Rethinking The Opportunities At Capitol Hill Station

By Dan Bertolet November 17, 2010

Though I'm late to the party on this, I can't be the only one who thinks that the current plan (shown above) for future transit-oriented development at the Capitol Hill light rail station leaves something to be desired, can I? The reason is simple: it squanders a prime opportunity by ruling out the placement of buildings on top of the underground station "box" (designated by the dashed outline in the diagram).

Earlier plans showed the Site A building extending over the station, as in the diagram below. But that scenario would make Sound Transit's life more difficult, because allowing buildings above makes it more complicated to design and build the station underneath.

But then it seems Sound Transit found a convenient excuse when the Capitol Hill community expressed the desire for a permanent home for their farmer's market. In the updated plan Sound Transit released last summer, the building was moved off the station site, and a chunk of the freed-up space was designated as a farmer's market plaza, as shown in the diagram at the top of the post (the allowed building footprints are designated in peach).

Farmer's markets are wonderful, but it seems to me that carving out such a large permanent area dedicated to that purpose isn't the best use of precious urban space. What would go on there when the farmer's market isn't happening, which is the vast majority of the time? Temporarily using spaces like parking lots or even whole streets to accommodate farmer's markets is a smarter approach.

As for the need for more open space, well, that's kind of a tough case to make given that there's already a very large, beautiful new park right next door. Contrary to what many seem to reflexively believe about open space, more is not always better. The narrow linear space that would be formed between opposing building walls along Nagle Place "extension" would create an inviting and cozy sense of enclosure that is rare in Seattle.

In addition to the area sacrificed to stay off the station box, the current station plan also gives up an unreasonably large portion of the site to the station entrances, the north entrance in particular. This thing is basically a subway, and cities all over the world seem to have no trouble getting by with relatively unobtrusive stairways leading down from the sidewalk.

Do we really need a big empty glass box dominating the corner of Broadway an John? Again, we'd be throwing away significant developable area for that. Forget about an iconic, landmark tower holding the corner. And it's worth remembering that city streets are brought to life by the people and businesses that occupy buildings, not by unnecessarily grandiose, hollow stairwells.

A better design solution for the Capitol Hill station is totally doable. All it takes is vision, collaboration, and effort. Take for example the Gamla Stan Station in the Stockholm Metro, shown in the photo below. Nothing fancy. A station entry on the first floor of a mixed use building. Simple and smart.

And it doesn't only happen in Europe. The photo below shows Wilshire Vermont Station in Los Angeles. The station is totally integrated with the building, and there are four floors of habitable space on top of the station entrance.

Why shouldn't we be able to do something like this at the Capitol Hill station?

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