logic, "we think this [current] location is the best and, intuitively, we think it will maintain our response time." At about five minutes on average, Station 20's response time rates near the slowest in the city.

Another alternative site is a 40-stall parking lot just around the corner from Station 20, used essentially one day a week by members of St. Margaret's parish. It seemed a viable location to almost everyone except the owner, the Archdiocese of Seattle, which rejected the city's offer. The city could condemn the property, which is across the street from St. Margaret's, but the church promised to fight that. The city thus opted to go after the homeowners, who apparently have far less clout than Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

The Queen Anne Community Council opposed the teardowns, agreeing with neighbors such as Ross Budden, who searched the city's proposal and "found a flawed plan," he said. Neighborhood activist Paganelli thinks the fire department at times misrepresented the community's positions and misinterpreted response-time data. She watched different city teams formulate different proposals month after month until they "came up with this dropped-from-heaven conclusion."

"Maybe it's because they're behind schedule, behind budget," she says. "I don't know. It's baffling. It doesn't add up."

Unfortunately, neither does the fire department's project funding. In 2003, Seattle voters approved a $167 million levy to replace or renovate 32 fire stations, including Station 20, as well as finance a new training facility, two new fireboats, and a new operations and alarm center. Another $30 million was appropriated from existing funds, bringing the total allotment to $197 million.

But due to City Hall miscalculations, soaring construction prices, and bureaucratic haggling of the sort that's plagued Station 20, the overall project is now expected to cost between $275 million and $300 million. Around $67 million of that is added fire station construction costs. "[That's] our best estimate of the gap," says Chris Potter, a city planning manager.

To carry out the levy mandate, City Hall might have to delay construction on some new stations until the end of the next decade or come up with $100 million in additional funds. Among the likely sources to be tapped: a property excise tax increase or more debt financing. As a fire levy study notes: "Debt is not a source of funding but serves only to change the timing of expenditures." And add costs.

A few days before the decisive vote on what to do with Station 20, a special council public safety committee meeting— all members were invited—split 4-4 on the teardown proposal. The lone council member missing from that vote, Tom Rasmussen, was among the first to speak at the July 31 session, and he was for the teardown. "It's unlikely we're going to see a [better] site," he said, although he supported taking just two of the three homes.

That was when Steinbrueck, who earlier voted for condemnation, proposed delaying the vote for a month. Tearing down homes was too radical without exhausting all other options first, he said. Jan Drago seconded Steinbrueck's amendment. Three other council members—Richard Conlin, David Della, and Sally Clark—voiced their support.

Council President Nick Licata, who backed the demolition, thought a delay would, in the typical "Seattle Way," only put off the inevitable—which prompted Steinbrueck to abruptly withdraw his amendment. Licata then called for a straight up-and-down vote. It was 5-4 against demolition. The neighbors had prevailed.

Chief Dean still thinks 13th and Dravus is the best site. "We'll leave it for now," he says, "and go on to the next [station] project." He says they'll eventually submit a new proposal for Station 20, but has no idea what it might be.


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