Roosevelt Neighborhood and Transit Oriented Development

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In 2008, voters approved the Sound Transit II ballot measure, which funds light rail from the University District through the Roosevelt neighborhood in Northeast Seattle, continuing on to Northgate and Lynnwood.  Light rail transit stops are great places for additional housing and job development, and the Roosevelt neighborhood has recently endorsed an update to neighborhood zoning to add capacity for approximately 350 additional housing units.  Some observers have suggested that this does not take full advantage of the light rail station, and that the City should further increase the height and density around the station.

The Roosevelt neighborhood has a long track record of embracing light rail and adding development.  As part of Seattle’s implementation of Washington’s Growth Management Act (passed in 1990), the 1994 Seattle Comprehensive Plan called for an additional 340 units in Roosevelt, and in 1999 the neighborhood endorsed zoning changes to achieve that density goal.  In 2005 Sound Transit suggested that it bypass the Roosevelt neighborhood business core and place an elevated station near I-5 instead.  The neighborhood rallied under the banner of ‘YIMFY’ (Yes, In My Front Yard) and persuaded the City Council and Sound Transit Board to commit to the extra funding to put the station underground in Roosevelt.  The new plan update commits to twice as many new units as the 1999 plan.

It is critical that we recognize and respect the community’s good faith work.  There is also a valid question about whether the neighborhood recommendations achieve ‘enough’ density to fully take advantage of the regional investment in light rail.

The problem is that this guidance was not given to the neighborhood in the first place.  Roosevelt has been designated as a ‘residential urban village’ – a designation that requires a modest level of growth, not an urban center, where development is supposed to be concentrated under the Comprehensive Plan.  When the community was given a specific target in 1994, it met that target.  When it was told to increase density for light rail, the neighborhood added capacity to its target.  If we are looking for more, the City must take the initiative to tell the neighborhood what we want. 

Telling the neighborhood to go through a process and then responding with ‘that’s not enough’ feels very classic Seattle passive aggressive.  City leadership knew that the individual neighborhood targets established in 1994 would be controversial, and convened a city-wide neighborhood planning process to address the challenges and benefits of increased density.  We should do the same with transit oriented development, and do it in a comprehensive way so that each affected community understands what will be expected. 

If a neighborhood reacts in bad faith, we may need to disregard their recommendations – but none of our 37 neighborhood areas did that in the neighborhood planning process (somewhat to the surprise of many observers!).  That was a great demonstration that Seattle residents care about their neighborhoods and meeting our growth management goals, and are willing to roll up their sleeves and find ways to bring those goals into harmony.

Given that this mistake has been made, that it will take time to rectify that, and that the neighborhood has put forth a proposal in good faith, what should we do now?

I don’t know what the ‘right’ level of density would be in Roosevelt, that would both fully take advantage of the light rail opportunity and maintain neighborhood character.  But in the near term I think we should honor the work of the community and take it as the starting point for legislative action.  The Mayor and Council may modify it to some extent, but maintain consistency with the neighborhood’s parameters.  That may mean increasing heights, as was done in the Capitol Hill update in 2006 when the neighborhood suggested 40 foot buildings on Broadway, and the Council increased that to 65 feet (if the additional height was residential) – a change that has raised little concern since it was made.

When we do that, we should also be clear that a Transit Oriented Development process may recommend additional capacity in the Roosevelt neighborhood, and proceed to create a comprehensive strategy that develops targets for each area that will have major transit investments.  Then we can go back to each neighborhood and engage them in an honest dialogue as to how to meet those targets.  Our planning process should encompass neighborhoods targeted for increases in all modes of transit, including bus rapid transit or street cars, as well as light rail.

Fortunately, there is plenty of time in most of our transit neighborhoods.  The economy is still sluggish, and there is little likelihood that areas that could be rezoned for greater density will have new construction that might compromise future options.  The Roosevelt Station, for example, is not scheduled to open until 2020.  There is time to do some serious planning and decide whether the capacity provided by the current proposal (or a modified version) meets the City’s goals for transit communities.