One of the great but elusive promises of fixed-rail transit is that it supposedly stimulates desirable, walkable density around the stations. The corollary is that bus stops, being more moveable, don’t produce nodes of new housing and workplaces.
Some current Seattle examples make clear the problems with TOD, or transit-oriented development. Messy, protracted Seattle “process” compounds the problems of acquiring, cleaning up, financing, buying off opposition, and permitting such projects in urban settings. Nor is it easier going farther out to relatively uncontested and cheaper land, as the example of Bellevue’s Spring District makes clear. There may be a better solution, described below.
I start with a particularly dramatic example from Minneapolis, where for 10 years a juicy transit intersection with large open land has been hoping for redevelopment. Over time, the school district, which owns the property, developed second thoughts. Meanwhile, neighbors fond of a farmer’s market there and fearful of parking problems from redevelopment have also blocked the TOD dreams. By contrast, suburban projects are reviving, even though demand for urban housing far outstrips that for the burbs. Sam Newburg, writing about this for Citiwire.net, calls the pattern “arrested urban development.”
The current Seattle version would be the tussles over the University District station of Sound Transit. When the new light-rail station opens in 2021, it should draw significant ridership, two blocks west of the UW campus. The university is trying to develop the neighborhood west of the campus for more housing for staff, faculty, and students, so it has plans to put up mid-rise buildings over the subway station.
The dispute, probably a short-lived one but maybe only the first of many, arises from a proposal by a retired UW architecture professor, Philip Thiel, to build a brick-paved plaza instead. Thus is joined the usual fight between those who want TOD and those who want transit stations to create amenities and open space, keeping traffic out and keeping property values low.
Underlying this dispute is an old one about a neighborhood resisting Goliath U. For years, UW was confined to its campus, while the U District languished in funky disarray. Former UW President Mark Emmert, intrigued by urban planning issues, led the westward migration. He bought the old Safeco Tower and converted it (rather oddly) to administrative uses, including a fancy office for himself on the top floor. The further plan was to have boulevards leading westward, lined with new development and anchored by the transit stop at Brooklyn between 43rd and 45th.
I suspect this Westward Ho! by the university will run afoul of its momentous financial difficulties, slowing the march. (Sell off UW Tower, anyone?) But it makes a lot of sense for the area to have more housing, in part because recruiting faculty and staff to the UW. is made more difficult by the high cost of Seattle housing. (Interestingly, housing around transit stations is normally not high-end, in part because the market attracts those who can’t afford cars.)
In the world of planners, a train station would be a godsend and a stimulus and a magnet for such development. Instead, it might become marshy bog, discouraging other developers.
TOD advocates sometimes argue that a better way to get density around stations is to look outward, where the land is lower cost and the competing or resisting uses are fewer. Portland, queen city of TOD, has had some success with this model, building from scratch around stations put in farmland. In this region, the classic illustration is the Spring District lying along the Bel-Red corridor connecting downtown Bellevue with Microsoft-land.
The area is made up of low-slung warehouses, a former Safeway distribution center, strip malls, and support services, so not many powerfully connected uses would be displaced. The major purchaser of land where the 120th St. Sound Transit station would open in 2023 is developer Wright Runstad and partner Shorenstein Properties. They envision development around the station that would employ 13,000 office workers and house 2,135 residents, all needing 10,000 parking stalls.
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