Roosevelt Night Life (Photo by author)

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.

43 Replies to “Amend Seattle’s land use code to get real Transit Oriented Development”

  1. “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.”

    Unfortunately wordpress and other do it yourself blog sites are blocked here, so I can’t pull up the quote, but Glenn… something I think it starts with an R, one of the loudest Roosevelt NIMBYs said exactly that in one of our back and forths on your blog. That housing prices didn’t need to be lowered because living in the city was a ‘privilege’ that comes from hard work and savings.

    1. In my experience, any discussion of TOD inevitably turns into an argument about why Uncle Jim with his 3 kids in North Bend would never live in an apartment in Roosevelt vs. whether he would have chosen a split-level in Kirkland and a Kirkland family would have chosen a bungalow in Wallingford and a Wallingford couple would choose a Roosevelt apartment instead of their bungalow.

      Note that if the Uncle Jim argument is right (which I don’t think it is, but that’s an aside), then single-family homeowners *do* benefit from TOD, because some non-zero number of single-family houses would be replaced with apartments, decreasing the overall supply of single-family houses.

    2. Yes. Glenn is a real estate agent, and has argued against making housing affordable. He’s also claimed the Roosevelt upzone triples capacity, which is wrong by a factor of 30 (the actual proposed upzone is just 10%).

      1. I would add the his arguments are quite stunningly bad, as get be seen from the current top post on his blog, and his attitudes to density advocates were made clear in a discussion of this subject on on Publicola, where he dismissed comments from pro-density commenters, saying most of them didn’t own property and their opinions were thus of little value.

        It’s funny, because unlike virtually everybody else on this blog, I’ve actually met with Jim O’Halleran and the RNA, and I have a lot of sympathy for their complaints and the way they’ve been treated by the city, but every time I read Reynold’s blog, I fly into a fit of rage and want to bulldoze the entire urban village and build the Burj Khalifa on it.

      2. Yes, turns out I can use ‘quota time’ to access wordpress. Used 10 minutes and went and found the quote I was looking for:

        “But, by limiting housing, values rise, those who can afford to, live close in, those who can’t need to commute. Density will occur naturally when the land is so valuable that each acre requires 20-50 units to justify the cost. Building 30 units per acre because of what might happen in the future is a ludicrous idea.
        High paying jobs are what is driving Seattle’s economy.
        High paying jobs drive Seattle’s economy. Living here is a reward for working hard and”

  2. It’s also not quite true that “every” future stop has this problem. Northgate has tons of buildable space owned by commercial or public entities, who tend to take a more pragmatic view of zoning.

    1. Kent Station puts that picture to shame.

      We have hundreds of people there promenading all day.

      (Of course, we have a lot of free parking and shops people want to buy from as well…and a big ass outdoor fireplace!)

      1. Yes, Kent station is probably the best suburban Sounder station. I don’t know of anyone who would actually bother going there, but I’m sure the locals enjoy it.

      2. Is there anything in that property adjacent to the west platform that looks like an old grain tower?

      3. @Jim Cusick —

        Not that I’ve ever seen and I’ve always been fascinated by it.

        The whole station has a kind of “agrarian” theme to it based on that building…you can see it reflected in some of the corrugated aluminum panels at the station…and the sky bridge reminds me somewhat of a grain chute (or maybe a cattle gate…ultimate irony!)

      4. @barman

        “I don’t know of anyone who would actually bother going there, but I’m sure the locals enjoy it.”

        I believe that at any given time there are many (many) more people around Kent Station and the Plaza then there are at the International District plaza…so, we got them urbists beat.

      5. I’m glad Kent Station is successful, but it is absolutely irrelevant to this discussion.

    2. Reason #57 to build light rail in places where TOD makes the most sense. So, please please please Sound Transit: put a light rail station at 130th & Aurora instead of 145th & I-5. Why get into a fight with the single family home neighborhood by I-5, when I swear the neighborhood will throw you a parade when they see TOD built at 130th & Aurora to replace the Hooker Magnet, I mean, the abandoned car dealership. (Seriously, is there a better metaphor for moving into the 21st century than replacing an abandoned car dealership with a light rail station and TOD?) And frankly, my near-Aurora SF home’s property values can only go up from having a light rail station within walking distance instead of a Hooker Magnet. Not that that’s a deal-breaker for me, since if the light rail comes, I’d never consider moving…but the rest of the neighbors would be happy.

  3. I would suggest we all take a long look at what happened to the real estate market in Ballard when voters approved the monorail project. There was an explosion of new construction along the proposed line. Many single family properties were up-zoned into tall, skinny multiple family housing groups and some large apartment/condo projects were built close to the proposed monorail alignment. But some large properties–like Denny’s and the bowling alley site–were razed and replaced with chain link fencing and 4×8 plywood “Notice of Proposed Land Use Action” signs. Some of the progress in Ballard has been good, but some of the progress has been horrible. What did the City do to encourage the good projects and how can the City and local citizens prevent the bad results from being replicated along the Link line?

    1. Was there a Ballard upzone associated with the Monorail? I don’t remember that. I thought all the development potential was there but unused until Ballard became cool in the last decade.

      1. That is correct.
        The Seattle Monorail Project said it could attract 69k daily riders simply by building out the density that was already in the landuse code.

    2. Weren’t Denny’s and the bowling alley taken out for the monorail itself? So they’re not comparable to the other private developments. The problem was that the monorail was halted before anything could be built at the Denny’s, so it remained empty for years, although now I think something is either there or is being built.

      1. Denny’s was torn down for a condo project that tanked. And I’m pretty sure that was long after the Monorail had tanked. The Monorail may have wanted the property too but it never got to the point of tearing anything down; although it did buy out and ruin a business or two. There was some activism to try and have the Denny’s building declared historic and thereby save it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see apartments going in on that site now instead of condos although you’d think it would be a great mixed use site.

      2. Most apartments going up in Seattle now are mixed use — ground floor retail/small office with residential above and below-grade parking.

      3. Yup, oodles and oodles of below-grade parking. With all the gale-force exhaust fans and gaping garage ramps and unappealing frontage that entails.

        Gotta love West Coast Density™. Parking guarantees because the transit is inadequate; inadequate transit because everybody drives.

      4. All that Denny’s controversy (it was a fine example of the “Googie” style!) and the bowling alley being torn down definitely happened well after the monorail went down. Ballard was upzoned long ago and has been a great place for development ever since. It is in that sweet spot of being in the city, but not right in the middle of everything, much like West Seattle. It also has one of the best-preserved historic streets in the city. Also, despite the need for future high-capacity transit, Ballard actually has very good transit service. The 15, 17, and 18 (plus expresses) all going downtown with good frequency, the 44 to the U District, and the 75 to Northgate. The point is that Ballard is developing just fine, and those 2 properties didn’t develop because the recession hit and put a lot of projects on hold. That block of Pine in Capitol Hill sat empty for almost 4 years.

        The area that could use more development is on Leary between Fremont and Ballard, which is why the streetcar would be so valuable on that stretch. The presence of a streetcar might also encourage developers and the banks that finance them to not include so much parking.

      5. I had to google Googie but I don’t think the Denny’s fit’s that genre. It was more like NW native fused with 60’s modern. Wasn’t a bad building but not a museum piece. Of course I’m of the opinion the Guggenheim as a building would be better preserved in pictures.

      6. Hey, it was the landmark board that said it was a Googie, not me. Funny how they declared it a landmark, then it was immediately torn down.

      7. My recollection is that the Monorail bought the Denny’s property, and then had to sell it within a year or two when the Monorail was dissolved. You’re right that the building was still intact, but the opportunity to keep the restaurant or revive the restaurant had passed. Denny’s wasn’t going to repurchase a building that was clearly obsolete in its location, the developer probably offered more money, and that was that.

    3. You’ll find big holes in the ground all over the city. For example the Vitamilk site in Greenlake. Hopefully the demand for rentals will cause most of these stalled projects to resume.

  4. I’d rather not have the towers surrounded by cow fields, BC style development. Hopefully Seattle can do it a better way.

      1. I’m not an expert, but I don’t think the SkyTrain style development is very attractive. I used to live in Toronto and the far end of the subway lines had similar development. Skyscrapers on one block, single family housing on the next. Sort of like Bellevue, but more pronounced.

    1. Cow fields, not likely. When the Skytrain only went to Scott Road, I visited a church a few times in Cloverdale south of there, on highway 15 going to the border. Cloverdale was still semi-rural in the early 90s. But now it has new homes galore. The Skytrain was being extended to Whalley (now Surrey Central station), and they had built a city center around it (a “remote downtown” as they called it at the time). I’m not 100% sure the current terminus (King George) is the same, but I doubt there are any cow fields around it.

    2. Agreed. Vancouver has gotten a lot of density around transit stations, but it comes at the expense of any sort of human scale. It’s all a bit Metropolis. The neighborhoods in Vancouver that actually seem like good places to live are the streets with frequent trolleybus service that are a mix of apartment buildings and houses. Towers are also less “green” (anything higher than mid-rise and you start getting very inefficient at heating and cooling), and less affordable (the main reason developers like towers is that the higher floors command premium prices). I would rather see a wider area of mid-rise mixed-use around transit stations than a small area of “towers in the park,” but of course that would mean taking more single-family area in most cases. We can’t have that, can we?

  5. “If housing is in short supply, then those who already own it benefit by keeping that supply limited…”

    Yes, but we can always build more…in places other than Seattle.

    And use “Transit” for what is supposed to be used for … Transportation!!

    Density is the opposite of Transit.

    If you have good transit, you don’t need Density.

    If you have Density, you don’t need (that good) transit.

    1. I would say that density does not decrease the need for good transit, but rather it allows transit to be more efficient. If an area is really walkable and everything people need in their daily lives are in walking distance, then transit can focus more on neighborhood-to-neighborhood connections rather than the milk runs. If more people live close to work (like if people live downtown), then the transit there can focus more on the local-stop service and not have to worry as much about commuting. Density also allows transit to be successful in terms of sheer ridership.

    2. I would say that JB has been contradicting himself the past few weeks. One day he says he wants more transit in the outskirts, another day he opposes the $20 fee that would have provided it, another day he says transit is an urban thing and doesn’t belong in exurban areas. We can’t both increase and decrease bus service at the same time.

  6. It would be interesting if someone actually tried talking to the property owner of the site(s) adjacent to the Beacon Hill Station to ask what his plans are. But that would be much more difficult than writing the same whiny tomes over and over unencumbered by actual facts. It would be akin to – gasp – journalism.

    If anyone could actually reach the property owner they’d find out the same thing ST and COS have run into for years. The owner has zero interest in deveoping the land or working with anyone to make something happen there – especially in the middle of a recession. It’s essentially a “trust lot” that will like fallow until someone dies. Can changing land use codes force recalcitrant property owners do something they have no interest in, regardless of the obvious opportunities?

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