Since the 1990s, Regional Growth Centers (RGCs) have played a central role in the growth strategy of the Puget Sound region. There are now 29, along with nine manufacturing/industrial centers (MICs) and other local or county- designated centers. Centers are a mechanism to focus growth and prioritize transportation investments. But the performance of centers is varied. Some, including the six centers in Seattle and downtown Bellevue, have far outperformed others where growth is anemic or non-existent.
This has prompted a revisiting of the regional center system that recognizes variations between centers. The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) has released a draft proposal for comment (through November 8). It envisions a two-tier system of ‘urban’ and ‘metro’ centers. Metro centers must meet more stringent criteria. They should have existing density of 30 activity units (population+employment) per acre, vs. 18 for urban centers. Planned targets are also higher at 85 activity units vs 45 for the urban centers. Transit service at metro centers should generally be light rail or equivalent BRT, whereas frequent bus service may suffice for an urban center. That threshold would designate ten metro centers in King County, and one each in Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap Counties.
Beyond the regional growth centers, there are new criteria for manufacturing and industrial centers (MICs) which will also see a two-tier classification. The MICs process creates a new path for designating MICs, not only recognizing the largest centers, but also preserving industrial land from encroachment. There is a more consistent process for countywide centers, where King County currently has stricter standards than other counties. There is recognition of military installations. Military bases operate outside regional plans, but several are large enough to have important transportation impacts.
Updating standards for centers across four counties is politically fraught because every city is closely watching the prospects for their local centers. The King County centers (81% of center employment, 78% of center population) are far ahead of their suburban counterparts. The PSRC disburses $250 million in transportation investments annually, and the suburban counties wouldn’t stand for such a lopsided share of funding.
To avoid disruption to underperforming centers, several compromises have been made to delay impacts. The preliminary framework does not recommend revisions to the funding priority for different types of regional centers at this time. Neither is there any imminent prospect of de-designating existing centers. The first evaluation of existing centers will take place in 2018-2020 as part of the VISION 2040 update. Centers have until 2025 to achieve consistency with new standards, and the PSRC board has flexibility in evaluating existing centers after 2025 if they are close to meeting the criteria.
How imbalanced are the centers? A background report prepared by PSRC staff in 2016 offers some highlights:
- Many places that are not designated centers have denser activity than some centers. Ballard, downtown Kirkland, and the Highway 99 corridor in Edmonds and Lynnwood, all have denser activity than the majority of existing regional growth centers.
- Several centers have activity levels too low to qualify for regional center status under the current minimum criteria of 18 activity units per acre. These include Bothell Canyon Park (14.0 au/acre), Lakewood (15.9 au/acre), Puyallup South Hill (10.4 au/acre), and Silverdale (13.1 au/acre).
- Other centers already far exceed the future planned densities of other centers. These include South Lake Union (115 au/acre), Bellevue (129 au/acre) and Seattle Downtown (194 au/acre).
- Regional growth centers vary greatly in their roles as concentrations of employment or population. Federal Way, Issaquah and Tukwila all have little or no residential population.
- The scale of the centers varies widely. The four contiguous centers in Seattle (Seattle Downtown, First Hill/Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, and Uptown) have a combined 320,000 population and employment. This is 80 times larger than the smallest RGCs.
A more aggressive policy, though politically impossible, would more quickly redirect spending to centers with concentrated growth in King County. The new centers framework is, at least, an opportunity to gradually realign transportation investments to the fastest growing centers in future.
Update: When interpreting the charts, note the chart at top and population chart below are for 2000-2014, but the jobs chart at end is 2010-2014 only.