What Does TOD Look Like?

Not this:

[ Aerial image map from Seattle Housing Authority Design Review Board submittal for 4626 M L King Jr Way S. ]

The aerial image above looks down on the property immediately to the north of the “Columbia City” Light Rail Station at MLK Blvd. and S. Alaska St. The buildings marked 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7 on the west side of MLK are part of the Rainier Vista low-income housing redevelopment, and were all built within the last four years. None of these buildings exceeds four stories. On the east side of MLK is a new Boys & Girls club currently under construction, and a 4-story mixed-use low-income housing project currently in the design phase.

It it widely recognized that transit oriented development (TOD) is a key strategy for sustainable urban development. The Sound Transit Link Light Rail stations offer by far the best opportunities for TOD that Seattle has ever had. But the sad truth is that Seattle has done a embarrassingly dismal job of planning to ensure that our massive public investment in light rail returns the maximum benefit with respect to TOD.

The critical factor: zoning. The maximum building height in the Columbia City station area is only 40 feet (four stories). From the zoning map (pdf), I’d guesstimate that at least half of the property in the station area is zoned lowrise or single family. This low-density zoning cripples the TOD opportunity. And the situation at the other four Southeast Seattle stations is similar, though 65 feet is allowed in some cases.

From 1998 to 2001 the Seattle Department of Transportation directed a significant station area planning effort. But in the end, the planning did not succeed in securing anywhere near the appropriate level of upzoning in the light rail station areas, particularly in the south end of Seattle.

There is still great potential for proper TOD at the light rail stations (as well as at other transit hubs), but our window of opportunity closes a little more every time a new building is developed that could have been more dense and less car-oriented. The four-story Rainier Vista buildings are perfectly fine developments, and they are providing housing and access to transit for people that need it most. But given their proximity to the light rail station, they should have been taller. And they won’t be going anywhere for 50 years or more.

We also have serious planet-scale window of opportunity that is closing as we continue to spew CO2 into the atmosphere. The City of Seattle must make it a top planning priority to update station area plans and upzone for TOD. The time is NOW.

13 Responses to “What Does TOD Look Like?”

  1. Steve

    I’m not convinced the economics are there for taller buildings in the Ranier Valley at this point in time — the area may well gentrify in time, especially once Link is running — but it’s not high-rent now, and it’s in a valley, so the views won’t command higher rents.

    That said, I’d guess relaxed zoning near the station on top of Beacon Hill has much better TOD potential — the area’s not Madison Park, but it’s a little nicer than along MLK, and the views from high-rises actually on Beacon Hill would be impressive.

  2. Matt the Engineer

    [Steve] We’ll never know if the economics would pan out for taller buildings if the zoning isn’t relaxed. Developers are very good at figuring out how large of a building they can make money on. If that number is 41 feet tall, then it will look more or less the same. But if it’s 300 then it could look much different.

  3. Schottsie

    True, a private developer may not risk going to 75′ in the valley today, but an SHA project would have been the perfect opportunity to help shift both the market and the vision for the station areas. But if the zoning says NC-40′, then there is no other option. Rainier Vista and NewHolly are opportunities lost — large amounts of publicly owned land adjacent to light rail stations.
    In addition, SHA has had difficulty renting the retail space at Rainier Vista because of the restrictive parking regulations in station areas. Businesses are reluctant to shift from the auto-centric model that tells them that all customers arrive in vehicles. But retail also has a different model for denser areas…e.g. the same Bartell Drug that mandates 150 surface parking spots in an outlying neighborhood is content with none when they site the store downtown because they know the higher residential and office densities will supply ample foot traffic. And here is the true opportunity lost by SHA. Had they built to a higher residential density, there would have been sufficient folks living in the community to support the retail on foot. But alas, that is not we got.

  4. Jonathan

    One thing I’ve been wondering about is the construction price per square foot of residential or commercial space as a function of building height. (I’m sure this depends on the building footprint and a thousand other factors, but I’m looking for some kind of guideline.)

    i.e. If you take out the land costs, how much more or less would it cost to build three 6 story buildings vs. one 24 story building with the same usable square footage?

    Does anyone have a sense of this?

    I suspect that there are many competing factors; wood frame construction works up to maybe 65 feet; the commodity prices of wood vs. concrete vs. steel etc. are always fluctuating, though perhaps in a relatively narrow band. Parking is a factor; in TOD projects presumably the requirement would be relaxed. The footprint of the site is surely a factor. The “tower on pedestal” building form is sort of a hybrid of low-rise and high-rise, and there are many other building forms, but for the comparison I’m looking for at least initially is for your basic rectangular box.

  5. Steve

    Matt the Engineer – Agreed, totally. Giving developers more flexibility shouldn’t be a bad thing (e.g. if concrete and steel prices suddenly drop a bunch and taller buildings become much cheaper).

    Schottsie – SHA has a budget too, though — would they have been willing to spend more on a per-square-foot basis to get higher densities?

    Ballard seems like an interesting case study on zoning for height. As I understand it, large areas of Ballard have been in 65 and 85 foot zones for years, with no real action. In the last few years, though, when Ballard suddenly became hip, we’ve gotten literally thousands of new housing units in these mid-rise zones.

  6. Schottsie

    Steve – I believe that both Rainier Vista and NewHolly were redevelopments of older SHA projects, and presumably the price to amass those properties was restricted by the covenants in place…so I don’t think that an increase in height should have affected the purchase price for the land. That’s my guess. If anyone knows otherwise, let me know.
    The design of both redevelopments happened in conjunction with Seattle’s station area planning (1998-2001). (See http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/ppmp_sap_home.htm for more info.) The surrounding communities were not comfortable with the height increases to allow for more transit-supportive densities that were proposed as a part of that process. As a result, the upzones, where they occurred at all, were minimal.
    Now that folks can see the stations, and the occasional train making a practice run through parts of the line, I think there may be a better reception to a discussion of height increases. The real question is when will Seattle initiate that discussion?

  7. Steve

    Schottsie — I think you’re right that SHA either owned the land already or would have gotten it at the same price.

    That said, I’d meant to question whether SHA would pay the added construction costs rather than the added land costs. As I understand it, building higher usually costs more. I am not a developer, though — I don’t have a great sense of how much more, say, a 6 story wood/concrete building would cost versus a 4 story wood-only building (which is, I think, what they built).

    At any rate, I’d like to see taller buildings here, too, but I’m not convinced it will happen even with an upzone unless the neighborhood gets fancier or construction costs drop.

  8. Sabina Pade

    The present example does appear a missed opportunity. One question, however: how many people working downtown or at Sea-Tac airport, the presumptive destinations of most light rail riders residing in the MLK corridor, would opt to live directly on MLK, in a mid-rise wood-frame structure with large windows?

    Big busy arteries, after all, are noisy. Conventional wood-frame construction and the large surfaces of thin window glass typical of residential structures are relatively ineffective at rejecting powerful low-frequency sound pressure waves such as those generated by truck engines; and even 6″ of reinforced concrete is not impervious to the blare of sirens.

    Seems to me that genuine TOD, along the MLK corridor, will involve upzoning not so much along MLK itself, but along the smaller adjoining streets presently lined with single-family houses.

  9. schottsie

    Sabina – Yes! Real TOD can not just follow the linear path of arterials designed for cars. We need to draw a circle around the stations — the 1/2 mile radius or 5-minute walk radius — and upzone the entire station area to allow for more transit-supportive densities. And as important as the densities are the improved pedestrian connections throughout the station area. All paths should lead back to the station itself, where people can hop on the train and go downtown or to the airport, and from there make connections to anywhere else in the region.
    That said, there is a market, and a real need for affordable housing throughout the city. Often it is apartments along arterials that fill that need. So we do need that type of development too.
    And back to Steve – True, SHA may not have had the money to go higher. But with the zoning at NC-40′, it was never on the table. I imagine that SHA received money from the Seattle Housing Levy and the Hope Six programs based on the number of units in the project…so I would think that an increase in density would have brought in more dollars for construction. But I have no idea if another floor or two would have penciled out. I’d like to think that they gave the matter some good thought. But I suspect that the neighborhood opposition to the increased height prevented that conversation from going too far.

  10. Hey Wait

    Two notes:


    I saw somewhere that SHA will be selling and/or willing to partner on the corner lots that it owns nearest to the light rail station. Maybe they’re waiting for the upzone before proceeding? (I hope.)

  11. Hey Wait

    One more note… though I doubt it’ll be seen by the person asking the question…

    Woodframe construction is good up to seven stories.

    Assuming you have a concrete base (retail) floor, you can build seven stories of woodframe to hit the 85′ limit.

    Anything higher is concrete/steel.

  12. Morgan Wick

    Don’t just talk about this! Write City Council members and the mayor, and see if you can get time to address the Council!

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