Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Increased Density near Light Rail Stations

After visiting Shanghai and Beijing, I have realized that Seattle is a small town. I have further realized that our light rail system is a joke.

This can be fixed, however.

The main reason I consider Seattle's Link Light Rail a joke is that we don't have the density to support a mass transit system of that nature. Therefore I propose to massively increase the building heights around each light rail station so they become the satellite downtowns they should be. Imagine a mini-Belltown at each station, and you're getting the idea.

In the late 1990s, while the light rail was in design, neighborhoods along the route asked the city council for zoning changes to suit their new stations. Unfortunately, they thought small. They made minor changes to make the streets more pedestrian friendly, but left the building heights alone. Thus at the Rainier Beach station, for example, the maximum building height is 40 feet adjacent to the light rail station! In my plan, these parcels could have twenty-story highrises.

If we have light rail, we need to encourage people to use it. What better way than have a whole bunch of people live across the street from each station? Sound Transit could then expand the number of cars in each train and the frequency of trains and pretty soon we have something resembling a city.

A bit more detail:

The stations are all in an "Urban Village" designated neighborhood, of one sort or another. Some are Residential Urban Villages; some are Hub Urban Villages; some are Urban Core Villages, and two are in a designated industrial area. Each of these circumstances should be treated differently.

Since downtown Seattle itself is an Urban Core, those "villages" would have the most intensive zoning. Zoning would be mixed residential and commercial, similar to Belltown. Urban Cores include the International District, Pioneer Square, Downtown, Capitol Hill, both Univerity District stations, and Northgate. Parcels within a quarter-mile walking distance of the station (staying on public roads and walkways), building heights would be unlimited. Within a third of a mile walking distance, building heights could be limited to 240'. Within a half mile walking distance, the maximum height would be 125'. The rest of an Urban Core Village with a light rail station would be limited to 85'.

Mind you, downtown's Urban Core already has higher limits, so those could stay as-is. Pioneer Square and the International District Urban Cores have special zones, so I would propose modifying the heights in those rather than throwing out all the design characteristics included in those. I want neighborhoods to retain their individuality, just with more people.

The Hub Urban Villages would be slightly smaller in scale, with all of the height requirements shifting inward by one step. Of the existing line and the North Link (in design), only Mount Baker is a Hub Urban Village, but Lake City, Fremont, and Ballard would fall in this category if they receive stations in the future.

The Residential Urban Villages would be slightly smaller again than the Hub Urban Villages. These would include Rainier Beach, Othello/Holly, Columbia City, Beacon Hill, and Roosevelt. Parcels adjacent to the station would have mixed-use zoning with a height limit of 240'. Parcels within a quarter-mile walk would be mixed use with 125' maximum height. Within a third of a mile, buildings could be 85', and would be zoned either commercial or residential depending on their existing zoning. Within a half mile walk, buildings could be 65' high, zoned per the existing use. The remainder of the Residential Urban Village would be either Midrise or Neighborhood Commercial.

One problem, however, is that many of the light rail stations are at the periphery of their Urban Villages. Just a couple hundred feet from the Rainier Beach station, for example, is single-family housing outside the Urban Village. This is an inefficient and stressful juxtaposition.

I propose upzoning a "buffer zone" around the stations, in a similar stepping pattern as listed above. The fact that these streets are outside the Urban Villages should be honored, however. Instead of drastically altering the zoning to mixed-use, the current zoning for each parcel would instead be modified. Within a quarter-mile walk of the station, the density of each parcel would quadruple. Within a third of a mile, the density would triple. Within a half-mile walk, the density would double.

Thus a Single-Family 5000 S.F. zone very close to a station would become a street of Lowrise 2 zone, which doesn't allow much taller structures, but does allow more units on a property. This would be a minimally invasive rezone of a neighborhood outside the Urban Village, but still allow more people to live within walking distance of the light rail station.

That about wraps it up. Increase the housing supply in Seattle. More affordable housing. More people using the silly train we're already paying for. Provide more freedom to property owners. All that good stuff.

Now I just need to get the mayor's attention.


robaresmith said...

You've got to be kidding ? Are we "ants" living in towers ? Do you really want towering buildings surrounding each train station ?
I say NO........

Less housing in the inner-core area, less traffic, less of everything..... Move to areas to maintain lower density.

When I lived in Edmonds, we had similar situations with the fight over height limits. We beat the developers to keep the height limit to 2 stories. Edmonds will not be another big city with tall building..... if you want that, go someplace else.....

The main reason for "light-rail" is to bring people into the center core from outlying areas. Seattle is a "small town" compare to anything in China. But we have the 9th worse traffic in the USA, because people will not give up there cars. They want independence to go and come as they please. So until you get them on out of their cars, it will continue -- it will become grid lock.........

Some of your ideas a valid, but I would not live in an "ant hill" tower, next to a train station. That's why I bought 104 acres in Eastern Washington, have my own well, use solar and wind power and my nearest neighbor is 2 miles away........

Just a few ideas.......

Jennifer said...

Some people would prefer to live in higher-density development adjacent to light rail, but it's not available. And, with zoning codes the way they are now, it's also illegal. So wouldn't it be a good idea to test it out and see what the market wants? You may be surprised at how many people get out of their cars if they can shop, get to work, get to the dr. etc without getting in the car.

robaresmith said...

Yes, certain areas could have increased height limits, but not all. We need to be very mindful of historic properties and areas. They comes first, before development ! But not ever "old" building is historic, so we need balance. And it also depends on what the township wants. Not every town wants a "high rise" no matter the zoning.