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.
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.