For all of us stuck in traffic purgatory, the expansion of light rail can’t come fast enough. The current system carries a small but growing number of passengers, but hope springs for a real shift when the system reaches more destinations. (The East Link line running across Lake Washington would add 10 stations and 14 miles to Sound Transit’s light rail system.)
The train is an alternative to the car/freeway, but also a means to something else: a more compact city, a grand scheme that began with growth management and now, perhaps, lies within reach. The more we choke on our own exhaust, the more attractive this alternative becomes.
How this pattern of development grows and evolves is not a trivial matter, not just to be discussed at conferences with planners in cotton pants and bike shorts.
Reader, you have skin in this game. Even if you never ride light rail, you should be rooting for its success — if for no other reason than to get potential future riders out of their cars, off the road and out of your way.
How to maximize ridership? One of the most important tools is to build housing and offices at new stations. There is a name for this — Transit Oriented Development or TOD. Sounds fancy, but it’s really just putting density around stations.
And yet, it's an idea that makes planners practically pee in their lycra. It adds riders to light rail and creates density all at the same time. The promised land of regional planning.
How is it going? It’s either moving forward or a burgeoning disaster. Take your pick.
Perhaps the best example of TOD in the Puget Sound area is a project just coming out of the ground. In Bellevue's Spring District, master developer Wright Runstad & Company is turning a distribution and warehouse district (the kind of place where a marauding forklift might go unnoticed for hours) into a people place — “a vibrant, transit oriented, mixed-use urban neighborhood.”
The future Spring District. Image: NBBJ
When it’s all built, the 16 city blocks will boast 5.3 million square feet of office, residential, hotel and retail space for tenants like restaurants and "diverse local shops". Office space will total approximately 3.7 million square feet — equal to two and one half Columbia Centers — and there will be about 1,200 new apartments or condos. Its location is ideal — plopped between downtown Bellevue and Microsoft Land. Initial occupancy is slated for 2015.
Whether the Spring District will have the same charm of Portland's Pearl District, where new construction is tucked in amongst existing and funky old buildings, remains to be seen. Still, it's a rare opportunity to imagine a new neighborhood from the ground up. Its successes and failures will be of its own making.
If ever there was a chance to display the promise of new, denser development along a rail line, this would be it.
In 2009, the city of Bellevue created new zoning rules that would fundamentally change the Bel-Red neighborhood, increasing density and adding the opportunity for residential and an entirely new scale of commercial buildings. In essence, Bellevue created a new urban center, one that will be the site of new growth and which will be served by the new East Link light rail line.
The planned Bel-Red corridor turned urban mecca: Bellevue itself is on the left; Bel-Red on the right. Image: City of Bellevue
Those new rules also included special allowances for something they termed a Catalyst Project, which would act as a huge anchor tenant for the neighborhood. So far, Wright Runstadt's Spring District is the only project that meets the terms necessary to be considered a Catalyst Project — terms which include less stringent affordable housing rules and that seem to have been designed specifically for that project.
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