What otherwise might seem like a wonky debate about light rail design has become a matter of principle and neighborhood preservation for some people who live, work and worship on Tacoma’s Hilltop.
They had been expecting that once the Link expansion brings light rail trains into Hilltop in a few years, riders would enter and exit via side platforms incorporated into the existing sidewalks along Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
Side platforms were what had been pitched to neighborhood leaders, what residents who attended workshops said they preferred and what Sound Transit had included in public presentations about the Link expansion project as recently as April.
But side platforms might not be coming. Sound Transit, at the city of Tacoma’s request, is designing the Link expansion to have center platforms.
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Members of the Allen African Methodist Episcopal church on Martin Luther King Jr. Way are feeling misled. Dozens of them showed up at a City Council meeting earlier this month to express their concerns.
The only thing we’re asking you to do is don’t change the plan at the 11th hour.
Gilda Oliver, member of Allen AME church
“The only thing we’re asking you to do is don’t change the plan at the 11th hour,” Gilda Oliver, a member of the church for 35 years, told the council. “Keep your word, do what you said you were going to do.”
Pastor Anthony Steele said the church tried to take its concerns directly to the city and Sound Transit, but were rebuffed. They are wondering why officials have abandoned a design they consider safer and less disruptive to traffic.
“Yes, we would love to have the Link on the Hilltop but not just shoved down our throat and not just happening without any consideration of the people that are already there,” Steele said.
Yes, we would love to have the Link on the Hilltop but not just shoved down our throat and not just happening without any consideration of the people that are already there.
Pastor Anthony Steele, Allen AME church
Prior to the council meeting, Allen AME distributed a flier that warned of potential parking headaches and pedestrian danger if light rail uses center platforms when it arrives in Hilltop around 2021.
“Sound Transit came to the black church and sold a seamless side platform design and now wants to change it,” the flier read. Center platforms, the flier continues, would reduce available parking, threaten handicap access to businesses, threaten turn lane usage, and be unsafe for pedestrians by forcing people to cross a busy street in order to get to the platform.
At the council meeting, Mayor Marilyn Strickland spoke before the church members got their chance and sought to refute every claim made in the flier, point by point.
Strickland said side platforms would reduce parking, and that it would still be possible to drive a hearse up to the church with center platforms. The center configuration won’t take away any parking, she said, or make access to the church more difficult. And those who need to cross the street to get to the station would now only have to cross half a street.
When we talked about wanting center platforms ... It was not an attempt to divide or do anything harmful, and to be honest with you we would never do anything to harm the Hilltop neighborhood.
Mayor Marilyn Strickland
“For those of you who have been in this community for a long time, you know that the ride to renovate and revitalize Hilltop has been a roller coaster. We have made attempt after attempt after attempt but it finally feels like we’re getting some momentum, and I’m very proud of that,” Strickland said in a more than five-minute speech that emphasized the economic development that could flourish along Martin Luther King Jr. Way when the Tacoma Link is complete.
“When we talked about wanting center platforms ... it was not an attempt to divide or do anything harmful, and to be honest with you we would never do anything to harm the Hilltop neighborhood.”
Strickland and Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said while the Allen AME church was shown early renderings featuring side platforms, both configurations were being considered and neither was advertised as a done deal.
The City Council passed a resolution expressing a preference for center platforms at all stations in August 2015. Former Councilman David Boe offered the center-platform amendment, saying it would be safer for drivers and cyclists.
Despite that preference, Sound Transit continued to show drawings of side platforms on Hilltop. A document presented at an April “Hilltop platform workshop” showed only side platforms at the stop nearest Allen AME. Participants supported that design, but the city formally chose the center platforms.
“Ultimately the city asked us to study more thoroughly center platforms because they would be safer for pedestrians and other users and they would be least disruptive in terms of taking away available parking for business and residents,” Reason said.
Councilwoman Victoria Woodards, who is also a member of Allen AME, said there may have been a miscommunication between what some thought was a done deal and what Sound Transit considered to be preliminary plans.
“I don’t believe that Sound Transit tried to come out and misinform a community,” Woodards said, adding that early drawings the group showed to the Hilltop community “did show side platforms.”
“I don’t think (Sound Transit officials) were thinking people would look at the picture and say, ‘This is exactly what we’re going to get,’ because they are used to seeing renderings that change over time.”
But some Hilltop community members still aren’t satisfied. Days after the meeting, Steele said he and other Tacoma church leaders are planning to gather signatures for a petition against center platforms.
“Absolutely nothing the mayor has said yet before or after that changes our mind,” he said. “We don’t mind progress, but we don’t want gentrification, and the difference for us in those terms is progress considers the people who were already there.”
Fellow pastor Toney Montgomery, who also leads the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance, spoke up for the group at this week’s council meeting.
"I would hope that we can in the process of bringing public transportation and making it accessible to all that we do not harm the areas of the city that have labored over generations to keep the foundation of the city very stable," Montgomery said.