Seattle Land Use Code blog has a long and valuable post on the tools and ingredient that would help move TOD forward in Washington State. While you’re reading the post keep SLU and Yesler Terrace in mind. I think both of these project provide an interesting lens to view the post through.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last several months listening to people tell me all the things they think we need to facilitate Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in these parts. It’s part of a longer set of discussions going back into the 90s when people asked, in a similar way, “how do we implement the Growth Management Act?” Here’s my quick answer; we have all the ingredients we need to facilitate leaps and bounds toward TOD. What we’re missing is leadership. Second, we could make TOD happen without as much leadership if we had significant changes to our constitution, city charters, and tax codes.

What I am going to do is cover the things and agency would need to set out on a massive TOD effort. I’ll include the pieces we already have and where they are. Then I’ll explain my leadership comment. And a caveat: these are notes. If I am wrong or missed something, please comment.

Levy Taxes

The ideal TOD agency would be able to raise significant revenue on its own by levying sales, property, and payroll taxes. You get the first two, right? But payroll taxes? Yes, you read that right. In order for any agency to generate the kinds of revenue needed for significant capital investments, right-of-way acquisitions, land purchases, and operations of connecting transit infrastructure (trollies, jitneys, shuttles etc) it would have to be able to raise taxes on its own. TriMet in Oregon actually raises huge money, most of their $211 million budget, from a payroll tax. Taken together these three sources would get the job done.

Who already has it?

Sound Transit raises most of its money from sales tax and local governments fund transit from sales taxes. Local government can already raise property taxes as can the Port of Seattle and other benefit districts and taxing districts created by the legislature. While uniformity is a problem with property taxes, the constitution allows for the creation of any number of taxing and benefit districts that could raise revenue for TOD.

How do we get it for TOD?

The legislature would have to pass legislation to allow a TOD agency to raise money this way. The payroll tax is doable, today, as long as it’s not an income tax. TriMet’s payroll tax is a percentage, but a TOD agency could just charge a flat fee like the head-tax that was eliminated by the Seattle City Council.

The post goes on to cover condemnation and eminent domain, zoning and land use, tax increment financing and land value tax, public credit, and leadership.

37 Replies to “SLUCB: TOD Tools and Ingredients”

  1. It’s worth noting that Sound Transit has the authority, with voter approval, to levy a head tax of $2 per full-time equivalent employee under RCW 81.104.150.

    1. I don’t think the wonkiness is the issue here. There’s two problems with this topic.

      First, it falls afoul of a very strong strain of thought — extending well beyond the usual anti-transit tea-tards — in American politics that frowns on government redevelopment projects, and in particular using eminent domain to effect redevelopment on private property. Trying to do this sort of thing in a state with an initiative petition process is hopeless; you’ll just get Tim Eyman on the case, and a few years later, you’ll be worse off than where you started.

      Second, I don’t see that there’s been a failure of TOD in Seattle that can be rectified by such an agency. The issue has been the unwillingness of neighbors to countenance any but the least ambitious upzones. There’s nothing about Beacon Hill that needs a public agency to step in an start building stuff. There’s just a lack of political will to do a big enough upzone to make developers sit up and start building.

      1. I agree. I don’t think our problems stem from too little government interference in the market place, but TOO MUCH. There are a host of examples, (subsidized roads, utility equalization, mortgage tax credit, etc) but the biggest of which is over restrictive zoning.

      2. I agree with Matthew. Fix the zoning, try to fix up the markets so prices reflect costs better, and don’t force people to sell their houses when they don’t want to do it — in the end, the result ought to be better than anyone could have planned.

      3. The people who invest in single family neighborhoods enter a contract with the city that assures that future development will preserve the character of the neighborhood. I expect the police to protect me from thugs that don’t respect property rights and I expect the city planning commission to ward off the predatory developers that want to swoop in and make a quick buck. TOD fans that want to “fix” light rail alignments by invoking eminent domain are reminiscent of the proponents of freeway construction who justified ROW acquisition on the “benefit” of raising blighted neighborhoods.

      4. There is no such guarantee; all neighborhoods change greatly in the long run, regardless of governmental efforts either to promote or retard change. What there is, however, is a reasonable, but nonetheless much weaker expectation that a neighborhood will generally not change dramatically without the support of most of the people living there.

        I’m generally inclined to regard the American predilection for framing everything in terms of property rights to be specious and to tend toward contradiction; to take your example, you demand that you not be deprived of the enjoyment of your property by force (by thugs), yet demand that other people (developers) be deprived by force of the enjoyment of their property (by the state) merely because you disapprove aesthetically.

        Personally, I’m a fan of more empiricism and less chest-beating about rights and the American Way/Dream/whatever. Recent history — as you correctly allude to — gives numerous examples of public sector redevelopment gone wrong (slum clearances and housing projects like the one they finally knocked down in Chicago last year come to mind).

        A broad authority in the hands of one small group of people to use the power of eminent domain to “improve” neighborhoods (often hand in hand with well-connected developers) concentrates too much power in one place and is a cure that’s generally worse than the disease.

      5. Bruce,
        We’re probably in vehement agreement on most points here. First there is a subtle difference between assurance and guarantee. Federal Way was assured they’d get light rail to 272nd but there was no guarantee. It’s a semantic that begs the issue of trust. It’s not so much the idea that you need to read the fine print as an alert to property owners that there is a need for continued vigilance because what you have somebody else wants (for cheap).

        all neighborhoods change greatly in the long run, regardless of governmental efforts either to promote or retard change.

        Of course that’s true. In part it depends on how you define “long run”. Being overrun by glaciers will dramatically change the neighborhood. Or, from the left lane being flooded by the polar ice caps melting will do the same (although government could arguably avoid that outcome). I believe you are either British or spent some time there? Some of my cousins in the UK live in houses that were built prior to The Colonies independence. They find it hysterical that something 200 years old is call historical. Yes, their neighborhoods have changed. They have roads with cars instead of horse and carriage and wires that bring electricity and phones but fundamentally it’s still a neighborhood consisting of the same homes that have been there for centuries. That’s in sharp contrast to the American ideal that “long term” means living in the same house for 7 years and any structure more than 50 years old is anachronistic of the past.

      6. “The people who invest in single family neighborhoods enter a contract with the city that assures that future development will preserve the character of the neighborhood.”

        How close is that single-family neighborhood to an arterial or intersection of arterials? Anyone who buys a SFH within walking distance to arterials in a major city and thinks they’re “owed” stasis is nuts and more than likely a jackass.

      7. A big enough upzone to make allow developers to sit up and start building.

        The single-family houses were built at a time when Seattle had half the population. They may have been appropriate for the size of the city then but not now. The same goes for those lonely one-story businesses surrounded by parking lots. Smart-growth advocates are making a significant concession by agreeing to leave most of the city’s land area alone, to remain in single-family speandor. In exchange we just want density at a few key locations.

      8. Bernie said:
        “The people who invest in single family neighborhoods enter a contract with the city that assures that future development will preserve the character of the neighborhood.”

        Do what now!?!? Are you speaking figuratively here?

      9. The single-family houses were built at a time when Seattle had half the population.

        Not at all true. Seattle hasn’t been half it’s present size since the 1920s. Most homes that currently exist were built since then. Population peaked in the 60’s and I’d wager as many homes were built since 1950 as prior to then. Since Seattle has rebounded it’s job base has changed radically leaving acres and acres of industrial zoned property close to the CBD vacant. There are also the historic urban centers of places like West Seattle, Ballard, etc. that were cities in their own right before agreeing to annexation into the City of Seattle. Creating pimples of density just because ST needed a ventilation shaft somewhere is pretty silly. Billions in infrastructure so that a few developers can pocket millions and move on. Besides, most people that desire an urban setting want to be close to DT or in an area that already has critical mass. Not in low rise apartments out on Beacon Hill or Maple Leaf.

      10. Sorry Bernie, but when talking about neighborhoods in Seattle you’re a little out of your depth. I don’t think you understand the character of the Roosevelt area at all.

      11. Bernie,
        I’m not sure what the percentage breakdown by age of the SF housing stock in Seattle is but there are large swaths of pre-war SF houses with good size chunks of pre-1920 housing. Most of the link alignment except at the extreme North and South ends is going through neighborhoods that have been there a good long time.

        To take your example of Maple Leaf, most of the neighborhood dates from around 1920 or so.

        Besides what is so special about a house built in 1965 vs one built in 1905? I don’t think someone living in a 56 year old house should have any more expectations of their neighborhood not changing than someone in the 106 year old house.

        In any case I don’t exactly see ST putting stations in the middle of greenfields for most of the alignment through Seattle. That certainly isn’t the case at Othello, Mt. Baker, Beacon Hill, Capitol Hill, Brooklyn, Roosevelt, or Northgate.

        BTW you are quite wrong about the desire of people to live in Seattle without necessarily living right in the urban core. Check prices of housing even in the outskirts of the city. Sure it might be cheaper in Bitter Lake or Lake City vs. Capitol Hill or Queen Anne but even Bitter Lake isn’t exactly cheap. Developers certainly are building to the maximum densities allowed even at the Northern outskirts of the city.

      12. “The people who invest in single family neighborhoods enter a contract with the city that assures that future development will preserve the character of the neighborhood.”

        Bernie, please explain this statement. Are you speaking literally or of some kind of ‘social contract’? If the former, please post the contract, if the later, please explain.

        Why should neighborhoods remain static when everything else in life is in flux, including life itself? And why was post-war America the time when we decided to encase our cities in amber?

      13. 56 year old house should have any more expectations of their neighborhood not changing than someone in the 106 year old house.
        There is a deference given to older buildings and the reason we have the National Register of Historic Places. But more to the point, Seattle housing patterns accomodated it’s peak population back in the 70’s. We’ve exceeded that prior peak only in the last decade but since then large areas that are adjacent to the urban centers that have existed for as long as Seattle has been a city are no longer useful for the industries they once supported. These are the areas where additional housing should be built rather than artificially creating “villages” for light rail because the project failed to serve existing demand.

      14. I don’t think our problems stem from too little government interference in the market place, but TOO MUCH. There are a host of examples, (subsidized roads, utility equalization, mortgage tax credit, etc) but the biggest of which is over restrictive zoning.

        I’m surprised to hear this radically libertarian sentiment. Ironically if zoning allowed unchecked development where ever market forces dictated it would have the exact opposite effect of concentrating development around stations and sprawl would continue as a patternless mosaic across the region. But really what TOD cheerleaders want is not a free market system. In fact it’s the exact opposite. The scam is to build a light rail temple and then change the rules to force all development within the lines drawn around these designated “villages”.

      15. Bernie, no one is “forcing” development around the stations. It is being allowed, but it won’t be built unless a developer see a business case for doing a project. And there is nothing that says a developer will build to the maximum allowed density.

        We need the transportation infrastructure. If we’re going to spend billions to build it, we should encourage sensible uses around the access points to the corridor. Denser development there allows easier access for jobs and housing to more people.

      16. “I’m surprised to hear this radically libertarian sentiment.”

        Really? You must not have been paying much attention b/c I haven’t tried to hide liberal libertarian leanings either here or at Slog or Publicola.

      17. “Ironically if zoning allowed unchecked development where ever market forces dictated it would have the exact opposite effect of concentrating development around stations and sprawl would continue as a patternless mosaic across the region. But really what TOD cheerleaders want is not a free market system. In fact it’s the exact opposite. The scam is to build a light rail temple and then change the rules to force all development within the lines drawn around these designated “villages”.”

        Only if you consider massive government subsidization of sprawl (ie the current system) to be ‘free market.’ How much does the 5th Fleet cost? Central Command? How about utility equalization? Levy equalization when it comes to schools? Homebuyers tax credit? ‘Free ways’? Environmental cleanup?

      18. “TOD fans that want to “fix” light rail alignments by invoking eminent domain…”

        Where are these TOD fans that want to do this?

      19. The urban village designation came before light rail. The Roosevelt – Green Lake area has been slated to accept increased density since the city’s comprehensive plan update in the early 90’s.

      20. no one is “forcing” development around the stations. It is being allowed, but it won’t be built unless a developer see a business case for doing a project.

        Zoning can’t force development but it can certainly prevent it. Zoning changes “force” development into certain areas. They also to a great degree define what is economical to develop. Building higher density around a light rail station is desirable but site the rail station where there would be that desire to build already. I’m just not buying into the notion that we have to have a one size fits all station overlay plan because there’s nowhere else left to build in Seattle.

      21. Bernie,
        I think what you are forgetting is the pent-up demand in Seattle for certain types of building sites is quite high (recent recession aside). However the supply is kept artificially low by the land-use regulations.

        True the demand isn’t uniform and is higher in some parts of the city than others.

        Again I suspect the demand at many current and future station locations is far higher than the current zoning allows, certainly this applies to the area around IDS or Pioneer Square.

      22. Matt the Engineer has pointed out that DPD hasn’t made upzoning any easier by doing it one neighborhood at a time. By doing this growth ‘floods’ an area causing rapid changes. If multiple areas were simultaneously upzoned, then growth would be much more spread out across the city and neighborhood changes would be much more organic.

      23. There’s plenty of pent-up demand around Pioneer Square and the ID for housing and it’s a great place to increase density. Not so much though that there isn’t plenty of opportunity for more development even with current zoning and the, I believe well done, rezone of the historic district. Besides all the surface lots available a great place to start would be demolition and redevelopment of the sinking ship garage that defiles the Smith Tower.

      24. growth ‘floods’ an area causing rapid changes.

        Which is exactly what you want, like South Lake Union where services can be concentrated to the point that light rail capacity is appropriate. Ditto for south of the CBD all the way down to Boeing Field and on both sides of the Ship Canal. Spreading density like peanut butter across Seattle’s traditionally single family neighborhoods just guarantees more vehicle miles traveled and transit infrastructure that’s barely viable. There is and will continue to be significant demand for traditional single family homes and once these neighborhoods are eroded you can’t just rezone and create more which means people will just move out to suburbs.

      25. Bernie, stop making stuff up.

        I don’t want all growth focused for a few years in one neighborhood that gets upzoned and then like a herd of cattle move to the next fertile area. I’d much rather have major upzones in all urban villages and then let the market decide where growth should go. Well, that’s my more realistic goal. Philosophically I’d prefer the entire city to upzoned to a minimum of 5 story mixed use, but that isn’t likely to happen and isn’t as much of a rush. Plenty of fish to fry in and around the urban villages.

      26. There’s no “vast acres of obsolete industrial land”. There are three industrial districts, SODO, Interbay, and southern Ballard. SODO and Ballard have living industries. Interbay may have an excess of non-Port industrial land, but it’s not that much.

        If you change SODO to residential/retail, it’ll do what’s happened in other cities that have done the same thing: made them overly dependent on one economic sector (paper pushers and services), and thus more prone to busts and recessions. Plus, the day may come when we need to revive local manufacturing, if peak oil disrupts intercontinental trade. In that case, we’ll be glad we saved the industrial land. Otherwise the manufacturers will have to locate in the suburbs or outside the region.

      27. On 4th Ave S there’s a block of suburban style drive up banks, another block is the same suburban style fast food joints. There’s a group of auto service business that look for all the world as if they transplanted from Bel-Red. This can’t be the highest and best use of land only a mile from the edge of the CBD. And further south is a big building that used to have the letter R on the roof. As for a return to manufacturing land is already too valuable in Seattle for it to be attractive to new industry and the demographics are far more favorable for those jobs to be located in Tacoma or Everett.

    2. I should follow up this rather negative comment by saying what I hope will happen instead.

      We have at least one upzone in the works, at Mount Baker, that looks like it might turn out pretty well. This upzone has the potential for enough height to be attractive for market-rate mixed use, it’s much closer in than Othello and Ranier Beach, and it already has fast one seat rides to the other big employment center in the city — the UW — on the 48X. If that upzone can lift that neighborhood from where it is now, to somewhere that people want to be, heads will turn in Beacon Hill and Roosevelt, and they’ll start feeling left behind.

    3. How close is that single-family neighborhood to an arterial or intersection of arterials? Anyone who buys a SFH within walking distance to arterials in a major city and thinks they’re “owed” stasis is nuts and more than likely a jackass.

      I’d agree with most of that but it depends on how long a person has been there vs when the road became an arterial. I don’t think someone that’s lived 50 years in their home is a jackass because the City want’s to carve a new arterial. Admittedly that is a small majority. I have no problem with upzones around stations along MLK. That was an arterial ever since it was built. What’s ironic is the same crowd that wanted Link to serve the RV is now leading the anit-gentrification crusade. Streets like Roosevelt and 12th are not comparable to Empire Way. Beacon Ave is a lazy tree lined boulevard that meanders through a predominantly single family neighborhood. Mass transit missed both the VA Hospital and the PacMed building; oh for two swinging for the fences with a tunnel and underground station.

      1. Roosevelt and 12th are quite busy arterials and at least Roosevelt has been an arterial since it was built.

      2. Sand Point Way is an arterial too but I don’t think it should be lined with 12 story apartments. Lake City Way on the other hand is already commercial and has been ever since it was the highway out to Bothell. Roosevelt is commercial from about 75th south and is appropriately zoned. But the station is being sited on 12th which is the dividing line between commercial/muti-family and single family homes. Really the nearest center of gravity is between Green Lake and I-5 which is the most appropriate place to zone for really high density.

  2. we could make TOD happen without as much leadership [democracy] if we had significant changes to our constitution, city charters, and tax codes.
    The ideal TOD agency would be able to raise significant revenue on its own by levying sales, property, and payroll taxes.

    An unaccountable government agency that can indiscriminately both raise taxes and evict people from their homes. Sounds a lot like China except instead of Party Chief the supreme leader’s title would be Party Boss. No deigning that it’s effective but given the choice between this and anarchy I’d “vote” for the later; at least you die with a fightin’ chance.

  3. It took me a while to pick my jaw up off the floor once I read this post. The idea that Seattleites, who have been fighting to preserve the Mayberry character of neighborhoods, even around the biggest transit hub in the northwest US (Pioneer Square), against tall private market-rate development, would vote to tax themselves for TOD, is somewhere up in the stratosphere with “when pigs fly”.

    ST has its hands full just getting permission to build transit.

    The Seattle City Council has already shown their metal for TOD where it is most obviously needed. Which is to say, they don’t have it.

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