Building transit doesn’t automatically bring growth and development. Just look at the Rainier Beach Station: eight years after opening, there are still are no multi-story apartment buildings towering over the track or mixed-use retail lining Martin Luther King Drive. Instead, there is little new development aside from a series of townhomes to the northwest.
In recent months during the working week, on average roughly 1,980 riders boarded the train daily at that station — about a quarter less than at other nearby stations.
“Why does transit-oriented development happen in some places, but not others?” was a questioned posed to a panel of for-profit developers speaking during Building Transit, Building Opportunity. The day-long conference, organized by the Puget Sound Regional Council, focused on techniques used around the region to build transit-oriented development.
“Upzone, that’s really the most important thing,” said Eric Campbell, CEO of Mainstreet Property Group, offering his advice to cities preparing for light rail. “The quicker we get there and think about what we are planning, the [sooner the] reinvestment will happen.”
And think big, don’t just do 10-acre upzones, he added.
Campbell pointed to Kirkland as an example. Because the city is not upzoning, older single-families are being torn down and replaced by larger homes. That doesn’t add density to the city, a key ingredient in creating walkable communities linked by transit.
“Light rail is only successful in some areas because people are driving their cars there,” said Kristin Neil Ryan, a partner at Barrientos/Ryan LLC, speaking to the challenges of leveraging light rail in a single-family community.
“So where do you put your car? So we have this inherent disconnect of needing a lot of parking to make stations effective in suburban communities and draw that demand there, in conflict with a walkable community,” Ryan said.
Walkable communities also need destinations, said Joe Ferguson, CEO of Lake Union Partners.
“Access to transit doesn’t make a neighborhood. Columbia City is a great example: it had its own identity, its own appeal. It was just removed from the core, but the transit opened up opportunity,” said Ferguson, comparing recent development around that station versus the stalled growth around Rainier Beach.
He encouraged attendees to find the destinations in the community and play them up. And again, think big.
Of course, market fundamentals are also a primary driver of development and rising construction costs are making some projects even less profitable, Ryan added. Upzoning doesn’t necessarily make projects more feasible, and that’s when public investments in infrastructure could help encourage development, she said.
“If you look at all the cities who’ve really done the best job, it’s the city of Redmond,” Campbell said.
Redmond always knew transit was coming to the city so it invested early, which has supported a lot of new development, he said.
“Now light rail is the icing on the cake.”