Roger Valdez over at Seattle’s Land Use Code has a pretty amazing piece today about the analysis – or lack of it – that went into Sound Transit’s decision to waste the airspace above the Roosevelt station and build what amounts to a suburban commuter station.

This isn’t really new. In the US, transportation agencies aren’t incentivized properly to get involved in land use. Their incentive is to build the lowest risk option available to them, which is, unfortunately, generally a terrible choice for the neighborhood.

In this case, Sound Transit claims they did no economic analysis of potential development on their Roosevelt site before deciding it wasn’t worth it. With a six story mixed use building adjacent to them on one side, and a developer who’d like to build 12-15 stories on the other side of the street, I have no problem calling that decision embarrassingly dumb for the neighborhood.

Unfortunately for us people who care, it’s quite smart for the agency. They’re not a developer – they can’t spin up a limited liability corporation to build a building and then let that LLC declare bankruptcy if the building fails. They’re stuck with what they build, which means the risk to them is very high – both financially and politically –  if they don’t have an absolutely sure thing. It makes sense that they wouldn’t do an economic analysis, because the chances are vanishingly small that it would show them anything other than “don’t build anything but the station.”

What really needs to happen here is that we need to fix Sound Transit’s incentives. There aren’t easy solutions here – it’s essentially impossible for them to partner with a developer when they have a ten year planning timeframe. But there are solutions, and we need to make them happen soon enough that the agency doesn’t become hated by the neighborhoods it builds in – because that’s a great way to sink ST3 and beyond.

68 Replies to “No Economic Analysis Was Done For Roosevelt Station”

  1. I’ve seen reference to a prohibition on using eminent domain for the purpose of economic development. But I thought that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that such takings were fair game?

    Furthermore, what do people really mean? Are they saying that an agency cannot take necessary land using eminent domain with the expectation that it will be able to resell the land once it’s no longer needed? Surely that conflicts with the TOD opportunities at Brooklyn Station.

    1. If I understand it correctly, several years ago the US Supreme Court ruled that some local jurisdiction’s eminent domain law, which did allow them to take property for economic development was not prohibited by Federal law (including the US Constitution).

      Most places have more restrictions on eminent domain, however. They could probably pass less restrictive laws without running afoul of SCOTUS, but that doesn’t mean they should.

      At any rate, I don’t think eminent domain is really a big issue around Roosevelt. The concerns are with zoning and with ST’s planning process. Correct me if I’m wrong here.

      1. I think the real issues are in incentives, and second ST’s planning process, but I don’t think we can really blame them. I think we just need to lobby – maybe at the state level – to make agency-built TOD OK.

      2. What are you referring to? ST already has the legal authority to built up the area’s zoning. There’s nothing to fix there.

        Or are you suggesting we attempt to confer on ST a broad power to eminent domain property in station areas (beyond that required for building) and redevelop it?

  2. I was at an event for the Roosevelt Station and many residents expressed a strong desire to limit the size of buildings in the neighborhood and ensure that Roosevelt High is the tallest buildest around. I don’t know how representative they were, or how much airspace Sound Transit could have used without upsetting these people, but I just wanted to bring that up.

    1. Sound Transit should build to what the zoning allows. If those people want to fight development, they can fight zoning.

  3. Why not concentrate on getting the best possible use out of the building as a transit facility- with a generous take on transit-related uses?

    Seem to remember one station near the west terminal of the Portland MAX that had a small branch library. And I doubt Roosevelt or any other neighborhood would object to a cafe with a news-stand.

    Don’t know if it’s still there, but 20 years ago got one of the best corn-beef sandwiches of my life at Shaker Heights light rail station in Cleveland.

    Structures can also be attractively built to the latest “green” standards, including a green roof and sculptural solar panels. Maybe a small wind-turbine if local winds warrant.

    Just because you can’t put develop it for real-estate doesn’t mean you can’t get the most out of it for transit.

    Mark Dublin

    1. It takes library money to build libraries. Partnerships are very difficult during a recession when no agency is building new facilities.

      1. 1. Where’s it written that ST absolutely can’t direct any money to Seattle Public Libraries if it determines expense is good for transit? Same for Seattle Art Museum- who still owes transit a nice present for premature loss of the Waterfront Streetcar.

        2. Why are you certain current recession won’t be over when Roosevelt Station is built? We’ve barely begun digging to Stadium.

        Word from almost 30 years’ experience with Seattle: if you care about any agency, never give it a blanket pass for inaction on any front. Excuses for inaction are the crack cocaine of Seattle public life. Don’t be an enabler.

        Mark Dublin

      2. Economic growth will take off when the US gets serious about alternative energy. We need to become leaders in making solar panels and wind farms, and we need to install them everywhere (both small-scale at houses and large-scale at utilities) so that we can stop depending on oil. That will generate a lot of GDP in manufacturing and construction jobs. But it’s just limping along now with no sign of an increase, which means the next big spurt of economic growth and low unemployment is also beyond the foreseeable future.

    2. The Northeast Branch library was just expanded and remodeled in 2004. And I don’t see SPL wanting to close down the iconic Green Lake branch which was remodeled at the same time.

  4. Why are they approaching the Roosevelt site differently than the Capitol Hill site? It seems they should apply what they’ve learned developing a TOD plan for Capitol Hill to their other urban station sites like Brooklyn and Roosevelt.

    1. Because it’s not Capitol Hill. Were you at the meeting? Did you read the comments of the people who were at the meeting? People there shat a brick when I asked if the station could be built up to three stories.

      1. Besides, Capitol Hill will also not have anything built on top of the station box other than station entrances. The TOD is around the perimeter of the site, in what is currently the staging areas. The plan for Roosevelt is similar: TOD in the staging area (which is currently the QFC lot), and not on top of the station box.

        Capitol Hill will have an open plaza on the box, while Roosevelt has their “greenhouse” entrances.

    2. They’re approaching it the same way. The leftover land (the QFC) will end up sold for TOD. The buildings we’re taking issue with are just like the station structures on Capitol Hill, but we’re starting to talk about how we should be doing better than that.

    1. Union Square was built in the 19th century as a park. The subway station is a gazebo inside the park, not a glass building. And the NYC subway isn’t afraid of hole-in-the-wall or stairs-in-the-street entrances to the system.

      1. I haven’t been to NYC, but I used to live in Chicago, which has stairs-in-the-street subway entrances. The station is underground but usually not as far underground as the tracks. I thought some earlier discussion said that stairs-in-the-street entrances were more expensive to build because so much of the station had to be underground. Of course, if land values are really high (like the few places in Chicago with subways), it’s worth it. Land values surely just aren’t that high around the Roosevelt station in 2011.

        Keeping on the Chicago train of thought, most of the L station houses are pretty small these days, but most of them are in much denser areas than Roosevelt. When I see the big station house plan I think of Chicago’s Wilson station (on the red line). The current station building was a pretty big one, but at some point most of it was sold off (the story of this station is long: If Roosevelt really does get considerably more dense maybe something similar will happen there 20 or 30 years down the road. It may not be ideal, but the huge station isn’t necessarily forever.

      2. The station is underground but usually not as far underground as the tracks. I thought some earlier discussion said that stairs-in-the-street entrances were more expensive to build because so much of the station had to be underground.

        You can’t build those today. ADA rules require elevators, escalators and the like. Plus, the stairs themselves are dangerous. The absolute closest we can get to is something like this:

        or this:

        both of these have elevators on the other side, and were built twenty years ago when the rules were a lot more lenient than today.

  5. I don’t want to be a broken record, but the main issue with the lack of station development opportunities lie not with Sound Transit but with the City. The upzone proposal is a much more serious problem than the lack of TOD on top of the station.

    1. +1. I wish everyone would take this angst about the acre of wasted station area and direct it at the acres of single-family zoning that will be left in the Roosevelt Urban Village with this upzone.

    2. +1 Totally agree. In the grand scheme of things the zoning around the station is much more important. Real TOD is not just one building. At the very least all TOD plans should include increase densities up to a 1/4 mile away, with additional housing units in the thousands and commercial space in the hundreds of thousands of square feet. That is TOD, not 350 units.

      Case and point, Yesler Terrace. That is TOD minus the regional T.

    3. That’s certainly an issue as well, but those stations are 65 foot land, are they not? We’re missing five stories.

      1. Supposing you were going to get 5 storeys, and not less (station could have high cieling, it looks like 900 feet x 55 feet x 4.25 floor area ratio (my rough estiamtes), plus you might need parking,etc.

        200,000 sq feet total. That’s really not that big a deal.

      2. It’s a big deal when you change Sound Transit’s process and they build to the height limits at all their future stations as well. This is about fixing that problem more than it’s about Roosevelt specifically.

      3. No it’s not. It’s not even close to a big deal. Every station north of Roosevelt will likely be elevated, as will every station to the south, and they will be located in places where property values aren’t remotely close to high enough to justify building up enough to make it pencil out. On the Eastside, only the Bed-Red corridor has real TOD potential, and I think those stations will be in the street or elevated.

      4. Then why are we building in those places at all, Bruce? If the property values don’t justify building the kind of density for which subway-grade light rail is warranted, why not just truncate the lines and build in places where we can actually get density?

      5. Bruce makes a great point. How many more subway stations are we expecting? I’m counting two —— at most!

        It’s not worth worrying about when there’s so many other more important fights.

        Kyle – google “subarea equity”, read all of that, and them come back

    4. I dunno, there’s no reason they have to be mutually exclusive issues, and griping about one doesn’t necessarily reflect a failure to understand the greater importance of the other.

      1. And I’m totally with you on that front. I just want the stations themselves to be vibrant, active spaces as well. Well, either vibrant and active or minimalist like the Pioneer Square and University Street stations you linked to above.

  6. This issue is a consequence of ST’s desire to use commercial entrances for subway platforms. They may have some good reasons for doing so, but clearly they haven’t assumed or delegated the full responsibility of this decision. Other subway systems get around this issue by putting station entrances on the sidewalk.

    If ST wants to continue this policy, it should draft some guidelines to lease or sell the airspace above a station to a developer. After the station is built something could be constructed on top of it. I know this sounds easy but many details would need to be worked out in advance.

    1. Jack, I think you misunderstand the issue. Nobody’s putting station entrances on the sidewalk today – ADA was a long time ago.

      1. Ben,

        I don’t misunderstand. I’m was stating that other (should have said older) subway systems don’t have this particular issue because their entrances are often on the sidewalk.

        I’m also stating that ST should do a more complete job with commercial entrances to platforms by drafting guidelines for TOD above their stations.

    1. You clearly didn’t read the article. They state that they didn’t analyze it.

      1. Well, analyze in the sense of coming to the simple conclusion that if there are half vacant mid rise buildings nearby, it probably doesn’t make sense to add more, since density overall depresses an area by causing crime and congestion and doesn’t allow the free flow of personal transit…which is what most citizens desire.

      2. There aren’t any half vacant midrise buildings nearby. Please stop making things up, it doesn’t help.

      3. I did read the article…did you?

        With a six story mixed use building adjacent to them on one side, and a developer who’d like to build 12-15 stories on the other side of the street

        Vacancy rates in Seattle are fantastically high…and here they are not only have one high rise, but they want to build another.

        The last thing they would want is for the government to add yet more competitive space in a zone that has yet to prove its capacity to digest density!!

  7. When I read this post, I have a feeling analogous to what I get when I encounter young, fit, often spandex-clad bike activists who insist that if we just spent a bunch of money on bike lanes there would suddenly be a mass efflux of people — young, old, fat, thin, lawyers, car mechanics, everyone — from their cars. This belief I find so extraordinarily naive that I think it can only be ascribed to living mostly in social circles comprised of young, fit, bike enthusiasts who’ve chosen jobs where either casual attire is acceptable or showers and lockers are provided. It’s a totally unrealistic expectation when applied to the entire population. This does not mean that we shouldn’t build bike infrastructure, but we should do it with reasonable expectations of what we’re getting.

    Similarly, Ben, you live in Belltown among highrises (as do I) and presumably you love that environment and want to see more of it (as do I), but that doesn’t mean everyone else wants to. Part of it may be baseless fear of crime or poverty or whatever, part of it is a general antipathy to change, and while those things may be stupid, it’s an error of tactics to inflame those fears or too stridently attack them.

    Moreover, lots of people prefer a less-built aesthetic with fewer highrises and a bit more green space, and other cities provide examples of how that taste can be accommodated in a way that’s compatible with enough density to support widespread transit use and walkability and carless living. We shouldn’t need to pick fights and demand highrises on or around stations to get the benefits of TOD.

    Most importantly, though, it’s a massive error of strategy to mix Sound Transit up in land use issues. If ST becomes — or allows itself to be portrayed as — the big bad agency that wants to come in and build highrises in your suburban backyard, that will galvanize much broader opposition than we’ve seen to anything so far, and be disastrous for ST’s real mission, which is to build a regional transit system. That is what voters asked ST to do — not built iconic highrises, and especially not in places where people don’t actually want them — and their success or failure in doing what voters told them to in ST2 will determine how ST3 fares.

    It’s a shame that many voters don’t like high density living — and many who think it would suck would probably like it if they tried it — but that doesn’t mean we should shove highrises down their throats. We should be pushing more gradual land use changes that get many of the same benefits but are more palatable in neighborhoods outside the city center. And it’s simply false that ST3 will stand or fall by whether or not highrises get built on station boxes or not; in fact, the situation is exactly to the contrary.

    1. I agree with you about not focusing on high-rises. The Thornton Creek development in the Northgate area has about 500 units or so (including retirement units), 100,000+ sq ft of commercial (I’m not sure how much, but there’s a 15 screen theatre and about a half-dozen storefronts), and open space on a little more than an acre of land all with just 85′ zoning.

      If you made a project that large out to a square mile you could accommodate 320,000 people (assuming I did my math right). So you don’t need highrises to have serious density. But you do need dense zoning. You can’t say 40′ and a 2.75 floor-area-ratio and get your money’s worth out of the transit system.

  8. Nothing wrong with a “suburban type station”. Maybe a bit refreshing. Such as an oasis in a desert. Or a drain in a quagmire of humanity…

  9. Can they build an extra strong foundation and then sell the air rights and a few feet on either side so that a developer could build around and above the station?

    Or spec out the space needed for a station and then have a developer build it into their building and then lease it back from them?

    1. I asked this at the meeting. In order to get a useable largely-unbroken plot for development like that, you’d have to dig the station box deeper and build it more strongly. i.e., it would cost money that ST doesn’t have. The value of the land above wouldn’t offset the considerable additional cost unless the building was very large.

      As I’ve been trying to explain in the last two comment threads about Roosevelt, when you boil down the technical and economic requirements, you basically have to build big or just build a station. And it’ll be very obvious if you go to the meetings, that building big ain’t gonna fly in this neighborhood. So ST is building a station. That’s all there is to it.

      And let us not forget, the original plan was a freeway station at 65th.

      1. Bruce, I wonder what it would cost ST to contract out statistically legitimate polling services. I don’t believe for a second the folks attending these things remotely reflect their community as a whole. I’d love for ST to be able to say to the NIMBY’s in attendance (and the politicians representing those NIMBYs), “Actually, 66% of your community supports dense multiuse development within 1/4 mile of the station, +/-2%.” Obviously cost prohibitive for most projects, but when you’ve only got a handful of stations between UW and Lynnwood and the character of a multi-billion dollar investment hangs in the balance…

      2. I’d love for ST to be able to say to the NIMBY’s in attendance (and the politicians representing those NIMBYs), “Actually, 66% of your community supports dense multiuse development within 1/4 mile of the station

        I’m sure you’d love to be able to say it but it’s not true. NIMBYs as you like to use as a derogatory stereotype are actually the people in the neighborhood that are taking the time to make government work. They’re the people that aren’t paid to campaign and aren’t signing “me too” letters supporting an ideal without knowing any of the specifics or bearing any of the consequence.

      3. Good grief, Bernie, get off your high horse. No one here needs you to define NIMBY for them.

        You have absolutely no idea if it’s true. But anyone who has spent any time at all in or around or covering local government knows damn well the people who attend these kind of public meetings trend conservative and are disproportionately anti-growth. You know, NIMBYs.

  10. The solution is extremely simple:
    Condominiumize the site I.e. Divide it into whatever ST needs and then sell off –in cash — the air rights.
    ST is insulated by having been paid and by the design/construction of functionally separate spaces.

    1. Have you read any of the previous discussions of this subject, or did you attend the meetings and discuss this possibility with the engineers there?

      1. I am new to this discussion but I know development and it’s quite possible to have a station and reserve air rights as the market demands.

        It is preposterous that ST and the City are not doing so. Pure laziness and lack of imagination.

      2. Any construction would have to be done at the same time as the station. They can’t come back down the road, shutdown the station, rip off the roof and then start building condos. ST has enough on their plate just designing and getting approvals as it is. Try selling the public on a building that looks half finished because someone has the rights to come back and develop it later. Plus you’d have to stub in all the plumbing, sewer and electrical at the outset without really knowing what or when the project gets finished. In the end ST would make very little. You only make money on projects if you put up the risk capital to build them and you only make money on land if you buy and hold (except during the last few years of the real estate bubble). There’s lots of develop-able land all around the station. If someone see’s an opportunity to build why would they want to give up their first floor retail space, not to mention design around ventilation shafts. to build over the station instead of just building next door? The only way I could see this working is if some organization like SHAG or ARCH step up with the money to build subsidized housing. Low income would be a really hard sell but they could maybe get through a limited amount of senior housing. But again ST isn’t going to net much if anything out of the deal but accepts a lot of additional headache and risk.

    2. Yeah, condo developments are really hot right now. I’m sure students at the HS would be lining up to buy them. It’s so simple!

      1. I did not say sell condos.
        I said divide site and sell off air rights, probably as a condominium.

        If you don’t understand, there is much research you can do on the web.

  11. Btw you have the sme issue with the Seattle Libraries.
    Look at the suburban-style library at Northgate.
    It’s like something from some outer suburb and could have been a neat mixed-use project.

    As to cost of the extra foundation at Roosevelt –yes it would require more coordination and ST has of course been barely able to do its primary job. Just another lost opportunity.

      1. Again again again again. Repeat after me: height limits are not density.

        Downtown bellevue might look dense from a few miles away, but no one would confuse that for Ballard, much less Capitol Hill or the U-D.

        Density != Tall buildings!

        Density == high floor area ratios

      2. Come to think of it, several metro entrances in Moscow and St Petersburg are in their own little building like Beacon Hill. Prospekt Mira in Moscow, and several on the Moskovskaya-Petrogradskaya line in St Petersburg. They’re still walkable dense neighborhoods even though the metro entrances are all alone. (Often there’s a bunch of kiosks in a plaza outside the station so people can shop on their way home, but some of the stations are just alone.)

    1. Libraries don’t have to be in mixed use buildings. They just have to be within walking distance of the neighborhood center. And preferably not have a sea of grass around them with steps up to the door (Columbia City, University).

  12. I hope this is not too off-topic, but I wanted to offer a simple critique of the “no net loss on-site of affordable housing” proposal by John Fox and city council candidate Michael Taylor-Judd. It may not be relevant to any of the stations inside Seattle, but I’d expect a similar policy to be advocated for anywhere in the ST district where someone currently has a residence, and faces eminent domain for station construction. It might also be exemplary of other local requests that defy logic, and that ST has to put up with.

    With a “no net loss on site” policy, the people being displaced have to move not once, but twice. Take out the “on site”, and they only have to move once. As someone who has been forced to move a couple times for reasons of the place where I was living being converted, I have to say, moving sucks. Being forced to move twice sucks twice as much. Candidate Taylor-Judd, if you are reading this, do you have a good response?

    So, sometimes policies used against eminent domain for public purposes sound good on paper from a *philosophical* standpoint, but don’t make sense in practice. And you can be sure John Fox has been quite critical of other Link stations even when displacement of renters wasn’t an issue, and has been doing all he can to prevent the construction of new affordable housing around rail stations. Michael, John Fox is just flat-out againt light rail, and really not much help in increasing the supply of affordable housing, either. Please reconsider your position on “no net loss on site”. I really want to be able to vote for you. Other than “no net loss on site”, you sound like the only decent candidate in your race.

    1. Of course I’m reading this, Brent! I’m on the site all the time… :-)

      A “no net loss on site” policy wouldn’t REQUIRE anyone to move back on site. One of the reasons for the proposal regarding Yesler Terrace is that a number of community members there would like to CHOOSE to come back and re-establish or maintain their community in some fashion.

      Having said that, I believe Yesler Terrace has some unique concerns. I would not advocate this policy for general use across the city or elsewhere. One reason is that Yesler currently exists as 100% low-income housing and the redevelopment is being headed by the Seattle Housing Authority. This is a very different circumstance than taking over a residence in order to build a transit station. Currently, transit authorities here do not develop residential or commercial use spaces. Another reason I support this policy at Yesler is because of the unique historical significance of the site as the first housing project of its kind in the country and our unique opportunity to leverage private demand for this next-to-Downtown land to make money to build better or more affordable housing units. Finally, I believe we need to make better distinctions in Seattle between categories like ‘workforce housing,’ low income housing, and very low income housing. With Yesler, I am specifically concerned about maintaining housing for folks under the 30-40% median income threshhold. I applaud the desire of SHA to offer more affordable housing in the redevelopment, but I think we can do better with this project to truly create a new neighborhood with a diverse mix of all income levels right next to Downtown.

      Just because John Fox and I disagree on many other issues doesn’t mean we cannot work together on this one. One of the reasons I am running for City Council is because we need elected leaders who spend less time fighting in the media over issues of disagreement and more time working together on the issues we have in common. I disagree with a number of City Councilmembers — especially on the tunnel — but I know I can work with several of them on the 50%, 75%, 85% of issues that we do agree on because I have been lobbying and working with some of them for years now.

  13. Ben, the more I re-read ‘It makes sense that they wouldn’t do an economic analysis, because the chances are vanishingly small that it would show them anything other than “don’t build anything but the station.” ‘ the more astonished I am.

    How can you or ST be so sire unless there is an economic analysis? The presumption boggles the mind. If there is a generic one, then please show us the numbers.

  14. the Sucher suggestion makes sense. the current ST plan places some Link functions above ground. it would probably be more costly to place them under ground in order for the development air rights to be as large as possible. there is a trade off to be studied.

    the underlying Seattle zoning is another related issue. should there be an upzone? I hope there is one at all the Link stations. time is quite short for the Capitol Hill station.

  15. I run feasibility analyses for a living. Under any reasonable set of site conditions (e.g., no need to build very usual structural systems due to the presence of the station), development is feasible at some land price in that location. Not only that, but ST is probably missing out on $20k/unit (at minimum) in land revenues here. Not a ton for ST, but still substantive.

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