SEATTLE--113 lv Mt. Baker Station OB

Across the region, there is a conversation going on about what the area around the new light rail stations will look like. Will cities upzone and encourage more dense development to maximize the use of the stations, or will they leave things as-is? It is helpful to look back at ST1 stations and see how upzoning affected the development around the stations. The area around Mt Baker station has some lessons for everyone as ST2 continues and ST3 gestates.

Mt. Baker has had two upzones in 15 years. The first, in 2001, was a standard rezone for a light rail station. A more recent rezone in 2014 sent potential building heights even higher.

First, let’s look at the success. Mt. Baker station borders a 2 year old mixed use building, with 56 residences and ground floor retail, with artists getting preference for leases: how Seattle is that? Mt. Baker Lofts is the type of development that transit experts advocate for when they push for Transit Oriented development. Unfortunately, that’s it for anything approaching ideal.

The big employer in the area is the UW Consolidated Laundry Facility, a 65,000 square foot facility with room for parking that launders all of the medical clothing the university uses. It’s certainly a necessary service, but hardly an ideal use of valuable space around a valuable light rail station. Everything else around the station is low rise retail. A Lowe’s, QFC, and RiteAid all have huge surface parking lots. Franklin High School is a typical Seattle high school. A few abandoned buildings and fenced off lots are sprinkled between 1 story buildings that house banks, an auto parts store, a gas station, a pawn shop, restaurant and a laundromat. The only new building under construction  is hardly mixed use: it is a underground water storage tank to help better manage Seattle’s stormwater.

To its credit, the City of Seattle sees a problem. The city funded North Rainier Urban Village Assessment concluded last year:

The North Rainier Urban Village, particularly the area surrounding the Mt. Baker Light Rail Station, has not advanced towards the vision of the North Rainier Neighborhood Plan of 1999. Rather than a thriving town center, the station area is defined by vacant lots and auto-oriented uses and lacks a defined character and sense of place


What’s the problem at Mt. Baker Station?

I reached out to Steven Shain from the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development. He explained that other south Seattle stations such as Othello and Columbia City already had a “tighter development pattern at the station” even before the light rail line came in. So the stations might have accelerated what was happening in the market anyway.   On the other hand,  Mt. Baker Station had a history of automobile oriented development and it takes a very long time for things to change. The current development pattern dates from the demise of Sick’s Stadium back in 1979 — which transformed the area from a baseball stadium and parking to the variety of businesses now there.

Shain said that many of the large parcels near the station have long term leases.e Een if the market said it is a great idea to build a 10 story building right now, it would be very expensive to break a lease to make that happen. Even then, the process of development a large project takes years. The development you are seeing now might reflect what the market was saying in 2010 or even 2005.

Why not just leave things to the market?

The Mt. Baker Station is a public investment in the Rainier Valley. By letting the station area continue to exist as it is, we’re getting a low return on the millions of dollars spent on the station and the light rail line in general. The city has spoken clearly that it wants density in the area, it just hasn’t happened yet.

How do you fix Mt. Baker Station?

  • Implement the city-funded study recommendations: The North Rainier Urban Village Assessment had three recommendations to help fix the Mt. Baker problems: Integrate City Functions Necessary to the Execution of the Urban Village Plans, Improve Capacity to Assess Needs and Prioritize Investments Across Urban Villages, and Increase Private Sector Partnerships. They are all good ideas, but none of them lead directly to a new building beginning construction. 
  • Implement Accessible Mt. Baker now.  Last year’s report on the timeline of the MLK/Rainier section improvements had no definitive timeline. What can the city do to speed up this project? Fixing the intersection of these two busy roads won’t build density, but it will show developers the city is prioritizing the area and make it a more pleasant place to live.
  • Engage the Public agencies involved in land ownership near the station. In its report, the city suggests public-private partnerships to make Mt. Baker better. In fact, much of the land near the station is owned by public entities, so perhaps a “public-public partnership” might be more helpful. You can’t make QFC or Lowe’s move or rebuild as a mixed use project, but you can engage with UW and Seattle Public Schools. Both hold a lot of land near the station. Could the city pay UW to relocate or pay SPS to move Franklin High School’s track?  Then, the city would own land that it could sell to a developer who is interested in mixed use. UW and Seattle Public Schools don’t have a reenergized Mt. Baker Station as part of their mission, but is there something the city can do to help UW or Seattle Public Schools with their mission and organize a trade of sorts? Organize a meeting between the public players, make it clear that Seattle values a bustling Mt. Baker streetscape, and find out what issues UW and SPS have that Seattle can help with. 
  • Work with the Property Assessor’s office to be sure land in the Mt. Baker Walkshed is valued properly. The property assessor has a tough job: value all land in the city accurately every year.  If the values come up, it cost more in property taxes, which makes development more likely. That’s why there are no more farms in Issaquah — the land is worth too much to farm both in perceived value and taxes due every year. The land near MLK and Rainier may be too valuable for a pawn shop. Hopefully the assessor’s office would be the nudge to get the owner’s attention and some outreach from the city could help make that happen.  The city would need to walk a fine line here — getting too involved in property valuations is going to cause some conflict, but I can’t see the harm in bringing the issue to the attention of the assessor.

37 Replies to “Transit Oriented Development at Mt. Baker Station”

  1. There are a couple of significant apartment projects near Mt Baker Station that have re-awakened in the permitting process recently (namely 2615 and 2715 25th Ave S). There are smaller ones nearby too but yes – there could be a lot more. You can check out details at the map I maintain.

    There’s currently a single family house in permitting that’s literally across the street from the Columbia City Station (also on the map). This is just west of the station where I recall the Seattle 2035 plan suggests a way overdue upzone from SF.

  2. I think recent history shows that Rite-Aid, US Bank and QFC will gladly move into TOD buildings–build them and they will come. Lowe’s will always need parking if they remain at that location and the 2 gas stations across the street from the light rail station will probably require extensive environmental remediation work before anything can be built on top of those sites but the gas station sites might be part of a reworked Mt. Baker Transit Center.

    The Franklin HS athletic field would be hard to move to another location and it could actually become a neighborhood asset with some attention. There’s nothing anti-TOD about an accessible athletic field if the area around it has plenty of residents. Integrating educational facilities into the neighborhood fabric should be part of neighborhood building. Yes, there are security concerns during school hours but educational facilities, like the track, should become neighborhood assets when school isn’t in session.

    1. Agreed about the Franklin field. Franklin has undersized sports facilities for a high school already–it would be important to find a better, larger, affordable, nearby facility before making suggestions that they move. Some improvements to make it a better neighborhood resource is a great idea.

      1. Before considering relocating playfields, there needs to be enough development pressure to warrant the school district selling parcels for development. There are numerous empty or dilapidated lots in the area that can be developed first. If relocating the field is ever to happen, it won’t be for a few decades at the earliest. The school district owns an empty parking lot just down the street that could easily be developed.

      2. I know it isn’t ideal. Ideal would be the QFC site magically sprout a mixed use development. But you can’t force a landowner to sell or develop. At least Franklin HS is already owned by a government agency. Government agencies can work together to make something happen, if they want to. Maybe something can be done on the edges of the playfield — I don’t know. I guess I was suggesting that at least the conversation begin.

      3. The existing Franklin field is basically a plastic scab that needs to be rejuvenated and brought into the public domain when it isn’t being used for school district activities. Just go up the hill and look at Jefferson Park and imagine what could be done at Franklin..

      4. The track and turf field at Franklin is pretty well used (well at least the field) for non-school uses on the weekends. They resurfaced the track a year or so ago and the turf is in pretty good shape too. It will never be like Jefferson for a number of reasons including that Franklin has very little on site athletic facilities outside of the gym, the track and the turf field. There are no tennis courts, no community center, no play and spray grounds and I wouldn’t expect the school district to invest in those features either.

  3. It’s surrounded by bad land use, several wide uncomfortably fast roads, and doesn’t have great schools. Want development? Fix these things.

    There are plenty of places near the station that people would want to live – away from the busy roads. But of course we don’t upzone places like that, and they’re all SF5000 (single family zone).

    Regarding the laundry and Lowes – buying a large amount of land from profitable businesses would take a huge investment, which comes with high risk. It’ll probably happen someday, but I’m guessing investors want to see the area start changing first.

    It’s interesting to look at the zoning map – quite a large area is taken up by steep slopes that you can’t build on, and there are single family zoning practically across the street from the station.

      1. It’s technically physically possible but no developer has taken the risk as of yet to develop projects on the steep west of MLK slopes. Reconfiguring the MLK/Rainier Ave S and associated right of way improvements will go a long way to incentivising development along this corridor.

  4. The real tragedy in these planning efforts is that there is still no separated connection between the station and the transit center. Transferring people still must cross a busy Rainier Avenue. Transferring riders are not helped at all.

    To make matters worse, the buses will be making left and right turns at the station, making it even worse and more awkward for bus stops to be convenient. Bus operations in this concept would make a driver dread stopping here. We’re talking about making left turns just after a major stop on the right.

    As a final insult to riders, the missing down escalators and/or second elevators is ignored in the plan.

    Unfortunately, so much political energy has been spent on this that it is hard to go back to the drawing board.

    1. The Accessible Mt Baker idea goes a long way towards fixing the currently atrocious transfer. I hope all transit advocates push for that to be implemented soon.

      1. When I look at the proposed layout plan, I not only see no improvement for transfers, but it looks like bus maneuvering for the 7 looks more problematic between stops.

  5. A large part of the reason there’s been little development at Mt Baker Station, is that the city has been proposing Mt Baker Town Center (previously known as North Rainier Town Center) in various configurations since 1999. MBTC involves a reconfiguration of the two major arterials that run in from of the station, Rainier Ave S and MLK Jr Way S. The plan for this rework has gone from a large (150′ diameter) roundabout, to a “bow-tie” configuration, to the current “bolo tie” concept. Each of these has a different configuration for the roadways, and would entail the city acquiring new ROW and re-configuring key land parcels in different ways.
    Uncertainty is a sure way to keep developers away. You don’t want to even start down the path of hiring an Architect, Engineers, and other consultants, when the very parcel you want to build on may be taken under eminent domain. Once the city finalizes its plans (and by finalize, I mean actually starts re-configuring the roads), you’ll see land owners starting to propose new developments.

  6. I was talking to an SDOT engineer recently and he had mentioned that the owner of the QFC lot wanted to create a mixed use development but was hindered by a massive storm water “pipe/main” under the lot. Apparently this is prohibiting him from building to the lot lines and is working with the street redesign project to get the storm water main moved into the public ROW.

    1. In my conversation with the city, they are actually talking to the landowner there about the pipe. But the process seems slow to come up with anything actionable.

  7. Just start taxing the adjacent land as if it already had 50 story towers on it. Easy peasy; that IS the “value” of the land. The owners will be Johnny-On-The-Spot in buying out those “long-term” leases.

    And, there’s no reason that a tower can’t be built over the Lowe’s parking lot, even if the building itself can’t be covered.

  8. The real tragedy, in my opinion is how badly sound transit has failed the Rainier Valley. The agency owns a significant amount of property around Mt baker station, but also all down MLK. This property sits empty behind chainlink fences. Some of these parcels are small or sit right under the link overpass, but others could certainly be developed; how about as the badly needed affordable housing. The non-develop able ones could certainly become green spaces.

    Additionally, there is a huge, already vacant parcel right in front of the station. Perhaps the city could work with the property owner to develop that lot. Areas around light rail station can’t change overnight to be the dense, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods we want, nor should they. Instead of focusing on dream projects occurring in places that already contain viable businesses, agencies could work together to transform spaces that are already empty. This incremental changes (along with the MLK/Rainer makeover funded by Move Seattle, as stated in the article) could in turn fuel further development and add vitality to the neighborhood.

  9. I believe that the QFC is the only one in the RV that is convenient to a light rail station. As a Link commuter, I find that often very important when getting groceries. It’s a high activity building that creates more foot traffic than a taller residential building would. It also is a valuable community asset as there is no other nearby QFC.

    It’s too bad that the pedestrian connectivity is terrible! The sidewalks are way too narrow. The tree canopy keeps street lighting from reaching the sidewalks. There is no walkway connecting the street to store entrances in many cases.

    That gets at the core of my frustration with density advocates. The dialogue comes off as “upzone=success”. I would much rather have half the density with safe, awesome pedestrian connectivity that a higher density with lousy pedestrian connectivity.

    The upzone is an easy advocacy position but it’s not the biggest problem here. I think that the biggest problem is a reasonable pedestrian system for transit riders and local people.

    While I understand that d

    1. I agree upzone doesn’t necessarily equal success. But if you drive/walk past the area now, you would be hard pressed to call the current situation success.

      1. There used to be this belief, at least outside of New York, that supermarkets couldn’t go onto the ground floor of mixed use buildings with other uses above them. (In New York there have long been supermarkets on the ground floor of buildings). But now there are examples of this mix in Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and I’m sure many other places. So while an existing supermarket may well want to stay in place, there’s flexibility in how a new one gets built.

      2. The QFC in the picture actually does have surface parking; it’s just behind the store rather than in front of it. The fact that they put the main entrance facing the street, rather than the parking lot, is quite amazing.

        By contrast, there’s an Indian restaurant I ate at a couple times in an Issaquah shopping center. They’re located at the edge of the parking and actually have a second entrance facing the street. The staff looked quite surprised when I entered from the street-facing door, rather than the parking-lot-facing door.

      3. It may have been built that way before QFC moved into it. Except for one or two modern strip malls most of that street is set up that way.

        QFC and Fred Meyer are now both owned by Kroger, and Fred Meyer has long had a couple of stores in the area set up for both street access and parking. The one at 39th and Hawthorne has probably been that way since the 1940s. Safeway has rebuilt a few of its stores to work that way at too, probably because their competitors in the area are starting to do that. The Safewsy at 28th and Hawthorne was demolished and rebuilt from the basement parking garage (removing the former surface lot in front and moving most parking downstairs) upward to move the store entrance to the sidewalk.

        So, I think if one store does this and starts to draw customers then everyone else will change too.

      1. An observation: There is also a big parking lot in front of the Safeway at Othello. Why is no one whining about that with equal fervor?

  10. Ok, I’ll be the kid who says the king isn’t wearing any clothes in this post. Could the real reason TOD isn’t happening because the area has a high crime reputation and lower income residents? There’s a reason PCC’s and Whole Foods are plentiful north of dt and scarce south of dt. That same reason hampers TOD in places like the Mt. Baker hood. BTW, auto oriented development isn’t hindering growth in dt Bellevue. Things aren’t taking a “long time to change” there. Why?

    1. Sam, the comparison drawn in the article is to other parts of the RV that have at least the reputation for crime as Mount Baker does, if not more.

      Whatever else you might say about this article — explicitly calling for forcing out “low-value land uses” by increasing their tax burden is… perhaps just a bit impolitic, for one thing — its reasoning about Mount Baker relative to the rest of the RV seems about right. The light-rail station and new planning ideals surrounding it largely contradicts a large amount of other infrastructure and previous planning.

    2. There’s a PCC in Columbia City now. There’s also Starbucks, Tutta Bella, the Columbia City Ale House, etc. Whole Foods goes where the richest clientele is and it can only expand so quickly, and right now it’s working on a First Hill location. Auto-oriented development is hindering growth on 116th. And downtown Bellevue took 25 years to reach its current stage, while Rainier Valley started just before 2008 crash and restarted a few years ago.

    3. All I’m saying is can we please have an honest discussion? Developers aren’t choosing Bellevue and SLU because of long leases in Mount Baker.

    4. I’ll be third to say that the Mt. Baker area isn’t any worse off, crime-wise, than the Columbia City area, and may actually be quite a bit better. The surrounding neighborhoods are some of the highest-income in south seattle. Former county exec Ron Sims lives in Mount Baker, on the tail of the 14.

      The problem is the hellish streetscape and the surrounding terrain. At the confluence of 3 major arterials and with narrow sidewalks on all sides, the station might as well be in the median of a freeway. It is aggressively anti-pedestrian. Columbia City and the whole Link MLK corridor got a complete rebuild of streets and sidewalks when Link went in, but the Mount Baker station area didn’t. SDOT needs to move forward on fixing this intersection of the city is serious about encouraging residential development here.

      Otherwise, it’s just a matter of waiting. Waiting for SPU to finish their sewer projects and for the leases to be up on Rite-Aid and QFC so the owner can rebuild, waiting for housing prices to go up another few percent so that it starts becoming more attractive to plow under some of those gas stations and car washes. I really feel like this whole article has a tone of impatience. Land use changes take time. It took Burien nearly a decade to finally get empty lots in the heart of downtown redeveloped – lots that were literally unused. Why? Because there was lower hanging fruit for developers, with bigger profit margins, in high priced parts of Seattle.

      1. I’ve taken Link before to Mt. Baker Station to walk along the parks and Boulevards to Lake Washington. Ranier is certainly ugly, but at least there’s a pedestrian bridge to bypass the stoplights. Once you get past Ranier, you’re on neighborhood streets that are quite walkable, with good sidewalks and much less car traffic.

  11. If you don’t site stations in atrocious places you don’t have to “fix” them. Hint, if you need an upzone then you’ve missed the mark. If you’re relying on Taxpayer Oriented Development you’re sunk. When we vote on a transit package that builds transit instead of focusing on social justice and attempting to “jump start” development (like Seattle needs that???) I’ll consider voting yes.

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