A recent and rich study, by Needham Hurst “How Does Light Rail Transit Affect Urban Land Use?” takes a close look at how land use changed around light rail stations in Minneapolis over the last decade. The study confirms the obvious: light rail transforms land use patterns, promoting the development of vacant and underutilized land. Light rail stations also boost demand for housing and commercial space and contribute to an overall transformation of the built environment.
Tonight the Seattle City Council will consider land use changes in the Roosevelt neighborhood, where a new Link Light Rail station is planned. What’s at stake in Roosevelt is the future of light rail in Seattle. Until now, the course of land use decisions in station areas has trended toward conservative and incremental change when there has been change at all.
Hurst’s work confirms many of the suspicions of “density freaks” that see the opportunity to channel growth into a tight circle around transit stations, especially areas with vacant land like Roosevelt:
Vacant land experienced the highest magnitude and radius of LRT’s effect. Vacant land was the first type of property to be converted to denser uses—indicating the Hiawatha Line increased the marginal accessibility of properties enough to generate higher housing demand, high prices, and which in turn incentivized development on vacant properties.
In Roosevelt there is a panhandle of vacant and derelict land that extends from the station area entrance for a few blocks east, paralleling the high school and 65th. Neighbors justifiably upset with the owner of the panhandle are bitterly opposed to his realizing a profit from turning those properties into mixed-use development. More after the jump.
Hurst’s study points out that a light rail station is going to drive demand for developed property enough that previously vacant or derelict property, like the properties being discussed in Roosevelt, is going to be far more profitable built out than vacant.
Hurst found that high prices created by scarce housing “incentivized development on vacant properties.” Why is that? Basic economics has the answer, when housing is scarce price goes up, when price goes up so does profitability. When profits are high more people want to build. When building happens supply keeps up or exceeds demand. When demand exceeds supply prices go down. Simply put, more housing can lead to lower prices.
And the problem with the discussion about Roosevelt is that nobody is talking about the basic and proven idea that people want to live next to transit stations. Growth around transit means good things for existing property owners (yes, even single family property owners) and for ridership. And the sure way to prevent development from being to pricey is to allow more of it. This is how it works.
But instead of opening the floodgates to growth around light rail stations, Seattle’s discussion continues to center on the height of buildings on a few lots in Roosevelt and the angst generated by possibly putting a few extra dollars in somebody’s pocket. Instead of excitedly planning a big upsurge in density and growth in the neighborhood, we’re arguing, literally, over 20 feet of additional height.
Light rail can transform our city, making it more sustainable with job creating density. But we just have to get out of the way. What we need isn’t a comprehensive study of the real estate market, but a fundamental change in attitude. Growth is good. Density does good all by itself.
One more quote from Hurst’s study:
[Light Rail Transit] does have a strong effect on vacant properties and encourages urban infill. Area with mixed-use land use patterns, higher population density, lower-income residents and older structures experienced the most land use change because of LRT. Proximity to the central business district also had a strong effect on probability of change. Complementary policies like rezoning had a small but significant positive effect on land use change, although the political economy of rezonings and neighborhood opposition needs to be studied further.
The big research question now is not “what is the right thing to do?” with density around light rail stations, but “why aren’t we doing it?”