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Capitol Hill’s Pony bar negotiating small change to make a little room for big bus project on Madison

When it comes to Capitol Hill gay bar Pony, inches matter.

“It’s been a tough road,” owner Mark Stoner tells CHS. But he insists the Seattle Department of Transportation has been friendly to deal with even in a situation involving a multi-million project, the whims of the Trump administration’s approach to federal transportation funding, and a major Seattle artery in line for massive change.

Stoners tells CHS that a permit recently issued for removing 242 square feet of Pony’s famed patio along the E Madison side of the structure is related to a unique situation for the bar that has stood on the triangular parcel along the busy street since 2009 — its tiny chunk of patio is the only property along the route that the city needs when it finally digs in on the $120 million+, 11-stop Madison Bus Rapid Transit project that will connect First Hill through to Madison Valley via Capitol Hill with speedy, regular Metro bus service in the busy corridor. 

“I have been in discussions with SDOT about them wanting to widen Madison in the block to accommodate the stop,” Stoner said.

Stoner said the situation came about at his own making — he was meeting with SDOT about the plans around BRT and suggested making space by giving up a little bit of Pony. At first, Stoner said he hoped to work out a trade with the city taking what it needed on the Madison side of the bar and Pony getting some ground on E Union. But no good deed goes unpunished. Land swaps are against city policy, Stoner said he was told. Now, he finds himself negotiating over a teensy tiny piece of a massive project.

The city says the BRT project — which Metro will operate as RapidRide G — will provide “fast, frequent, reliable, and safe public transportation between 1st Ave in downtown Seattle and Martin Luther King Jr Way.”

60-foot articulated buses will run every six minutes during peak times. Card readers at the station allowing riders to enter any of the five doors, 13-inch platforms making it easier for those with strollers or wheelchairs to get on the bus, and designated areas of the stations for cyclists and those in wheelchairs aim to make the loading and unloading process more efficient for riders. Cyclists can also anticipate loading their bikes inside the bus.

As part of the project, SDOT will be transforming the Madison/12th Ave/Union tangle. The new bus line will reconfigure lanes and other elements like widened sidewalks and new bike lanes on E Union are also in the mix.

An SDOT spokesperson confirms with CHS that it is in negotiations with Pony over an easement on a portion of the bar’s parcel so it can widen the street as part of a major overhaul of the three-way Madison/12th/Union intersection. The spokesperson declined to discuss specifics of the negotiations but said the city is working for a “fair price” on what that sliver of sidewalk is worth and wants to do right by Pony.

“It’s an institution in this particular area,” the spokesperson said about the bar.

From the city, here is how SDOT easements work:

SDOT’s process for the acquisition of property interests for capital projects are done in accordance with Federal, State, and local laws including the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act (42 U.S. Code Chapter 61). The process starts by SDOT contracting with an Appraisal company to appraise the subject property and another Appraisal company to review this appraisal. Once the appraisal has been completed and reviewed, the just compensation is then set. SDOT then prepares and presents an offer to the property owner for the just compensation amount that was determined by both Appraisal companies. Once the offer is accepted, the property rights are transferred from the property to the City via the appropriate real estate document for the circumstance and just compensation is paid to the property owner.

While Stoner says there has been some uncertainty in the early stages of talks with the city about the timing of the BRT project, SDOT spokesperson Mafara Hobson said the department is “looking at starting construction as early as 2019 (likely later part of the year), and opening as soon as 2021.”

More than half of the BRT project budget is dependent on federal grants and transit advocates are worried. “The Trump administration has slowed the release of federal transit grants to such a crawl that expansion projects in the works for years are now in jeopardy,” Streetsblog USA reports. But there is hope. The same federal program Madison’s BRT line is depending on came through with funding for a line in Snohomish County earlier this year.

As for Pony, it can handle change just fine. The bar was born taking over the old home of the Cha Cha on E Pike for a short interim run before demolition made way for new apartments. That’s when it moved to its current home on E Madison on the land formerly home to a florist that Stoner originally was interested in developing himself. Nine years later, Pony and its patio retains the penthouse view of the rivers of traffic and people on E Madison.

For Stoner, the situation around the negotiations and the planned construction project to change the bar is a big deal but remains mostly in the planning stages. It is an opportunity for making some needed upgrades at the bar that has weathered Capitol Hill’s waves of development and change. And, in the long run, the Pony bar could go through the long and winding city process of applying for a street vacation to get some of those inches back on the Union side of the property.

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