With U-Link coming online by the end of 2016, rail will serve some of our densest neighborhoods as well as one of the largest employment centers in the region. To date, however, most of our attention has been absorbed by development opportunities and disputes further up around other North Link stations. While the UW Station area is a less than ideal candidate for a dense interconnected grid of mixed-use development, it does provide a unique opportunity to reviving what has been a traditionally an auto-dominant area.
Because the station will be located just to the south of Husky Stadium and Montlake Triangle, a significant TOD barrier rests in the fact that the area’s immediate vicinity is all University-owned land, comprised of medical, athletic, and recreational facilities. These are, by no means, small buildings, and the local geography and street network alone create irregularities in subdivision potential. There are also major institutional hurdles to jump when even considering breaking up large tracts of University land for private development.
More below the jump.
The only opportunity we can really extract from UW Station lies just a little beyond a half-mile to the north– the Montlake E-1 parking lot– the largest surface parking lot in the city by any margin. At least for the southern half of the lot, a half-mile to a mile walking distance to the station isn’t unreasonable, given the ability of students to hoof it for miles across campus each day. The biggest restrictions to development, however, are site geography, lack of a real street grid, and real concerns over the potential impacts to proximate wetlands to the east.
It’s expected that any development proposal of this magnitude would naturally draw the ire of the University, which seems strongly married with the belief in retaining every space in E-1 for car use alone. But consider this: the average weekday utilization in E-1 is significantly less than half the lot’s capacity. In fact, complete lot counts done across October of last year reveal that the average weekday utilization rate was 26.7%— a whopping 2264 spaces left unused*. Depending on how calculations are carried out, that amounts to around ten acres of land (including vehicle circulation), by my estimate.
By comparison, a typical block downtown is about 2 acres, which means that the amount of unused land in the E-1 lot can fit as many as five downtown Seattle blocks. The low utilization rate shouldn’t come as a big surprise, given the relative proximity to campus as well as UW’s aggressive commute-trip reduction and transportation demand management programs. Major events, of course, are an exception– football games and events like graduation do fill up the lot, largely because weekend transit options serving Montlake are shoddy at best.
After U-Link is completed, a significant amount of capacity will be added and demand absorbed by transit, subsequently lessening the demand for parking, especially on event days. For a sizable area of the E-1 lot, you can probably think of higher and better uses than car storage, starting with the lot’s subdivision, a pedestrian grid, and better connections over Montlake to the UW campus. Selling off subdivision tracts to private developers, however, would admittedly be a monstrous challenge over the University building the housing itself.
Nonetheless, with rapid transit on the horizon and acres of land sitting unused, an opportunity like this is worth at least feasibility study. For the University not to take advantage of one of this region’s biggest investments would be a big shame.
*Data from UW Commuter Services.