Northgate Mall: battleground for transit and planning issues

As a new round begins, over a Sound Transit parking garage, there are lessons to be learned from the successes at Northgate in recent years and from transit-oriented development along California's BART lines.

Crosscut archive image.

A Sound Transit train chugs into a station.

As a new round begins, over a Sound Transit parking garage, there are lessons to be learned from the successes at Northgate in recent years and from transit-oriented development along California's BART lines.

Sound Transit’s effort to build a 500-stall parking garage as part of its new light rail station is stirring up controversy at Northgate. The mall has a history of attracting controversy over the past few decades. Debates tend to focus on impacts to the surrounding community, differing visions of the future, the environment, and as always, that most difficult of issues, how we get around.

As we evaluate the current debate, it is useful to consider the debates that have taken place over the past few decades. In the 1990s, the mall was under what came to be known as the General Development Plan (GDP). The city GDP essentially made it extremely difficult to maintain the mall’s competitive advantage with the fast-growing University Village and Alderwood Mall. The GDP would be triggered by any investment in the mall and investment, not surprisingly, never came. The mall fell into disrepair.

That all changed in 2002, when Greg Nickels became mayor. The owner of the mall, Simon Properties Group, approached the mayor’s office for help. The mall was in danger of going out of business, along with all the stores and employees who depended on it. Some believed this was actually the purpose of the GDP.

Nickels decided the only way to proceed was to blow up the GDP and start over, creating a new paradigm for the discussion. This was a painful process as there was a perception, perhaps correct, amongst neighborhood activists, that this action was taking power away from the community. But after numerous community meetings and sending postcards to people in the area and asking for what they wanted of the mall, the neighborhood's main agenda became clear: They wanted a better mall and better pedestrian and transit connections.

And there was another issue that would loom large in this debate, the day-lighting of Thornton Creek. Activists throughout the region took this issue on as a major cause and considerably altered the debate about how development would occur at Northgate. The city wanted to build a retention pond, since much of the water entering the creek’s headwaters at that location is surface runoff from parking lots and roads. But the activists wanted a creek, so Simon Properties contributed open space to the project and the city invested over $7 million in the undertaking.

Next, the new development plan had to be approved by the city council. As part of that plan, City Councilmember Richard Conlin advocated, on behalf of the community, that the mall owners, Simon Properties, build a parking garage to handle extra traffic at the mall.

And so it was done.

The mall became a better mall, a new theater complex was built near a day-lighted Thornton Creek, and new rental housing and condos were built. And now the mall parking lot is full most days and the businesses are bustling. This could not have happened unless Greg Nickels blew up the GDP. In the office at the time it was actually known as the God Damned Plan.

And this brings us to the current controversy: Sound Transit’s proposal to build a parking garage at Northgate.

Sound Transit wants transit oriented development plus the garage to drive ridership in the larger catchment area that is North Seattle. Allowing people to park at Northgate and ride light rail downtown relieves congestion on I-5. Besides, people are going to park at Northgate and ride the rail whether a garage is built or not. That phenomenon of finding alternate parking is normally called “hide and ride,” and it's something I find hard to believe that neighbors would want.

In fact, getting cars off the streets is precisely what led Conlin to push for a parking garage as a condition of redevelopment in the first place.

Some opponents of the garage want transit oriented development (TOD) alone to support this station development, and they inexplicably believe that by reducing access to transit and making it less convenient for potential riders, somehow Northgate will lure additional ridership numbers anyway. Other opponents suggest that a pedestrian bridge across I-5 from North Seattle Community College to the Mall would be a TOD driver. This, in fact, would be a great addition to the transit hub, but alone it will not drive the kind of ridership numbers Sound Transit is hoping for.

The solution is simple. It is important to do both TOD and add new transit-access parking. Northgate will always be a shopping and transit hub. Despite past efforts to starve the mall out of existence, it is here to stay, and people seem to like it that way.

Building ridership through multi-modal access and TOD at the same time is not a new concept in transit planning. At the risk of abandoning the usual Seattle habit of taking examples from Vancouver, Portland, or San Francisco, we should look to Oakland, California, and the Fruitvale neighborhood, an inner city neighborhood with daunting public safety and economic challenges. But the neighborhood organized around a vision for a new TOD project built in the area surrounding their BART station.  After working through multiple plans for the redevelopment of the station, what resulted was a mix of new transit oriented development, both residential and commercial; a community plaza; safer, more walkable streets; pedestrian, bike, and transit connections and, yes, a large new parking structure with over 1,500 parking spaces. In fact, fees at the parking structure drive a significant portion of the new revenues that financed the publicly-owned infrastructure components of the project.

Since the Fruitvale success story, BART has actually been developing new TOD living spaces and new parking structures simultaneously at a number of stations. The system recognized that there are many ways to build ridership and that sustainability means simultaneously providing multi-modal access to their facilities while also being a catalyst for and investing in transit oriented development.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all, and adding parking at stations that are already heavily developed would not make much sense. But, that clearly is not the case here, where all indications are that a TOD and a new Sound Transit garage would actually be quite complimentary to one another while boosting ridership.

Unlike other dramas that Northgate has seen come and go, the current parking controversy around Sound Transit’s parking garage should be resolved quickly. Maybe sometime soon we can all access this important transportation resource in any number of ways. And perhaps catch a movie and a bite to eat at the mall on the way home.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.