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Rail transit: the slow lane to urban density

A light rail train gets ready to pull out of the Rainier Beach station. Credit: Oran Viriyincy/Flickr

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, 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. 

There is some local opposition from nearby business owners, worried about costs for street-widening projects, and residents around Lake Bellevue, worried about traffic impacts. But the big obstacle is another politically powerful developer, Kemper Freeman Jr., who has put his chips almost entirely in downtown Bellevue, one mile west of the Spring District.

This fight has split normally genteel Bellevue politics, with each side trying to elect a majority of the Bellevue City Council. At one level, it’s a showdown between two mega-developers, throwing around public-benefit arguments to paper over good old greed. But it is also a serious dispute over growth management. Do you keep investing in an urbanized setting, downtown Bellevue, with lots of good transit? Or do you leapfrog into another part of Bellevue, where you can build in transit and other amenities from scratch? Do you use the tax base from the central business district to subsidize (street improvements, utilities, etc.) its competition?

Seattle has long practiced the leap-frog, most recently in South Lake Union, in many ways our new downtown. An earlier vault was when the department stores, led by Frederick & Nelson in 1918, jumped from the old business district on Second Avenue and Columbia to the Westlake Square area along Pine St.. It’s elementary developer economics: buy the low-cost land and then use your clout to get the zoning changed for more intensive use, cashing in on your speculative purchases.  Outlying transit stations, just like major highway intersections, add juice to the quest.  Same holds true for basketball arenas!

I can see developers getting richer from these TOD battles, but I’m not sure I see a broader public benefit. This brings me to a possibly better idea. The suggestion came from a friend who has been planning director in several large cities. He suggested simply finding the bus transit routes that are most promising, and where people are already committed bus-users, and then doubling down on those routes. More frequent service. Faster service with more express buses. Better amenities at the bus stops, and maybe some modest stimulus for more development of housing and workplaces at some of those stops.

Such an approach is more gradual, more widespread, and much less costly. Keep in mind that the costs of building rail transit in America are shockingly high, compared to other countries, often owing to political pressures that produce costs five times that in Europe.

I was reminded of the wisdom of BOD (bus-stop-oriented development, to coin an acronym) the other night at a dinner party in Greenwood, Mayor Mike McGinn’s neighborhood. Our hosts raved about the marvelous urban living conditions in their neighborhood: mixed incomes and occupations, lots of children, great ethnic groceries and affordable services a block away on Aurora. And then the capper: the incredible Metro service, whizzing down Aurora and into town in 15 minutes, and with even faster service soon to come.

If rail transit, the darling of the density crowd, were not siphoning off so much money from existing transit, we might be busy applying the lessons of Aurora all over the region, with far less political warfare.

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