Olympia Dome
Washington Capitol Building, From Flickr User Clappstar

Yesterday was the first day of the legislative session in Olympia. With the budget issues facing the Legislature, things look pretty bleak all around[1] but there might be one bright spot policy-wise: Transportation Choices and Futurewise are running a bill that seeks to capitalize on the ST2 investment. The bill which will be sponsored by Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Vashon Island) and Senator Chris Marr (D-Spokane) will encourage transit oriented development around transit stations across the state. The bill is entitled “Creating Transit Communities” and will create land use guidelines and incentives to ensure that dense, walkable, and accessible development takes shape around light rail and BRT stations.

More info below the fold.

I’ve been hearing good things, but the details are still a little vague, what I understand the legislation will do:

  • Encourage walkable compact communities with an average density of 50 units per acre within a half mile radius around high capacity transit stations.
  • Provide local jurisdictions the resources and a framework to grow in a sustainable way.
  • Offer incentives for development in transit oriented communities.
  • Allow for transit oriented development in our urban centers that encourages a reduction in vehicle miles traveled and helps Washington achieve its emissions reductions goals.
  • Strengthen existing provisions to ensure that low-income housing is available within the transit accessible communities.

Last year the voters of the Puget Sound region overwhelming said yes to a significant investment in light rail in our region, and we have to make sure that we get the most we can out of it. Transit infrastructure should be used as a smart development tool and help make our region a more sustainable and healthy place to live. The better you use transit as a means for development, the better the transit works and the more likely we are to get more transit. Nice re-enforcement cycle, that. We will be tracking this legislation and keep you posted the policy details and progress!

[1] Unless you love the SR99 tunnel.

37 Replies to “Transit Oriented Communities Bill Proposed in the Legislature”

  1. I really love the idea of this bill, for political reasons more than anything. It is absolutely critical that people understand that transit and land use decisions need to be made TOGETHER. A major problem with Link was that planners and politicians may have assumed that they were going to upzone the transit stations, but many local communities did not.

    Take Beacon Hill. Most of the area around it is zoned single family. Localities need to understand, before hand that it’s all or nothing: if you don’t want the upzone, you don’t get the light rail.

    Another area where this might wake people up is the foolish decision to build light rail stations north of Northgate immediately adjacent to the freeway. Jackson Park station for example. Not only are there no plans to upzone this land, but in reality, we SHOULDN’T be putting 10’s of thousands of people immediately adjacent to freeways The particulate matter in the immediate vicinity is a serious health threat and the noise and vibration make the properties unattractive. Far better to do what they did in Roosevelt and put the station several blocks away from the freeway, out of the immediate pollution shed. Likewise, north of Northgate, Link should be taken West to 99. That would take it through the Bitterlake Urban Village in Seattle (already planned for major growth) and through “downtown” Shoreline. Shoreline wants to build Aurora into a town center, but putting light rail a mile away near the freeway is going to detract from this goal rather than facilitate it.

    Hopefully this legislation gets planners, communities and local leaders to start thinking about these sorts of issues up front, rather than spending billions to build a system that falls far short of its potential.

    1. You’re going to be pretty unhappy when North Link gets built, I think. Most of those stations really have to go near the freeway. I know it’s not ideal, but unless you have several hundred million more dollars and a lot of lawyers, I don’t think we’re going to start cutting across residential neighborhoods.

    2. I believe as has been mentioned elsewhere the exsisting zoning around Beacon Hill station already supports this bill. Maybe a few more lots might need an upzone to nc2-40 or nc3-65 but I doubt there needs to be a major change in the currently allowed land use.

      I agree SR-99 might be a better alignment for getting to Everett from Northgate particularly WRT development around stations. However SR-99 would require a lot more money to build than an I-5 alignment. We’ll see what is on the table when it comes time to select alternatives for the DEIS. I’m sure there will be at least some pressure to serve SR-99.

  2. This piece of legislature would not “encourage” density. Rather it would mandate it. The exact phrasing, as I have it here, is: “The minimum density for these transit oriented development areas must be fifty dwelling units per acre.”

    Do we really need that kind of encouragement? Why do we need a bill that mandates density minimums?

    1. Fifty dwelling units per acre is less than what I’m sitting in. An acre is something like eight Seattle-sized lots, half a block. We’re taking two of those lots and putting eight units on them for recent townhouse designs, giving you 32/acre with only three stories. We’re building 100 units per acre along Broadway right now in new construction, and that’s only six stories. Calm down! :)

      Remember, this is at a property line level, not blanket. You can’t go “Capitol Hill is x acres” and then extrapolate. A good third of our space up here is roadway already, as it is around most of these stations. I’ve been hearing histrionics from people about high-rises going up with a bill like this, and it’s utter, utter bunk. None of this space is zoned for high-rises, nor would it be after this bill. It would just be zoned 65′ mixed use (pssst, like most of it already is), and you wouldn’t be allowed to build much lower than that.

      We need a bill to mandate density minimums because without them, we could have development of single story buildings adjacent to stations next year or the year after, before Link has really driven demand that much. Those buildings will not be feasible for teardown, the market won’t have anything to say about them, for decades – until they’re paid off.

      And you know what else? What’s wrong with a zoning change? If someone doesn’t want to sell their property, they won’t.

      This prevents low density from taking TOD space when Link is fledgling.

      1. If you allow sort-of low density near link stations, it’ll be too expensive to replace with real density later, and it’ll be too low density to allow Link to flourish later.

      2. Exactly. You’d have to wait at least one, probably two real estate cycles. 20 or 40 years.

      1. leg.wa.gov has a bill tracker function which is easy and very helpful, lets you know the status, hearing dates, etc.

        I’m not sure about the mechanics of this bill, but its definitely a great subject and it is good Oly is talking about it.

  3. “Take Beacon Hill. Most of the area around it is zoned single family. Localities need to understand, before hand that it’s all or nothing: if you don’t want the upzone, you don’t get the light rail.”

    As several of us mentioned the last time this came up (oh, wait, that might have been over on hugeasscity), Beacon Hill residents haven’t rejected an upzone, really. There has been a minor upzone already (for example, my house in the urban village boundary was upzoned to NC40 from single-family zoning a few years ago), and no one has really tried to do a bigger one yet, as far as I know. That is not to say that there wouldn’t be some opposition; it’s a Seattle neighborhood after all, that’s par for the course. But to portray it as “those damned Beacon Hillians rejected an upzone and got a light rail station anyway” is misleading.

    So far, most of the property up here that has been rezoned hasn’t seen any development interest anyway. Maybe that will change once the train is running and people like it.

    1. See, how will this bill address litnemo’s concern?

      I live by the Columbia City light rail station; also upzoned, but with little other than townhomes added – some on the market for almost a year now.

      At the SENDC meeting last night this bill was discussed. Residents don’t like this bill. Not because they are against upzoning, but because it will be mandated by the state for what appears to be the benefit of developers and not the environment. Who is futurewise? They’re not coming around to talk to us.

      One woman I spoke to, who lives near the MT Baker station, is attempting with her neighbours to upzone there street. So why not simply make it easier for folks to do that at the local city level than go mandate it at the state level?

      Furthermore, what research is this 50 units min based on?

      1. litnemo’s concern is moot, because no further upzone is required…

        You definitely don’t get to play any kind of environmental card here. Not one bit. What’s more environmentally conscious, 50 units on an acre or 50 houses? The more dense you are, the more trips are taken by foot, and the fewer trees you’re losing. I always love it when people try to fight high-rise condos in downtown with ‘think of the environment!’ – the environmental impact of a condo or apartment is half or less per square foot than a house, no matter how you measure it.

        Residents who believe this has something to do with the environment are being rallied by blind NIMBYism. People going to the meetings trying to push them against the bill are to blame for that.

        But to answer your question – why not make it easier for folks to change their zoning at the city level? Because every time they do, every single time, five of their neighbors come yell at the city and say they don’t want to lose their views, or they don’t want the noise of so many new neighbors, or some other argument. Most of the time, they don’t get the upzone request.

        This bill isn’t about that, though, because most of the areas this would affect (or the ones that would get development in our lifetimes) are already zoned for it. NC 40 is already plenty. You’re going to need to step back and realize that – your comments all assume that this bill is going to force some kind of upzoning.

        This bill is about making sure that when development pressures come, the development that’s built actually encourages walkable communities through density, the only way that actually works. We probably need it, because without it, those neighbors at your meeting are going to shoot down anything more than fifteen feet high.

        And why 50 units? That’s a good minimum to promote walkability. I know your tactic here is going to be to say ‘but we need to study this! what if that’s not the right number?!’ – but 50 is fine, we know we need at least that much. I’d personally say we should have 100, but 50 is a good start. If you want to learn about why, I highly recommend Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language”, especially the discussion around the pattern ‘four story limit’, and the sections in Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” about sidewalks – especially when she describes why the projects and garden city development failed.

      2. From my readings of a Pattern Language, 4 stories is a good limit. So I’m not sure why I should look at that for support for density minimums… But I’ll take a look at that section of Jacobs’ book again – thanks.

        In which circumstances will this bill as a piece of legislation be applied? What shortfall in development will it address, since, as you mention, most of the areas it would affect are already zoned for dev.

        Yes and I do assume this bill is forcing upzoning (which I do not oppose), because that’s the way it appears to be worded. The word “must” is used instead of “encourage” and I am trying to understand why.

      3. The bill won’t make a differnce around LRT in the city, but is more about LRT out of the city (look at the density around Tukwila station) or sounder stations.

      4. We need to force it because we don’t have time to wait for 1 story construction, then 3 story construction, then 6 story construction, over 200 years, if we’re going to reel in sprawl and stop driving cars for 90% of our trips.

        Zoning doesn’t mean people go to the limit of the zone!

        There will be places where this bill forces upzoning. It doesn’t force anyone to sell their house.

        Alexander talks about density and the necessity of densities around this minimum for walkability, I was just pointing you to that one because I remember the discussion takes place mostly at that ‘scale’ of pattern – in the few before and after. I actually disagree with his 4 story limit in our cities, because we have wider streets than he envisions. We’re not about to move those back, so I don’t mind 6-8. Sure, you can’t throw a sandwich to someone on the 8th floor, but the seclusion offered by the height does appeal to many. Giving them that while making their walking trips cross others’ paths is a good compromise.

      5. “litnemo’s concern is moot, because no further upzone is required…”

        Well, my main concern was that I’ve seen (in a few places) people posting that Beacon Hill doesn’t “deserve” light rail because of some mythical anti-upzoning movement up here, and then it tends to get followed by a lot of stereotyping of Beacon Hill by people who probably never set foot on it before. I could be slightly sensitive on the topic.

        The whole urban village isn’t NC40, though — I think there are still SF zones here. I know the house west of us is not NC40, but I am pretty sure they are within the boundary. (Can’t look it up now — gotta go to work.)

      6. Work at 4pm! :)

        I don’t stereotype Beacon Hill – and I doubt that’s even come up in the actual bill discussion in Olympia, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

        Yes, this would require some upzoning. But if those homeowners don’t want to sell, hey. They stay. :)

    2. You’re describing exactly the problem with not having a minimum, actually. That development interest ramps up over time – you’ll have enough interest for 1 or 2 story construction before you’ll have an interest in 4 story construction. We’ve watched this happen to other rail systems around the US – the construction goes in, and oh, now you have to wait until those construction loans are paid off and the building starts to age before it’s even remotely cost effective to replace it.

      So, as Dan Bertolet mentions over at hugeasscity today, four stories can give you 100 units per acre (there’s even a photo). You don’t have to be any bigger than NC 40 – two stories of residential over retail can give you more than 50/acre.

      Again, what this comes down to is a lack of understanding of what the bill actually does.

      1. Thanks. I actually walked around my apartment building last night and counted units, just to see what density I was living in… :)

      2. That one building may be 100/acre. But the entire Rainier Vista project I think is more like 16 units per acre, but I could be wrong – I’m using old info.

      3. But Rainier Vista is a bunch of single family units, big town homes and it has a great big park in the middle. It’s not a very dense development.

      4. If I read the intent of the bill correctly neighborhoods wouldn’t be penalized for having parkland. Similarly I wouldn’t think a neighborhood would have to make up density elsewhere for having a school in the zone near the station.

        I haven’t been up to Rainer Vista in a while but I thought it had been redeveloped similarly to New Holly and High Point? While those aren’t super-dense, they are more dense than what was there before and more dense than much of the city.

  4. Wow, 50 units per acre. Here I sit out on the eastside in a 1 dwelling per acre zoning and lament how over built it’s become. The family originally owned 10 acres. We still have pasture for a horse but most of the lots now have 1 acre homes built out to the extent of the property line easements.

    Very interesting to hear the thoughts on North Link. East Link is just a bad idea as proposed. It’s based on 1960’s thinking that eastside transit means getting people into downtown in the morning and back in the evening. My hope is ST starts to listen to the neighborhoods it should serve and stop with the model railroad idea it’s bent on following. The Central Link seems like a really good idea. Actually getting that operational, Lord knows how things are on again off again around here, makes a huge difference on how the SR520 replacement should be built.

    1. Bernie, couldn’t you say that I-90 and SR-520 are based on out-dated thinking that links the suburbs directly with downtown?

      Of course, both highways have exits that lead to different destinations. With that in mind, Eastlink has many stations all of which are accessible from anywhere on the line. So while a rider from Overlake might go all the way to downtown for his job (“1960’s thinking”), he’s just as likely to head to the many Bellevue stops.

      Have an Eastside line completely segregated from a Seattle line would be very poor transit planning. While you may think it’s old-style planning, obviously the ridership between Bellevue and Seattle would be higher than, say, Bellevue and Kirkland.

  5. I’m not saying not to link Bellevue with downtown. What was suggested at the Redmond public hearing was starting construction from east to west. Right now the biggest needs for eastside transit is relief on the 405 corridor and at both ends of SR520. And the so called “reverse commute” is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Rail from Renton to Belleuve can be put in in two or three years because the tracks are (except for what was torn out at the Wilburton tunnel) are already in place. That same right of way also connects Woodinville to Bellevue. However, to connect downtown Redmond and relieve the pressure on the east end of SR520 requires building out Eastlink along the lines of the E2 proposal. This line would serve the Microsoft Campus and starting there, today means light rail could be functionally serving the major needs of the Eastside in 2-3 years (likely with DMUs to start with) instead of 2021 or never if cost overruns or downturn in the tax base prevent the completion of the route as planned.

    All this is pretty off topic regarding transit communities except to point out that I think local control should play a much bigger role than what this bill proposes. In fact I question whether or not this legislation is actually being introduced as a poison pill to make it harder to build stations. There are certainly very good reasons to build a station where there is virtually no housing if it is heavily commercial or a major transfer point. Do hotels at the airport count as “dwelling units”?

    1. Bernie,

      East Link serves the “reverse commute” very well, which is more than I can say for the current model of Metro bus service. It’s not commuter rail where the trains only go in the peak direction.

      I’ve heard elsewhere that more people working in Downtown Bellevue live North or South than East or West, but that’s not immediately relevant to transit planning. If you look at Sound Transit Ridership reports, almost twice as many people come in on the 550 than on the 532, 564, and 565 COMBINED. That’s because commuters from Seattle live in the kind of communities that encourage transit use, while those that drive on I-405 are widely dispersed.

  6. Agreed that the current bus service runs in reverse because eastside interests aren’t well served by a Seattle dominated system. Having lived on the eastside now for almost 25 years I can tell you the reason more eastsiders aren’t transit oriented is because there is no eastside transit. Metro is the outgrowth of the Seattle City bus system. For years the idea where all routes went downtown made sense. That was before Microsoft and before Bellevue had a skyline.

    I now live less than 4 miles northeast of the Belleuve Transit center. In the time it takes to get there I can be downtown on a bus from South Kirkland P&R. The eastside is not well suited to transit only solutions, it requires P&R lots. Bellevue Transit Center is the center of congestion and until the infrastructure is in place to get there adding capacity makes no sense. The crush of people isn’t coming from South Belleuve, Mercer Island or Seattle. North and south is growing and so is east in a big way. All of these areas are served by Eastside Rail on the recently acquired BNSF line from Renton to Snohomish. The Eastside Link (segments D & E) complete this route by offering service in the most congested area of the eastside. The key is both of these can be up and running a decade before rail gets pushed across I90. That’s what the Seattle oriented thinking doesn’t seem to understand. We need it now or companies like Microsoft and Google will go the way of PacCar and others that have left the area.

    1. Bernie,

      The “reverse commute” is traditionally meant as Seattle residents working on the Eastside, which happens to be extremely well served by East Link. You seem to be referring to intra-Eastside commuting, which is an entirely different problem.

      East Link will connect the densest communities on the Eastside, which seems like a reasonable place to start when building a rail system. North/South rail is going to have to wait for ST3 except for a possible commuter rail line.

      If you search our archives for Eastside commuter rail you’ll find tons of discussion of this project, and some of its serious shortcomings. I wouldn’t dismiss the project out of hand but suffice it to say that once you get into the details things don’t look as great as they would seem in theory.

  7. > connect the densest communities on the Eastside, which seems like
    > a reasonable place to start when building a rail system.

    Connecting the densest communities on the Eastside is the most reasonable place to start. Start being the operative word here, connecting Redmond to Bellevue now instead of after rail goes across I90 makes the most sense. The post, DJC on East Link Alignments points out many of the issues which are likely to drive up cost and defer building. Even if the project were completed on schedule 2021 for segments D and E is an unacceptable trade off. The priority for eastside residents is for transit to serve those who live and work on the eastside. The currently proposed order of construction is all about perpetuating the choice to live across the lake from where you work. It’s nice that transit makes that possible but I don’t think that’s what’s meant by transit oriented communities.

    Call it commuter rail, light rail or just public transit; the BNSF corridor is, right now, the most effective place to put money because the right of way is already owned and established for rail use. 10-15 years from now it will most likely be a bicycle trail and the cost of replacing the roadbed and the political will to restore rail through areas that have developed without it will make the project lengthy, expensive and most likely impossible. The segments D & E of Eastlink are primarily part of the SR520 corridor (scratch the Overlake “joggle”) and coincide with the BNSF right of way at each end which tie it to Snohomish and Renton/Auburn. The growth patterns which have pushed people working in Belleuve and Redmond to live in these out lying areas are driven more by the price of land than by a lifestyle choice which was the case back in the 1960’s.

    Back to the proposed Bill on Transit Oriented Communities, I think it’s a big step in the wrong direction to extend the details of transit planing to the State level rather than focus local issues like zoning at the community level. It’s hard enough to break the Seattle strangle hold on eastside planning. No need to bring Vashon Island and Spokane into the mix.

Comments are closed.