When discussing transit, one of the issues that comes up the most is that of gentrification – the idea that those currently living near new transit will be forced out by high rents and developers, forced to move someplace far away, replaced with childless yuppie couples who drink bad lattes and wear clothes from REI and Patagonia, their key-laden carabiners jingling, Keens squeaking on the sidewalk as they walk by local bookshops, bahn mi and bakeries in favor of Starbucks, Barnes and Noble and Urban Outfitters.
MLK’s one story strip malls, populated by a rainbow of independent groceries, restaurants, nail and hair salons, do not stand a chance against such an onslaught of money. Not even Seattle’s pervasive fear of the “south end” (read: people with various shades of skin colors who are clearly all Out To Get You) will stop the growth of poorly designed, vinyl-skinned faux mixed use, sporting spacious high end first floor coffee shops with brand new factory-aged furniture topped with shoddy apartments and condos at astronomical prices.
That’s the bad news.
Now for the good.
The buildings on MLK are fairly old. While some have been rebuilt more recently, many are easily 40 or 50 years old, and on top of that, they are generally very cheap, single story construction. When they were first built, they did not house small, independent businesses. They represented a new, low density construction boom during and after WWII, lots of subsidized temporary housing and the businesses to support them. As the construction loans were paid off, the carrying costs for these buildings became very low, so the small businesses we see today trickled into the aging structures.
This happens everywhere. The market doesn’t build new buildings with the intention of housing small businesses – they can’t pay the rent of new construction. New buildings house high-margin, often cookie cutter businesses, with the exception of those helped along through local government (artist lofts, subsidized housing) or rare business partnerships (Vivace). It is only when those buildings age that the space in them gets cheaper; the business diversity that makes cities great appears only where small and unique becomes affordable.
Here’s the kicker: It is cheaper per square foot for a business to build a new one story building than to tear down an existing one story building to build a two or four story building. One story buildings are cheap. When people are using transit to get around, though, one story buildings don’t offer enough density. The rewards for building a little higher and closer together are greater because so many of your users are pedestrians. Highways are the only reason that business economics don’t overwhelm the low construction cost of short buildings – if everyone’s driving, they can go further, so the original one story buildings survive.
Before the highways, you saw higher density. In Columbia City, you see two story (and higher) brick buildings, packed close together, without parking lots. As the city grew, these would have been replaced with four or six or eight stories, like we see in Pioneer Square. But this growth was stunted by the highways’ massive reduction in the marginal cost of traveling farther.
This is how MLK (then Empire Way) grew. Small one story buildings filled in along the boulevard, commercial closer to the city, industrial farther away. As the highways were built, instead of being replaced, these buildings simply aged. Now wait a minute. Why is this bad? We need old buildings, right? Here’s the problem: Given some demand, it’s profitable to replace a one story building with a six story building. When there’s enough demand, your one story buildings really don’t stand a chance.
However, six story buildings do. Look at Pioneer Square again, Belltown, and the International District. Most of those aren’t chain stores, and many of those buildings are old. It’s unprofitable to replace a six story building with anything short of 20 or 30 stories – and local resistance to high-rises outside the downtown core make that kind of zoning very unlikely on MLK.
The key here is this: Anything we build on MLK today will not only be there just as long as the buildings there now have lasted, it will also be more resistant to further development. The first wave of construction will be opportunistic and perhaps not of the best quality, but the second wave, after light rail opens and as demand increases, will be better, just as second wave construction in Pioneer Square, Belltown and the ID were stone and brick and easily protected by today’s community groups. Those buildings will last lifetimes.