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.