This spring, construction will finally begin on four seven-story mixed-use buildings above the Capitol Hill light rail station. Though an ideal place to build transit-oriented development (TOD), the land has sat empty since the station opened in March 2016. When the buildings are completed, probably sometime in 2020 according to Capitol Hill Seattle, 428 new housing units will be added to the light rail station walkshed. Of those new units, 41% — 176 of them — will be considered affordable housing.
Sound Transit is in the final stage of updating its TOD guidelines that the agency says will make TOD an integral component of transit project planning and delivery, and could support bringing new development online when transit stations open, rather than years later.
The ST3 plan requires the agency develop and implement “a regional equitable TOD strategy” and offer at least 80% of surplus property first to projects for families making 80% or less of area median income (AMI). The agency, which has until May to update its TOD policy, released a draft at the March 22 board meeting.
The draft policy declares goals such as “encourage [the] creation of housing options near transit with priority given to affordability” and “increase the value and effectiveness of transit by increasing transit ridership.” To reach those goals, the proposal lays out a specific set of strategies.
However, affordable housing advocates, who called the draft policy a step in the right direction while addressing the board Thursday, urged the agency to include specific housing goals in the TOD policy.
“While the statute sets a target over the entirety of the ST surplus properties, it would be beneficial to outline how these targets will be met,” said Angela Compton, an outreach coordinator with Futurewise. “Being transparent about this approach would provide a clear understanding of what ST is trying to achieve through this process.”
Compton suggested housing goals could be set by each site, corridor or year. “The lack of specificity in goal and policy language will likely result in the plan being unenforceable, unmonitorable and undermine the effectiveness of the agency’s goals to increase transit ridership,” added Giulia Pasciuto, a policy and research analyst at Puget Sound Sage. “A policy is just words on a page unless it has clear, measurable goals and a plan for how it will report out to the public.”
Many board members agreed with the criticism.
“I think a lot of the feedback is right on,” said John Marchione, ST board member and mayor of Redmond. “Particularly about accountability and reporting.”
Marchione also requested staff include criteria for pricing surplus land depending on the number of affordable units that would be created by the TOD project.
Late last year, ST approved zero-cost land transfers to two affordable housing developers. But not all board members were in favor of the no-cost land transfer: “We all acknowledged that we are early in this journey of TOD, and early in this journey of the process of how we resolve these things, and I think that going to no cost is a very dangerous precedent for a very noble goal,” Bruce Dammeier, Pierce County Executive, said at the time.
Roger Millar, Secretary of Transportation, suggested the TOD team have just as important a role in alignment planning as the engineering team.
“It has to be cost-effective, it has to be safe, it has to be efficient,” Millar said about light rail alignment and planning, “but we can also have a discussion about whether it is creating opportunity and serving the communities at the station areas.”
Rob Johnson, ST board member and Seattle councilmember, said the plan was missing specifics about the timing of the disposition of lands.
“I think an objective for us should be to try to dispose of the land so that TOD can open around the same time stations open or shortly thereafter,” he said.
Futurewise’s Compton also wants the board to include a stipulation in the TOD policy that ST doesn’t assume any income from any ST3 property, which she said will match the policies set out in the ST3 System Plan and Financial Plan.
Currently, the draft includes a fiscal responsibility strategy that states “Revenue from the disposition of property supports the delivery of system expansion projects and programs and transit operations.”
“Affordable housing developers should not need to pay additional costs for property that are assumed to be revenue-neutral in ST’s financial plan,” Compton said.