Sound Transit's Plans for Capitol Hill

They don't include making sure the agency's centrally located, highly valuable properties can accommodate buildings taller than six stories.

Last night, the agency held a forum at Seattle Central Community College to get community input on what should surround the neighborhood's light rail station (i.e. that multi-billion dollar investment we voted for). The agency owns several parcels of land that it will later lease to developers for transit-oriented development, or development that will make the best use of the transit beneath it. Deputy Project Director Ron Endlich, who MC'd the meeting, says ST learned its lesson by leasing the land above and around the Beacon Hill station, which was both costly and gives ST no say in what will surround the station once it's finished.

Already, the agency has altered some plans to meet community demand for more development around the station. And unlike at many neighborhood forums, if there was a prevailing sentiment among last night's collection of concerned wonks, it was towards more density, rather than less.

Audience members seemed surprised when Endlich confessed that ST has not done engineering studies to confirm whether the station design would allow the land around and above it--land that won't be developed for another six years, if everything proceeds according to schedule--to accommodate buildings taller than six stories, the current zoning limit.

Endlich defended the decision by noting that the 2003 upzone faced a lot of community opposition--the implication being that Cap Hillers have agreed to as much height as they can stomach. But it does seem shortsighted for an agency that wants to maximize living and shopping options around its stations--which will be around well after we're gone--not to ensure that the current design for the most urban land in its portfolio--located in one of Seattle's densest neighborhoods, into which the city plans to funnel some of its expected growth, just three miles from downtown--can accommodate a building taller than 65 feet. Also a little surprising was his explanation that the development on 10th would probably avoid retail because "there are single family homes across the street."

Map of ST properties around and above the station. Note the extension of Nagle Place through sites A and B.
Most of the night's focus, though, was on public benefits, which several guest speakers addressed. Chris Curtis, director of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, asked that open spaces be accessible to the farmers market, which she said has been doing brisk business at its current location in the US Bank parking lot (from which it will soon be displaced)

Michael Seiwerath (formerly of CODAC) lamented Capitol Hill's loss of arts and culture spaces, and asked for small, affordable spaces--rather than the sort of broad storefronts that often are turned into, say, Kinko's--to accommodate arts activities.

And Justin Carder of the Capitol Hill Community Council asked for public meeting spaces--of which the neighborhood currently suffers a dearth, he argued--and perhaps a publicly accessible viewpoint.

Endlich mostly listened (which was the purpose of the meeting), but did offer that the farmers market might be able to set up in an extension of Nagle Place that the agency intends to build through its property.

In the open comment period at the end, the audience wanted to know if the agency would ensure wider sidewalks (via building setbacks), less parking (strange to attend a community meeting in which community members want fewer options for cars!), smaller storefronts (to keep rents lower and ensure the presence of more interesting businesses), and other generally New Urbanist priorities.

Endlich said the agency is looking at all those things--parking would be limited to people who live at the properties he added, before noting that the agency will build bike storage for commuters--but that it is mandated to get "fair market value" for its investment. What was unclear, even after repeated questions from the audience, was how the agency balances getting a good return on its investment in the form of rent money with getting a good return on its investment in the form of maximizing the living and shopping options (and the attractiveness thereof) around the station.

The night's biggest applause--and remember, this was a fairly restrained bunch--followed a guy who essentially chastised the agency for being timid. You're punting on wide sidewalks to the city, he noted, and generally acting as though you're not a public agency that should look out for the public. The land above this station will be some of the most valuable in Seattle, which should enable you to exact all sorts of concessions from developers.

That rousing call was followed by another attendee's more restrained assessment. He noted that highway investments don't have to achieve a fair market return, and argued that if people want a more public-minded set of criteria for transit, they need to lobby their elected reps. City councilmember Sally Clark, who appeared to be the only elected official in attendance, nodded along in agreement.

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