Getting On Board With Transit Development


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 also in such public infrastructure as sidewalks and sewers. Developers like the approach because it allows them to add density—with resulting savings on their per-unit and square foot costs in apartment, condominium and mixed-use projects. In some cases, developers will take some of those savings and spend them on amenities like open spaces, street improvements and green construction. The Mega Development Downtown Seattle, with its easy access to restaurants, theaters and shopping is perhaps the ultimate transit-oriented development. The city is emerging as one key center of a transit system, which, over time, will link communities across the region. “It’s a hub-and-spoke system,” says Griffin. His company, Pine Street Group LLC, is working on a downtown project at Sixth Avenue and Lenora Street that will combine two apartment towers and street-level retail stores. Residents will be steps away from Westlake Station, one of two major transit hubs in Seattle. In the basement of the building is a “bicycle club”—with bike racks, locker rooms and showers for use by any bicycle commuter en route to a downtown job or a regional transit connection.

Along the spokes of the wheel, transit-oriented development will transform station areas into new hubs—mini-downtowns for existing neighborhoods. By clustering jobs, retail and housing around transit stations, more people can be car-free, more of the time.

Harbor Properties is preparing to break ground on a block-sized neighborhood development in south Seattle, just a couple of blocks from the new Columbia City light rail station. For Denny Onslow, the firm’s chief development officer and executive vice president, it’s also important to be close to stores, jobs and existing open space, like parks and protected greenways. “You get those little quiet zones,” he says, along with a sense of community.

The Station at Othello Park, another mixed-use apartment and retail project, is breaking ground along the light rail corridor in southeast Seattle close to Othello Station as well as the existing Othello Park and playground. Othello Partners, the developer of the project, is also in the permit stage for an adjacent project that takes advantage of a city program that defers taxes on developments that offer affordable housing. Together, the two projects will create the density and retail environment that supports pedestrians.

Indeed, the best transit-oriented developments encourage walking by including shops, offices, bars and restaurants in close proximity. And the community doesn’t have to be near a light rail station. “Does the station come to high density or vice versa?” asks Harbor Properties’ Onslow. “It doesn’t really matter.”

Jennifer Johnson, development manager for the Seattle Opera, recently moved into Harbor Properties’ Mural Apartments in West Seattle. She says she will have an easy commute downtown on the Metro RapidRide bus when it starts next year. “Once I’m home, I don’t have to drive anywhere. Everything is available to me here.” She likes the nearby farmer’s market, restaurants and bakery. Waiting for Light Rail Residents of transit-oriented community spend, on average, just 9 percent of their income on transportation, less than half the average household according to Reconnecting America, a national nonprofit dedicated to supporting transit-oriented development. Such savings amount to a sizeable household stimulus package. And residents of transit-oriented development generate only half the car trips. In spite of the density, such communities tend to be more appealing—to visitors and residents alike—than the typical suburban community with its strip developments.

Some developers are building in anticipation of the arrival of light rail. For example, Lorig Associates LLC now has units for lease at Thornton Place, a long-awaited, transit-oriented, mixed-use project built on a former suburban-style mall parking lot near Northgate Mall. The site is currently close to a bus center that will ultimately become a light rail station. To entice tenants and create a strong sense of community, the development team added scenic, pedestrian-friendly amenities including a large storm-water-absorbing bioswale that doubles as a park.

Wright Runstad & Co. is among the companies most aggressively focused on transit-oriented development. It made the link with transit decades ago, when its downtown Washington Mutual Tower—which was built near the time that Seattle’s transit tunnel was being developed—got its own entrance to the tunnel.

“Access to transit has always been a factor in the attractiveness of a location and how we integrate it,” says President Greg Johnson. Now the company has purchased the land it needs and planned what is perhaps the largest transit-oriented project in the Northwest to date, the Spring District in the Bellevue’s Bel-Red corridor.

At 36 acres, incorporating a dozen new city blocks, the multiphase project will be a complete neighborhood. Those blocks will, in turn, become part of a larger redeveloping neighborhood and vital connective link between Bellevue and Redmond, next to a stop on the next phase in light rail. The area will include office towers and mixed-use residential buildings with retail at the street level, along with generous amounts of open space. In the final phase—assuming light rail arrives—the development will be densely centered around a transit station.

“In most areas where light rail is being built, there is a lot of redevelopment,” says Nolen of TSI. “Here we are starting with a clean slate.”

“The Spring District is going to be a world-class example of smart growth,” Nolen adds. “The plan is for the light rail station to be integrated right into the development. There will be a hub where all forms of transportation including bikes and pedestrian walkways come together in a synergistic way.”

Wright Runstad has been working with the city of Bellevue on appropriate zoning and accommodations within the development for the future East Link light rail line. “If you are going to do something like this—with a strong connection to transit—then almost by definition you are doing a public-private partnership,” says Johnson.

Even further out on the future East Link, in downtown Redmond, a new development called Veloce is now leasing. With an expansive rooftop deck above a retail level and between the apartment building’s three towers, Veloce and its sidewalk storefronts look right out upon the transit platform that now serves frequent busses to downtown Bellevue and Seattle. According to Dan Shieder, managing director of Trammell Crow Residential, the company chose to build according to the principals of transit-oriented development, even though rail could be many years away.

Perhaps as important is this question: How do you fit this major new development into an existing neighborhood? “You’ve got to listen to the neighborhood,” says Emiko Baldowin, who serves as marketing director for Harbor Properties. “We try not to do just the project, but to enhance the [existing] neighborhood,” she says. Parking, for example, is a contentious issue. Developers will frequently save money by not adding parking stalls for each apartment unit. “It’s not just the number of stalls, it’s the number of vehicles that represents,” says Tom Fitzsimmons, Lorig’s chief operating officer, who makes a specialty of green infill developments, those that convert existing properties into more environmentally sustainable projects. More stalls accommodate more vehicles, burning more fuel and creating greenhouse gases, and this approach tends to defeat the environmental advantages of transit-oriented development.

But in the short term, while transit systems are still in development, many residents will continue to depend on cars and park those cars on the street. Add to that the people who park in the neighborhoods to gain access to public transit, and the neighborhoods fear being transformed into giant park-and-rides. Some neighbors also object to high buildings going up in their midst in the name of density. But in spite of such objections, rising density on transit hubs may be inevitable. They help to house the region’s rising number of immigrants, address pressing environmental questions and can be an attractive alternative to suburban sprawl.

They have another advantage. They can be very profitable for developers. Experiences in other cities have shown that, over time, transit-focused developments are the most valuable properties in urban areas, yielding premiums of up to 20 percent.

Some examples of transit-oriented development

1. Thornton Place (301 NE 103rd St., Seattle)

Now leasing, Thornton Place is located off Interstate 5 just south of Northgate Mall. Built on what used to be a vast parking lot, the $130-million project is jointly owned by Stellar Holdings and Lorig Associates LLC. The city of Seattle owns the adjacent water quality channel, a large bioswale that naturally filters runoff from the project. Lorig led the development of the entire project and is now managing the property. The six-acre, mixed-use development, with a total of nine buildings, is centered on a large pedestrian and parking court. It contains 278 market-rate apartments and 109 condominiums, all constructed over 850 parking spaces. In addition, there are 50,000 square feet of retail space and a 14-screen cinema. Era Living has purchased an acre of the site and will develop 127 rental apartments for adults 62 years and older on the southeast corner of the parcel. Thornton Place is designed around transit options, with easy connections by bus to employment hubs in Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond. When the light rail line reaches Northgate in about seven years, residents will enjoy a quick commute to downtown Seattle. The project is scheduled to be completed this summer. 2. Sixth & Lenora Apartments (2105 Sixth Ave., Seattle)

A development by Pine Street Group LLC, Sixth & Lenora is expected to break ground next year and begin leasing in 2011. Designs for the $200-million, mixed-use project by GGLO LLC show two towers on a podium base, and the 644 units will average about 700 square feet each. It covers a half block in downtown Seattle and will be close to a major hub for buses, as well as light rail, the South Lake Union streetcar line and the monorail. Retail shops, exterior lighting, plantings and outdoor seating will help bring the neighborhood to life. A rooftop deck atop a six-level building between the 24-story towers will include outdoor gardens, seating, a water feature and an enclosed pavilion, which will house a common recreational and entertainment area. Three levels of below-grade parking are planned. Sixth & Lenora will be a haven for bicyclists, with 240 secure bike stalls and locker rooms with showers—all open to non-residents as available. 3. Mural Apartments (4727 42nd Ave. SW, Seattle)

Now leasing, Mural Apartments is a six-story, mixed-use building near Alaska Junction in West Seattle. The $34-million, 7-story building includes three on-site retail shops at street level along with 136 apartments above, all over two levels of parking. Developed by Harbor Properties and designed by Hewitt Architects, the base of the building will blend with the wide sidewalk, putting restaurant patrons in the heart of the West Seattle street scene. The location is right next to the future “C” line of Metro RapidRide, a new service that will provide frequent bus transit between West Seattle and downtown. 4. St. Gobain (3711 S. Hudson St., Seattle)

“St. Gobain” is the name of a business that once occupied the historic building in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood where a new $100-million development by  Harbor Properties is in the works. The design is by a team that includes GGLO and Hewitt Architects. The project will include 400 apartments and 15,000 square feet of retail space in five new six-story buildings as well as a renovation of a historic building there. Centered on a plaza-style green space, it will also feature townhouses that open to the street level and a European-style alley with outside dining and gathering spots. The project is near the Columbia City light rail station and will break ground as early as 2010. 5. The Station at Othello Park (4219 S. Othello St., Seattle)

When it opens in early 2011, The Station at Othello Park will offer 352 apartments and 20,000 square feet of retail space just across the intersection from the platform at Othello Station in south Seattle. Othello Partners and USAA Real Estate have joined forces behind the project, which is designed by Ruffcorn Mott Hinthorne Stine. Adjacent to 7.5-acre Othello Park and playground, it is within easy access to the Chief Sealth Bicycle Trail. With the light rail line in place, residents will be within 15 minutes of downtown Seattle. Construction will begin this summer on the $70-million project. 6. The Spring District (between SR 520 and Bel-Red Road, Bellevue)

The Spring District is a 36-acre infill project located on a former Safeway distribution site in the Bel-Red corridor in Bellevue. Developed by Wright Runstad & Co. and master-planned by NBBJ, it will contain over 3 million square feet of office, residential and retail space, distributed among more than 14 buildings in a dozen newly created city blocks. Heights will range from six to 12 stories. Design and rezoning is complete, and the first phase of construction on the $1.5-billion project could begin as early as 2013. Because of its size, the Spring District is designed to be a truly integrated and economically diverse community, with a range of uses and a combination of busy and quiet streets. Smaller block sizes than in downtown Bellevue, along with mid-block pedestrian ways, will encourage pedestrians and limit vehicle use. A transit station is planned, in concert with the city of Bellevue, for the center of the Spring District in anticipation of East Link Light Rail. The design of the development is closely interconnected with a transit platform. To prevent interruption of the street grid, a rail platform that is sunk below grade is being considered, so that streets can bridge over the rail line.   7. Veloce (8102 161st Ave. NE, Redmond)

Now leasing in Redmond, Veloce has 322 apartments and just under 12,000 square feet of retail in six stories rising beside the downtown Redmond transit center. The $90-million project, by Trammell Crow Residential, was designed by Rutledge Maul Associates with conceptual design services provided by Hewitt Architects. Three repeating towers in the building design provide a complex, urban perspective from the street. Veloce got a perfect score of 100 for walkability from Walk Score, a group that assesses the ease of living without a car. Even before Sound Transit light rail arrives in Redmond, the project is expected to generate more than 40 percent fewer rush hour car trips than a project in a less pedestrian-oriented environment.