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The Battle of the Berm

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Sep. 5, 2009 at 6:19 pm |
September 4, 2009 6:27 pm

In battle, the fate of empires can turn on a small piece of higher ground. Think Little Roundtop. Think Bunker Hill.

Think the Dome District berm.

OK, that’s hyping things a bit, but the berm – which Sound Transit wants to build to bring its Sounder trains from Freighthouse Square to Pacific Avenue – is turning improbably into the central issue in Tacoma’s mayoral race.

Jim Merritt (I give some credit to campaign manager Ronnie Bush) has been playing the issue brilliantly. A much-respected architect, he’s pushing a “post-and-beam” alternative of concrete piers, and he’s has positioned himself as the champion of underdog Tacoma against the overbearing Sound Transit.

His opponent, Marilyn Strickland, has had a hard time responding. She voted with her fellow city council members to work with Sound Transit, which Merritt’s camp casts as a bully bent on ruining the future of the Dome District.

In the middle of all this is City Manager Eric Anderson. Visiting us yesterday, he offered a far less apocalyptic view of the beam-vs.-berm choice.

Anderson – who knows something about urban development – called himself an “agnostic” on the issue. But he thinks either alternative could turn out very well for the neighborhood.

He said he’s not concerned about rail blighting the district. “It’s impact on the area will be absolutely huge,” he said – as in “a huge asset.”

He said he doesn’t expect the tracks to get in the way of development “in any way, shape or form.”

The berm would be a visual barrier, he said, while the post-and-beam would require an extra six feet of railbed to support the tracks.

“Post-and-beam would be open, but it would be higher. If you want to minimize the profile, post and beam is not the answer.”

I suspect Anderson is right: Both options could work equally well – or equally badly. The world has no shortage of ugly concrete transportation structures and ugly rail berms. The key is figuring out who’s going to pay to keep the grounds prettified in perpetuity. That’s the high ground I think this battle should fought on.

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