Prospects for Seattle's Transit Communities

By Dan Bertolet November 15, 2010

My favorite part of the Seattle Planning Commission's new report is its title: Seattle Transit Communities. Good on them for having the sense to jettison the clunky word "oriented" from the more commonly used planning term "transit-oriented communities."

But yes, the report has a lot more than that to offer in terms of wholesome plannery goodness. In brief, the report identifies 41 transit community sites in Seattle (mapped above), outlines funding and implementation strategies, and finally, makes recommendations, including those for several specific transit community locations. Overall, the report is a much-needed synthesis of the opportunities and challenges (and a nice companion piece to this).

The Planning Commission will officially launch the report at a public presentation this Tuesday, November 16th, 5:30 pm at the Pyramid Alehouse, on 1st Ave across the street from Safeco Field. Beware of inebriated nerds if you do attend.

And now, for the intrepid among you, some wonky reactions and ramblings follow below.

The Seattle Transit Communities (STC) report defines a transit community as a place in which "people can walk, bike, or take transit from their homes to accomplish many of their daily activities including getting to work or school, picking up groceries, or going out to a restaurant or a special event."

What strikes me about this definition is that it avoids any mention of density, which is the most fundamental ingredient of communities with reduced car-dependence. Without sufficient density, transit cannot operate efficiently, and travel distances become to great for walking. Yet the STC report seems to tiptoe around the subject throughout.

Of course in Seattle, as in the majority of the U.S, visions of pristine picket-fenced lawns contrasted with scary, dirty cities still permeate the cultural consciousness, and density can be a radioactive topic. So on one hand, it may be a smart advocacy strategy to de-emphasize density's importance.  On the other hand, it's hard to imagine how we'll ever make real progress if we can't talk about the core issue in a straightforward way.

While it's great that the STC report spells out such an extensive list of strategies and actions, I was disappointed to see so much of the non-committal verbiage typical of planning documents, such as "consider" and "encourage." For example, the recommendation to "consider zoning to allow building heights above 85 feet close to the transit stops," would carry much more weight if "consider" was replaced with "implement." Or how about changing "may not be" to "is not" in this non-statement: "emphasis on the protection of single family zoning may not be appropriate in transit-rich areas."

These criticisms may seem nit-picky, but I make them in the context of the "Seattle process"---that is, the tendency to consider issues to death, coupled with a timidity when it comes to enacting bold policy. And the recent history of planning for transit and development in Seattle is a textbook example.

The city conducted station area planning a decade ago, and made plan updates to three station area neighborhoods last year, but these efforts were not nearly robust enough to catalyze meaningful investment and development. And so it should have come as no surprise that when Sound Transit Link light rail opened in 2009, not a single significant new development was on the ground in any of the station areas outside of downtown. We now have one development in construction at Othello, and another in the works at Mt. Baker. But for the most part, the five light rail stations in southeast Seattle are a total embarrassment in terms of being optimum transit communities.

For an example of planning done right, we need look no further than across Lake Washington, where the City of Bellevue conducted an award-winning planning process for the Bel-Red corridor. Cities from Denver to Los Angeles to Portland to Silver Spring, MD are similarly all over it.

If Seattle ever hopes to create real transit communities and enjoy all the social, economic, and environmental benefits they can provide, at some point the city is going to have to stop considering and start doing.

Do what? Well, to take one example, how about accepting that since there will never be a thriving transit community around Mt. Baker Station with the current Rainier Ave cutting a gaping gash through the middle of it, the City will have to make a significant investment to remake and tame that street for people. The time to have done that was before the trains started running, but better late than never.

On the city-wide scale, I believe what's called for is something along the lines of a new Transit Community District Overlay that would supersede other land use regulations. In accordance with the agreed-upon importance of creating transit communities, designated Transit Community Districts would get special treatment through a variety of means that might include:

  • priority funding for infrastructure and amenities

  • accelerated, focused planning, along with fast-track approval

  • form-based codes

  • "planned actions"

  • fast-track permitting (for projects that aren't underdeveloped)

  • more stringent affordability requirements combined with enhanced affordable housing subsidies through sources like the Housing Levy

  • programs to preserve and support small, independent businesses

It would cost money. But over the long term, such investments would pay back many times over by facilitating the creation of living options that increasing numbers of people desire, while at the same time reducing the region's ecological footprint.
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