The TOD Challenge: How do we make a circle from a line? (Part 1 in a series)

We have spent the last half century designing our cities based on the premise that folks will live in single-use residential neighborhoods and drive their cars to go to work, school, shopping, etc. The result is that our cities, even those that were developed well before the automobile conquered the nation, are left with retail and commercial uses along arterials, abutted by residential one block to either side. In Seattle, we take this one step further with our exclusionary single-family land use code that basically relegates multifamily development to arterials as well.

In contrast, TOD asks us to rethink urban form to create nodes of development encircling high-capacity transit station areas. [Note: lower-capacity transit, like buses on a 15-30 minute headway calls for more of a “corridor” approach that I hope to explore later in this series.] Ideally we want to draw a ½ mile, or 5-minute walk, radius around the station, and then fill-in the circle with a variety of mixed-use medium to high density development. Pedestrian amenities are critical. Getting to the station on foot is paramount and should be the path of least resistance – i.e. no one wants to have to walk through massive surface parking lots to get to the station; sidewalks should be wide and safe, and streetscapes should be active. This is all easy to do when developing greenfields, but how do we do it in existing cities?

Case in point: Beacon Hill, a low density neighborhood minutes from downtown with phenomenal potential for views. They’ve got a new branch library and Jefferson Park is a stone’s throw away. And they’ve got a light rail station set to open in a year. So what is the prospect for TOD in Beacon Hill? Take a gander at this map of current land uses in the station area to get an idea:

Or visit here if you want to see the underlying zoning.

There is basically one arterial, Beacon Avenue, that is largely underdeveloped to its modest NC-40’ zoning. When you exit the future light rail station at Beacon Avenue, you see this:

The majority of the station area is zoned for single-family [denoted by the light pinkish color in the map above], which makes one wonder why a station is being sited here at all. [Long story short: Beacon Hill wasn’t supposed to get a station because the neighborhood said no upzones, but when the First Hill station got nixed and suddenly there was money leftover, decision-makers apparently forgot that Beacon Hill wasn’t supposed to get a station without agreeing to some upzones…and they gave them the station anyway.]

But here is the point…there ain’t no way to turn this neighborhood into a transit-oriented community that can properly support the multi-billion dollar investment that has been dropped in its lap without upzoning a good deal of single-family properties. And that is going to be uncomfortable for many people in Seattle. The residents in Beacon Hill have come a long way since the mid-1990’s: at a recent neighborhood charrette some local residents agreed to going up to 85’ at the Red Apple site, and upzoning all along Lander Street to create an east-west neighborhood commercial corridor. This is all a good start, but a long way from what the city, the region, and the transit system needs to happen in this station area. So…how do we get the neighborhood to support a much more significant upzone? And if the neighborhood can’t get there, how does a city infamous for lengthy process and compromise do the upzone anyway?

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