This summer has been good for land use and transit in Seattle largely because of the discussion—some would say argument—over appropriate density around the Roosevelt station area. Wednesday this week is a big day for Roosevelt, the Seattle City Council’s Committee on the Built Environment (COBE) is having a hearing on the subject and later that day Leadership for Great Neighborhoods is having a brown bag lunch discussion. The discussion in both places ought to include something about amending Seattle’s toothless station area overlay designation in its land use code.
Seattle hasn’t encouraged or even allowed true Transit Oriented Development. Any visitor to Beacon Hill will attest to the bizarre sight of a light rail station sticking out of the ground like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other station areas have yet to deliver on the promise of dense, walkable, housing and retail built around light rail stops. Why does Seattle lag so far behind places like British Columbia and Vancouver where there is lots of new housing around light rail?
Part of the problem is our single-family focused culture and economy. It’s easy to forget that one big private property interest in Seattle is single-family homeowners who benefit from attenuating the supply of housing. That’s not a slur, but a simple economic point. If housing is in short supply, then those who already own it benefit by keeping that supply limited. Diminished supply and increasing demand means existing homeowners can watch their property values increase.
Another reason is our land use code. Each and every stop along light rail will force a fight between vested single-family interests clinging to the status quo, and “outsiders” who are advocating for appropriate land use to fit the massive investment the region has made in light rail. Amending the code to give more TOD teeth to chapter 23.61 of the code, the chapter that covers land use around light rail stations—would be a great start in having that argument once and for all station areas in Seattle.
But I don’t think that simply mandating big heights and FAR at all station areas is what we should do. One size does not fit all when it comes to well planned and executed TOD. The answer is to let the housing market and design set the standard rather than arbitrary height limits. Amending 23.61 of the Seattle Municipal Code to encourage what I have called Zero Based Zoning and others have called Form Based Code, is the best place to start. Loosing code restrictions to allow proposals for what works rather than slavish adherence to code language that tries to prevent bad things could produce good results for everyone.
Development around light rail stations in Seattle should match the economic potential of the years ahead and the land use code should reflect not just the economic interests today’s vocal private property interests. Instead the City ought to consider the people who will be living here in the future. Loosening restrictions around light rail stations could make Seattle a regional leader in making light rail work through an open minded, future focused approach to TOD rather than one based on the fears of the moment. Seattle should have that discussion now when it amends chapter 23.61 of the land use code.
Neighborhood and Station Area Planning Brown Bag Forum
Wednesday, August 10 at Noon
GGLO, Harbor Steps (1301 First Avenue, Suite 301)
Seattle City Council Committee on the Built Environment
Council Chambers City Hall
Wednesday, August 10, 2011 9:30 a.m.