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.

10 Responses to “Where’s My TOD?”

  1. Spencer

    Dan, what do you think is really the problem if it is not those stingy lenders and tight pocketed financiers?

    Across the board, the Times article shows even for profit and non-profit developers are having trouble securing financing. I am hearing the same thing from the people I know developing in other parts of the city as well. The shortage of credit is a nation wide symptom. It’s a real problem right now.

  2. kpt

    One suspects Dan’s point is: Seattle city leaders, you knew 10 years ago where the stations were going to be. Why didn’t you do everything you could to encourage TOD while the economy was good? Yes, rents are low in this area, but there’s a whole list of things that can be done to incent the development community to do this. And the city, far from doing these things, has seemed intent on getting in their way.

  3. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Dude, I think you answered your own question. The TOD went where there was existing demand (Capitol Hill, Denny Triangle, U-District, etc.) and no developer wanted to built too soon along the new light rail line. There’s no first mover advantage in real estate unless you count low land acquisition prices but I heard rumors that everyone was demanding top dollar for obviously choice lots near stations.

  4. dave

    Given what we know about the real estate/lending biz is it a big suprise?

    There is no reward for doing what is right, only what is right now.

  5. EeePC

    Collingwood Village is exactly the sort of TOD we should be avoiding. Toronto has some of the worst examples of this kind of development.

    Toronto Subway’s ‘yellow’ line runs in a u-shape, stopping frequently in the loop downtown and about once per mile as the two branches extend north. As a result you can easily tell where the stations are by looking down upon the city – they’re all marked by clusters of 20-30 story residential towers roughly a mile apart from each other. Go ahead and visit one of these distant stations. North York, York Mills, Yorkdale: all named similarly, which is appropriate considering their total lack of character. Just because they’re dense, transit oriented developments doesn’t make them pedestrian friendly or even remotely charming.

    Vancouver appears to have fallen into this lazy development trap and that’s what you want to emulate here in Seattle as well? I’m all for TOD, but not density just for density’s sake.

    The problem is, Vancouver’s SkyTrain and Link have long routes with large spaces between stations. This encourages developers to stuff as much housing to service the station as they can. A shorter line with many stations would be a much more intelligent means of creating dense development, see pretty much any European city as an example, but it just costs too much.

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