Where’s My TOD?

[ Rainier Beach Light Link Station, at the corner of MLK and Henderson: no TOD happening here any time soon ]

According to this Seattle Times piece, the recession ate it. But that’s too convenient a scapegoat — no doubt partially to blame, but there’s more to the story.

When Sound Transit Light Link Rail starts running this summer, outside of the downtown stations not a single significantly sized new private development will be on the ground to greet it. Zip. Nada.

Meanwhile, during the last development cycle mid-rise mixed-use residential projects grew like weeds in neighborhoods all over the city.

A year ago the Seattle Times reported that private developers had planned 1,500 housing units within a 10-minute walk to a southeast Seattle light rail station. Remarkable yes, but the question is, why didn’t any of these projects get under way before the bust, like they seemed to have no trouble doing in much of the rest of Seattle? It’s not as if opening day for light rail was a tightly held secret.

The primary reason is that the value added by the light rail line alone is not enough to make up for the comparatively low rents in southeast Seattle. As discussed here, since construction costs are relatively fixed, and land is typically a small fraction of the total cost of development, other neighborhoods that can demand higher rents simply pencil better. And thus so far along the MLK corridor the notable trailblazers have been the Seattle Housing Authority’s Rainier Vista and New Holly.

The one and only one large private development that may break ground by the time the train opens is the Othello Partners project adjacent to the the Othello Station. In addition to deep-pocketed financiers, there are two key reasons why this project has progressed further than any other: (1) the availability of a large development site at a prime corner location, and (2) a city park immediately adjacent to the site. Number one speaks the importance of site assembly and the economies of scale that can be achieved in large housing projects. And number two speaks to the importance of public investment as a catalyst for private development.

The MLK light rail corridor in southeast Seattle stands to be a revealing testing ground for what it takes to create new transit-oriented communities in an urban area with a deficient built environment, as well as a rich and fragile cultural mosaic. So far, results show that if we rely completely on the private sector we better not get our hopes up. But then we shouldn’t be too surprised, given examples of successful TOD like Collingwood in Vancouver, B.C., for which the public sector played an essential, multi-faceted role.