Community Cornerstones – advancing Equitable Transit Oriented Development

Home » Community Cornerstones – advancing Equitable Transit Oriented Development

Yesterday the Community Cornerstones program reported to the Council on progress for equitable transit oriented development in South Seattle.

This simple chart highlights what we are talking about – placing the needs of low-income residents at the center of transit-oriented development. It was described as “TOD with social equity.” That is, developing the physical infrastructure of transit oriented development with a focus on the social infrastructure and fabric of the community.


We talked about Equitable TOD in 2012, around the release of Puget Sound Sage’s report, report TOD that’s Healthy Green and Just, which made the environmental case for considering equity in our TOD planning.  If low-income individuals and families are displaced from transit-rich neighborhoods, they are more likely to increase the amount they drive.  As higher income households move into the neighborhood, they are more likely to own a car and increase driving in the neighborhood.  Both of these undermine our environmental goals for TOD.  A focus on avoiding displacement during gentrification is not only a good thing to do for families and households; it helps us to achieve our environmental goals.

The Community Cornerstones project aims to advance equitable TOD in the Rainier Valley.  It is funded by a $3 million HUD grant, received in late 2011 for work 2012-2014.  This grant leverages $5.9 million from other sources and aims to address three key strategic areas that came out of the neighborhood planning process:

  1. An Equitable TOD Loan Program to support TOD that serves communities in Southeast Seattle;
  2. A Commercial Stability Strategy that helps existing business grow and thrive; and
  3. Planning for a Shared Cultural Center that will serve as a community gathering space for the diverse immigrant communities that call Southeast Seattle home today.

The theory underpinning the work is that these strategies serve as anchors for communities to remain in their neighborhood in the face of the rising costs for land and rents.  These tools are meant to provide communities with the tools they need to build self-determination and economic prosperity.

The first solution advanced by the Community Cornerstone Initiative is the creation of an equitable TOD loan program.  The loan fund recognizes that:

  • The Southeast Seattle real estate market is improving and opportunity sites for development will disappear.
  • That affordable housing and economic development is needed to support existing residents and businesses as well as to welcome new ones.
  • Shrinking permanent public funding sources require creative financing and development models that can attract private capital to leverage the limited public sources.

The objective is to support equitable TOD projects in Southeast Seattle over the next four to five years.  To that end, the city, along with community funding partners have released a Request for Proposals (RFP) focused on large catalytic TOD.  These would include mixed-income housing and affordable commercial spaces with a design that reflects and fits in with the culture and streetscape of Southeast Seattle.  The hope is to use limited public financing to leverage private capital for these projects near light rail stations.

Responses are due by the end of May and we will hopefully have projects moving soon.

A second strategy is the Othello Commercial Stability Strategy.  The Rainier Valley Community Development Fund is leading work in this area.  The assumption was that lease rates were becoming more expensive with development, but after talking with over 90 businesses in the Othello area, staff found that lease rates to date remain relatively affordable.  What businesses needed more was support in growing their businesses and increasing revenues.  The project has focused on supporting 15-20 interested business with workshops and training on how to grow and market their businesses.  This would allow small business to grow-up with the neighborhood as more development comes online.

The last strategy focuses on the social infrastructure to support Equitable Transit Oriented Development – the development of a Multicultural Community Center.

The vision is to develop a community- financed (not city), constructed and operated community center.  The near-term goals of the grant are to:

  1. Build a sustainable leadership body from immigrant and historically underrepresented communities in Southeast Seattle to carry the project forward, and
  2. Complete the predevelopment feasibility studies for what a multi-cultural center could look like.

This relationship-building work is not what we normally think of in land use or development work, but building community capacity is critical to getting the “equitable” part of equitable TOD right.

I’m hopeful for this three-pronged strategy and thankful to HUD and our partners for funding this innovative work. We’ve build the first phase of physical infrastructure for TOD in Southeast Seattle with the Link Light Rail.  Now it’s time for phase two: can investment that spurs new development, stabilizes and grows existing businesses and develops the community leadership work together to anchor low-income communities in this transit-rich neighborhood?   We’re all watching closely.  This could be a blueprint for our work in other neighborhoods scheduled for light-rail expansion and a blueprint for cities around the country that are grappling with the same questions we are—how to improve economic conditions in a neighborhood without displacement.

TOD principles