East Link alignmentToo often transportation planning and land use planning proceed along independent paths and we miss opportunities to get the biggest bang for our buck when new transit facilities come on line. Sound Transit’s East Link line will connect downtown Seattle to Bellevue and Redmond, crossing Lake Washington on the I-90 Floating Bridge. With the conclusion of successful negotiations with the Bellevue City Council, the route has been determined and design is proceeding. Not only does this provide a great transit link to the communities on the east side of Lake Washington, but it also offers another opportunity for transit oriented development (TOD) in Seattle when the station is constructed where 23rd Avenue crosses I-90. In my role as land use chair and Sound Transit Board member, I’ve been thinking about how to get the most public benefits with this new station.

The 23rd and I-90 Station will be the first station sited in Seattle that is not in an existing Urban Village or Center. It will have a function as a commuter station, allowing Seattle residents who want to go to the Eastside to use light rail without going through downtown Seattle. But if we are to truly fulfill the vision of integrating transit with development, this station will have to be more than that. First we will have to create great connections to existing urban areas, particularly to the north in the Central Area and Capitol Hill. And then, we will have to assess what the possibilities are for additional development in the area that is near the station.

The north-south connections will focus on 23rd Avenue, especially to the north, and the City is already engaged in two major planning processes around that major artery. 23rd Avenue is scheduled for repaving and redesign, and community meetings and discussions are helping to shape the plans for this transformation. One critical element will be to ensure that the good bus service on 23rd continues to function well and make it easy for passengers along the route to access the station. A second critical element will be to make 23rd Avenue a safe biking route. People from Capitol Hill, the Central Area, Madrona and Leschi, and other nearby neighborhoods should have the opportunity to use this as a way to access the station safely and speedily. Finally, pedestrian access must be improved, especially to the south of the station, where there are streets without sidewalks and a complicated tangle of arterials that discourage pedestrian movement as Rainier and MLK converge and are connected by the busy Atlantic Street access which brings vehicles from eastern Seattle to the I-90 on-ramps off Rainier.

The 23rd Avenue process is also integrated with an update of the Central Area Neighborhood Plan, which includes reviewing the urban design and zoning at the nodes where Jackson, Cherry, and Union cross 23rd.

Developing those connections and the Central Area communities will be the critical task in the near-term. In the longer term, however, the City must assess what the potential is for urban development near the station. The half-mile radius encompasses is focused on the I-90 lid to the east and west, with little potential for housing or urban development but great opportunities to increase the usage of the park on the lid with the right kind of adjacencies. To the north there are additional parks and mostly single family neighborhoods except for the Hiawatha Place area south of Dearborn, where some additional development potential may be possible. However, most of the potential is in the area across Rainier, which is largely mixed commercial and light industrial.

The most significant potential may be to the south of the station, where there are a few small multi-family buildings and houses, and additional commercial development at a relatively modest level. Making a decision to significantly redevelop this area would require a major City commitment to working with the property owners and existing businesses and residents. It would necessitate creating a vision for the area, reexamining the major transportation facilities to reduce their dominance, and determining what kind of development would work best.

That will be an interesting program to work on. As Yesler Terrace develops to the north, and the Mount Baker Station Area to the south, this station area could become a major new Seattle neighborhood with great access to light rail at either end. It will require a lot of work and a very ambitious planning program to figure out what might be possible, and we should begin exploring that in the near future. In June, 2012, I sponsored a resolution calling on the Executive to begin the planning process for the Station Area. As that process proceeds, we should keep the possible larger vision in mind.