An architectural rendering highlighting future possibilities near the Rainier Beach Station.
Credit: VIA Architecture

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.”

27 Replies to “Supporting Transit-Oriented Development”

  1. The unfortunate reality is the areas proximate to the initial segment’s stations won’t be developed by private entities irrespective of upzones. East of Lake W., north of the ship canal, Fed. Way —> south, the western stations in ST3 . . . those will flourish. Urbanism works with certain demographics and not others. The station areas along the initial segment (Mt. Baker —> south) of course have a role to play, as all the “public money” residences there demonstrate. Seattle isn’t unique in this respect.

    1. What? Why would Federal Way –> south flourish, but Rainier Valley not? Even if there were no light rail, I would bet on the opposite, as long as the zoning and property ownership was similar. Rainier Valley is much closer to downtown, farther away from the freeway and in general is a much more attractive area than the stations that lie to the south.

    2. I disagree. Inside the walkshed of the rainier valley stations, >90% of the lots that got upzoned from single family residential to multifamily residential have been redeveloped. These residential areas are at full zoned capacity with no room for expansion, and that development was largely done with private money.

      It’s clear the demand for additional residential density is there, the only thing missing is the zoning.

      The only lots that have remaining zoned-but-unused capacity are the commercial/multiuse zoned lots that front directly on MLK, many of which continue to contain low-density parking-oriented businesses despite being zoned for 65′ of mixed use. That issue is worth examination, but doesn’t erase the smashing success of the residential upzoning near rainier valley stations.

  2. Is it just me or does the rendering look like another Mt. Baker disaster with the Bus stops being placed much further than they need to be from the train station?

    1. Maybe the 106 needs those buses with doors on both sides, so it can drop off directly at the stations, and not leave riders missing the train because of beg buttons and unwillingness to jayrun.

      1. That’s a problem with all the buses that connect to Link stations! Metro and ST seem to have only two designs: do nothing and make riders miss trains and cross busy streets, or build a cul-de-sac transit center that takes time to use and nauseates riders with lots of turns. There are plenty of examples around the US and Canada to copy that would be better.

      2. Each station is ideally designed for the situation unique to that station, Brent. I wouldn’t say that any are particularly “best”.

        Most light rail systems are designed with bus transfers as basic to the station design, and not an afterthought. They plan for things like waiting areas that have a rail platform on one side and bus stops on the other, like at 38th Street Station in Minneapolis. They plan for things like making sure that there are shelters available by crossing just one street in one direction (like at Alum Rock Station or Cisco Station in San Jose) rather than two (like Capitol Hill for westbound bus stop west of Broadway).

        The Edmonton and Calgary light rail systems have a number of escalators and pedestrian bridges that can be secured by transit staff that are linked to parallel bus transfer stations. Some examples include Century Park in Edmonton and Whitehorn Station in Calgary. Of course, there nasty winter weather is a huge issue, and indoor waiting areas are fundamental to attracting riders.

        There are several at-grade stations in many cities that are intentionally offset a few blocks from major cross-streets. Los Angeles (Expo line) and Minneapolis decided to be elevate or sink some stations at different places because they knew that stations would have lots of pedestrians crossing streets, even though the majority of the rail corridor is at-grade.

        Forest Hill Station in San Francisco has a set of short frontage roads that allow bus routes to terminate at the station entrance by making a U-turn.

        Of course, many new light rail segments are off to one side of major arterials, sometimes even a half-block or full-block off the major roadways so that there can be a great TOD literally at the station!

        Even locally, it’s notable that ST designed Columbia City Station and Othello Station with two entrances, but designed Rainier Beach and Mt Baker with only one. Is this a contributing factor why Columbia City and Othello get more riders than the other two? If riders at Columbia City and Othello could only exit in one direction, their TOD developments would likely be much less robust.

        So what could be done at Rainier Beach to broaden the TOD reach? I would suggest determining if it was possible to widen the MLK lanes south of Henderson Street on one or both sides in a way that would allow for a bus to lay over next to the station (narrowing back at Henderson Street so that pedestrians didn’t have cross an additional lane of traffic), along with have a bus-only pocket turn lane so that they can make U-turns south of the tracks. I would suggest looking at a bus transfer center site somewhere south of Henderson Street that would allow for buses to make a broad loop and/or access Renton Avenue somewhere south of Henderson Street (like maybe one east of the platform that can be accessed from a side street). I would suggest looking at the design feasibility and the resulting value of a new southern access point to the station platform, and whether that should be at-grade or elevated (which would allow for a connecting sky walkway for the underdeveloped ridges on either side of the station). ST3 already sets aside $100M for station access improvements, and that can be seed money to plan and then implement these things.

      3. The main issue is more entrances, and bus stops adjacent to the entrances. In London or Germany there wouldn’t be a dilemma about whether the 49 northbound stops across the street from Link or whether the plan to restructure it to Broadway-12th will be close enough to Link, let alone the UW bus stops. Picture a station under the UW triangle with entrances on both sides of Pacific Street and Montlake Blvd. That’s more or less like London’s Leicester Square and Essen’s main U-Bahn station are like, a station on every corner that has activity and a bus stop. Toronto’s Lawrence West station is also a bus terminus, and you don’t pay a fare to get in a bus because you’re still in the train station so you must have come from a train.

    2. As long as there are stops close to the platform, I think an off-street layover would be great. The land under power lines is a great place to park buses.

  3. There is an interesting article about Rainier Beach development here:

    In short, there are a number of factors, and yes, zoning is one of them. But not the only one. Sound Transit has effectively split up the land, making it less attractive for development. Meanwhile, for whatever reason, some developer bought property, but hasn’t developed yet. That happens. It is pretty common for land owners to just sit on land for a long time, even though the land could be developed into something more valuable. A lot of it is zoning, but not just zoning limits. things like mandatory parking, density limits, FAR rules all add up, especially if you are building in a relatively low rent area. But one of the big ones is the review process. To tie up your land for months while you wait for approval is a great disincentive towards construction.

    But sometimes owners just don’t build. Maybe they are waiting for property values to get even higher, or maybe they are just too busy with other projects to bother.

    1. To repeat myself from another thread, the only lots where there is a problem with lack of development are the half-block-wide stretch zoned for commercial/multiuse on either side of MLK. All the areas that went from pure single family residential to pure multifamily residential got fully developed almost immediately.

      I worry that all the attention being lavished on the handful of MLK-fronting commercial/mixed-use lots that are not getting developed, threatens to drown out the amazing success of the surrounding residential upzones. And at worst is being used as a concern-trolling argument to stop further residential upzonings.

      1. “All the areas that went from pure single family residential to pure multifamily residential got fully developed almost immediately.”

        Can you provide some source(s) to back this up? Thank you.

      2. I think it is complicated. One of the reasons why you can’t focus too much on a particular spot is that usually there are only a handful of owners there. What those particular owners decide to do is not necessarily a trend, but simply random fluctuation.

        Stepping back a bit, if you look at the zoning maps as well as the development, you would guess that the Rainier Beach station is right next to the high school. This would explain both the low ridership of the station, and the high ridership of the 7. Lots of people simply take the bus, rather than make a transfer, or walk 15 minutes to catch Link.

        Meanwhile, there are places where development hasn’t occurred — such as on Director Street, between Rainier Avenue and 52nd. But that is normal. My guess is those houses are owned, not rented, and the owners simply don’t want to sell. I get that — you could zone my house for skyscrapers, and I wouldn’t sell. I like where I live, and don’t want to bother moving.

        The same is true for the empty lots. Some of that is due to the same sort of forces — someone sitting on land, not sure what to do with it. Again, that is nothing new, you can see that in various places in Seattle. But some of that is just the weird nature of the lots, as mentioned in the article (a practice ST has since changed).

        As for concern trolling, I think it is the opposite. The article clearly states that one reason there isn’t more development in the area is because the city dropped the ball. They were ready to change the zoning in the area, but failed to do so. But in general the existence of empty lots in the middle of a housing crisis — whether in Lake City or Rainier Beach — suggests that there are problems beyond simply lack of height with the zoning code. In many cases, this is just one of those things — a random aberration. But my guess is we actually made it easier for developers to build places (especially high density places) we would see fewer empty lots.

  4. It’s good to have a land use mix throughout a system. Not all stations have to have residential TOD. We are in a housing shortage at this time, but economic cycles change. Some dispersal from having everything Downtown is a good thing for transit as demand gets dispersed better across the system.

    Given the access to jobs challenge in this area, I would encourage some non-residential TOD here. A training school? A start-up center? A hotel and conference center? A City Target? A medical office building? A village center for immigrant communities that don’t yet have one defined?

    1. The zoning is there for it near many stations & transit centers, but it’s not being used. The appetite for new residential construction far outstrips the appetite for everything else.

  5. “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

    I’m surprised someone supposedly in the real estate business would miss the 3 L’s; Location, Location, Location. Development drives transit demand. The reverse has proven to be of marginal effect.

    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

    Right, no increased density in Kirkland!? Nothing to see here… move right along.

    Of more interest than the ST fail at Rainer Beach is the net result of the Billion Dollar Beacon Hill station. It’s a nice underground art museum.

    1. I think one of the issues is that ST or the city isn’t partnering with developers to make the investments that would cause these some of these stations to thrive. Having lived in Japan for many years, many of their train stations in dense urban areas are designed and built with retail, apartments, bars and restaurants in the same structure as the station. The line operator then makes money in rent in addition to rider fares. Some of the larger stations have entire malls built around them. The train stations aren’t just a means of getting somewhere they are destinations unto themselves. Now yes its a different country with a different mass transit culture, but certainly we can do better to make use of our stations as dense urban hubs.

      1. many of their train stations in dense urban areas are designed and built with retail, apartments, bars and restaurants in the same structure as the station.

        Like for instance the Hankyu Umeda Station recently featured on Japan Railway Journal. That’s the sort of difference you get when private companies are spending their own money instead of the ST run political candy store.

    2. Some of those partnerships are against Washington’s constitution: giving public money or credit (loans) to a private developer.

  6. Was there no discussion of the affordable housing issue at this roundtable or was it just not covered by this blog piece?

    I think most readers here would acknowledge that TOD situations cannot just be carbon-copied, so to speak. Even Sound Transit’s director of TOD has acknowledged that each opportunity needs to be handled on a case by case basis, which is the proper approach imo. With that being said, I would hope that in each case of TOD that follows residential displacements that the issue of affordable housing remains one of the priorities for the project.

    A couple of cases in point….

    Fruitvale Transit Village, commonly sited as an early successful TOD story, only provided for some 10 affordable housing units.

    Mana’olana Place in Honolulu only provided for some 20 affordable housing units “within a mile of the station”.

  7. Since she’s my neighbor over in Yelm, I’ll check with JZ Knight (she helped King County take over Metro) to see if she can have her go-to guy Ramtha channel as follows: Easier texting, “Shaker Heights.”

    For a “One Developer to Another” session on why they don’t rejuvenate the days when every Development was Transit-Related because nobody could sell one if it didn’t have a streetcar line built into it? Or vice versa, either.

    And while Ramtha is at it:

    Which really needs to be resurrected. Maybe not a good idea, but also its publisher Paul N. Weyrich, who, being a real Conservative, correctly attributed the death of American Transit Orientation to History’s worst and most wasteful piece of Socialism:

    The US Interstate Highway system. So every developer quoted here, rediscover your proud history. No streetcar line with the word “Beach” in it should even need a cemetery spur to produce a corned beef sandwich equivalent to the one I got at Shaker Heights station!

    And while you’re at it, channel and resurrect somebody that can render. No ethnically Earthling client will set foot on the depicted property without their phaser open-carried on French Fry.

    Mark Dublin

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