Future TOD near the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station
Credit: Gerding Edlen, Capitol Hill Housing, Hewitt, Schemata Workshop and Berger Partnership

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.

12 Replies to “ST Draft TOD Policy Lacks Specifics, critics say”

  1. While a laudable goal, I would hate for affordable housing to start dictating transit decisions, specifically which properties to acquire at what cost. This could be a backdoor way to buy land for affordable housing, though that is not the charter of Sound Transit. Which could leave less money for transit.

  2. Brad, back in the streetcar day. developers, along with amusement parks and cemeteries started their own car-lines to attract customers to their businesses. Back door, front door, side door- have our legal department study their charters, and adjust ours accordingly.

    Still got a favorite way to do affordable housing. Hiring halls all over town and use the two story drifts of money burying Seattle these last four years to pay people union wage for every public thing that’s short of help. Though if anybody private needs extra help, pretend you don’t notice if they steal some of them.

    Because nothing costs transit more money than a service area where nobody can AFFORD to be a passenger whose taxes and fares pay for it. Given outcomes, of last thirty years’ politics, for pro-transit politicians, what’s too lose? Franklin Roosevelt said a lot of things like that and got five terms.

    Mark Dublin

  3. Successful TOD is a multi-agency activity. ST shouldn’t be directed to be the only agency making TOD happen.

    That said, surplus property disposal is a noteworthy but tiny effort to make TOD effective. Most developable property (probably over 95 percent) near stations is not in ST’s hands!

    How about a subsidy and strategy to create better connectivity? The best way to get TOD is to get as much activity within walking distance of a station. That means going higher — but it also means building access projects to enlarge the reasonable walking distance to be as far and easy as possible.

    1. Successful TOD also starts with station locations. Though fraught with legal hazards and potential conflicts of interests, if ST were able to resell the construction staging areas to the highest bidder and use the funds to offset the station/alignment capital costs, it might help in push more urban station location alternatives to score higher in conceptual design.

      1. I agree. The I-5 alignment is so shortsighted, stupid, and frustrating. “I don’t have enough money for that project, I’ll just pile half the money together and burn it. I can afford that.”

        An I-5 alignment could work with major rezones and substantial lidding…but won’t that end up being more expensive anyway?

    2. There was apparently a change in state law around 2014 that ST has to dedicate surplus property to affordable housing. I’m not bothered by it because the housing shortage is so critical, it puts a lot of people within walking distance of stations, and low-income people are the ones least able to afford cars. As for other agencies and programs, yes we need those too, but what other agencies have so many large surplus lots? ST has these lots because we told it to construct a transit station, and some of the land is only needed temporarily during construction. Other agencies probably don’t have this kind of situation.

      What I’d most like to see is a government goal to provide housing for everyone who wants it, and then incremental projects to accomplish it. What we have instead is a commitment to give all homeless veterans housing, and piecemeal attempts to build low-income housing, but nothing that attempts to fill the gap between those piecemeal projects and the need, and nothing for the gap above that, so-called workforce housing for those that don’t qualify for low-income housing but don’t make enough money to rent or buy within 33% of their income.

      1. We’re saying same thing, Mike. But way I’d like to see it, since nobody private can make a profit off it without Government help, We the People will use our Government, which we own, to hire everybody who needs a house.

        And also a city, a county, a State, and a public transit system. I seem to remember it’s been discovered that between the Ship Canal and Dearborn, not a single pillar will withstand an earthquake.

        Won’t need a dime of welfare, and first paycheck also reflecting move to a higher tax bracket….doubt an auditor would see that as a giveaway, or any other budgetary problem. “We don’t know what to do with The Homeless.”

        If you don’t mean sick or drug-addicted, who need hospitals first, but simply people going to work out of the back seat of their car because the Federal bailout of the banks didn’t get them their house back…..either pay them to be caretakers in their house…

        Or hire them to build another one, and a lot more for others who need them. Sounds historically American to me . So what I’d most like to see for Transit Oriented Development – best affordabilitizer of all. A lot of paychecks, and also on-the- job training for similar development elsewhere.I also notice Metro needs drivers.

        But one other yet-unmentioned. Would be worth buying every rail-hater between I-5 and Highline Community College a new megamansion in Enumclaw to get that station back in the College grounds where it belongs. Not only most worthwhile presence possible, but also our own best statement of priorities.


      2. @Mike Orr. The legislation you’re referring to was passed and signed into law in July 2015 (2ESSB 5987). It was codified under RCW 81.12.350. Here’s the relevant section to which you’ve alluded:

        >>>(a) The regional transit authority must contribute at least four million dollars each year for five consecutive years beginning within three years of voter approval of the system plan to a revolving loan fund to support the development of affordable housing opportunities related to equitable transit-oriented development within the boundaries of the regional transit authority.
        (b)(i) A requirement that when a regional transit authority disposes or transfers any surplus property, including, but not limited to, property acquired prior to July 15, 2015, a minimum of eighty percent of the surplus property to be disposed or transferred, including air rights, that is suitable for development as housing, must be offered for either transfer at no cost, sale, or long-term lease first to qualified entities that agree to develop affordable housing on the property, consistent with local land use and zoning laws.
        (ii)(A) If a qualified entity receives surplus property from a regional transit authority after being offered the property as provided in (b)(i) of this subsection, the authority must require a minimum of eighty percent of the housing units constructed on property obtained under (b)(i) of this subsection to be dedicated to affordable housing.
        (B) If a qualified entity sells property or development rights obtained through (b)(i) of this subsection, it must use the proceeds from the sale to construct affordable housing within one-half mile of a light rail station or transit station.<<<


        Second point….

        "ST has these lots because we told it to construct a transit station, and some of the land is only needed temporarily during construction."

        Some of these parcels that end up becoming surplus properties are substantial. For instance, in the case of the Roosevelt Link station I believe ST ended up declaring 50% of the acquired properties needed for this particular project to be surplus. This is one of my biggest concerns about TOD in that I'm not a supporter of private properties being taken through eminent domain that ultimately end up as surplus and in the hands of other private parties, e.g., developers. ( Since the SCOTUS Kelo decision, many states have taken steps to strengthen property rights; Washington has lagged in this regard.)
        Frankly, I'd like to see ST adopt a formal policy of mitigating the amount and ratio of the surplus parcels/acreage they accrue through the entire station planning and construction process. (Fwiw. My spouse works for a residential developer and so I'm well aware of the need for construction staging and equipment areas.)

    3. >> That said, surplus property disposal is a noteworthy but tiny effort to make TOD effective.

      >> Successful TOD also starts with station locations.

      Agree on both points, which is why worrying about the population density of the land sold by ST after construction is laudable, but misses the big picture. Much of the best land is wasted, because the station is adjacent to a freeway or park. You also have ST spending huge sums on parking garages, or overly large bus depot areas, instead of simply working with the available street grid. Of course it would be better if CHS has a much bigger building, but on the grand scheme of things, that is a tiny bit of density that would be added. The bigger issues involve large, out of the way stations, with their big parking lots.

  4. “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”

    Okay. Allocate 80% of the land to affordable housing. Calculate how much housing that would produce, then double or triple the zoning and give (at least part of) the balance to market rate housing. We should be building WAY more of everything near stations. Why in the world will the Capitol Hill sites have buildings that are only 6-8 stories tall? This is the densest neighborhood in Seattle, within walking distance of downtown, the Denny Triangle, and SLU, and it’s right on the region’s biggest transit line. Where is the the common sense?

    Yes, I know zoning is not within ST’s purview, but they do have political clout. I’m not blaming them anyway. I don’t care who is to blame – this needs to get done.

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