Getting On Board With Transit Development

Transit-oriented development finally catches on.
By Clair Enlow |   September 2009   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

When Matt Griffin moved into Seattle’s Seaboard Building at Fourth Avenue and Pike Street in 2001, he and his partner owned a sports car and Jeep. Today, they are carless. They spend up to $1,000 a year on bus and taxi fares, but that’s a small fraction of what it costs to own a car. And as Sound Transit’s light rail is built out, moving around will get even easier.

Griffin is getting ahead of his market. He is one of a growing number of developers building homes in communities that are compact, complete and offer easy access to public transit. Called transit-oriented developments, they are typically mixed-use residential and commercial projects that are safe and attractive for pedestrians and friendly to bicyclists.  

These new developments are the beginning of a long, ongoing process of transforming our urban landscape into one that will support a constant flow of newcomers to the region, while minimizing congestion and global warming impacts. Regulatory incentives and consumer demand, meanwhile, are making the developments lucrative long-term investments.

“It’s inevitable” that a growing proportion of development will be transit-oriented, says Steve Nolen, associate principal at Transportation Solutions Inc. (TSI), a transportation consulting firm based in Redmond. “We aren’t going to be able to build enough roads and intersections to handle the influx of people and jobs.” The best transit-oriented developments include everything from open storefronts to sidewalk seating, paving and public art. In addition to making the place more interesting and pleasantly urban, these ingredients add street safety through visibility, and bring health benefits by getting people to walk.

These sorts of street amenities, along with open spaces like pocket parks, plazas and rooftop gardens, really make transit-oriented development work. But while they enhance a project’s appeal and improve surrounding property values, the amenities don’t directly translate into rentable square footage. So they typically require long-term investment by forward-thinking developers able to get beyond the business model that says you have to maximize the amount of revenue-generating living space. These types of projects often involve public-private partnerships, incentive zoning or both.

Luckily, there is plenty of interest, both public and private. Local governments love transit-oriented development because it leverages investments—not only in transit systems like light rail, but

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