As a Capitol Hill resident, anything north of the University Bridge can feel like a distant suburb. But I ventured up north this weekend to take a first hand look at the site of some recent controversy over land use in the Roosevelt neighborhood. After walking around the neighborhood (I lived on 65th and Latona years ago) it all came back to me. Roosevelt is the ideal place to build the Transit Oriented Community in Seattle that many of us hope would proliferate with the development of light rail. Roosevelt has it all: a light rail station, proximity to open space, an iconic public school, lots of buses, and a healthy business district.
But let’s unpack the problems first. There is a significant portion of land, a kind of panhandle, that extends east from 12th, between 65th and 67th, where the transit station entrances are going to be located. The three blocks forming the panhandle–between 12th and 15th–are owned by Hugh Sisely. Sisely has been the object of anger in the neighborhood for some time now for not maintaining his properties. And a few years ago the City got aggressive (after lots of complaints from the neighborhood) with Sisely, fining him $75,000 for numerous violations of the code.
Now Sisely’s development partners, the Roosevelt Development Group (RDG), are looking to significantly upzone the panhandle from its current multifamily and NC 40 designations to 120 feet. They’ve submitted a contract rezone proposal to the City Council.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood has its own plan. The Roosevelt Neighborhood Association is proposing that Sisely’s panhandle blocks on the south side of NE 66th St. between 12th & 14th Aves NE go from “Neighborhood Commercial 1 with a 40’ height limit (NC1-40) to Neighborhood Commercial 2 with a 40’ height limit (NC2-40).” On the north side of NE 65th St, between Brooklyn Ave NE & 14th Ave NE and the NE corner 14th Ave NE and NE 65th St the neighborhood proposes a shift from “Lowrise 2 (LR2) to Neighborhood Commercial 2 with a Pedestrian designation and a 40’ height limit (NC2P-40).”
This puts the developer and property owner at loggerheads with the neighborhood. The neighborhood wants a lid on new development while the developer is proposing significant increases in height (up to 120 feet) for the panhandle parcels. Height isn’t the issue in and of itself, however. What matters is density.
The Futurewise Blueprint Transit Oriented Communities for Washington State found that these TOCs come together when there is a high enough concentration of people around the stations. Density of residents and retail is crucial to sparking a true TOC at Roosevelt.
[An analysis] of the 2001 U.S. National Household Transportation Survey and concluded that given two identical households, if one is located in a residential area with 1,000 more dwelling units per square mile (1.6 units per acre) more than the other, the occupants will drive 1,171 miles per year less.
This reduced auto dependence only works in Roosevelt, though, if people have a place to live and work. That means more housing and more retail space. Leaving the Sisely panhandle a squat 40 feet, crowded with boarded up buildings is not a good plan for making Roosevelt a Transit Oriented Community.
In my walk around the future station area it became pretty clear that east of the new station there isn’t much opportunity to create more housing other than on Sisely’s property. The stretch of 65th already has good transit connections and would allow links to a node of commercial retail on 20th and 65th. The proximity of Roosevelt High School means there’s no room to grow there, and to the south of Sisley’s properties is more established single family.
We are, potentially, headed for another Beacon Hill, where we have hundreds of millions in regional infrastructure poking its head out of the ground surrounded by parking lots, low rise retail, and single family homes. We can’t let that happen in Roosevelt. It’s true that the neighborhood plan does propose upzones, but the panhandle is especially crucial. The meager height increases for the three blocks are not enough.
Beacon Hill suffered from a lot of contention over upzones around the station. Instead of dealing with those concerns when the neighborhood plan was approved years ago, the Council kicked the can down the road, deferring tough land use decisions for more than a decade. Now the City is playing catch up with rezones that should have happened before the station was built. The Beacon Hill problem can be avoided in Roosevelt by trying out this approach:
- RDG should drop its proposed contract rezone–This would be a compromise since, if their proposal goes through, RDG and Sisely would get 12 stories. They’ve already put a lot of work into this, but it’s not what the neighborhood wants to see happen. They can come back to the table and work with neighborhood on another solution.
- The neighborhood and DPD should hold off on their proposal–The proposal as it now stands simply keeps the Sisely panhandle properties fallow, which is worse than nothing. The boarded up buildings are an eye sore. The community certainly wants more than this:
- The City should facilitate a round of dialogues about the future of these blocks–This process should have a timeline and not be open-ended. Both sides will have to give something up in order to get some benefits. But this is a decision that will impact the neighborhood–and the whole city–for years to come.
- Sound Transit needs to get into the game–Sound Transit has often said that it’s a transit agency, not a land use agency. Fine. But building expensive regional infrastructure and not getting the land use right is wasteful. Sound Transit should help with funds and staff, dialogue, and the solution.
These blocks would benefit from improvements. Cleaning up the boarded up buildings, activating this dead zone in the neighborhood, and creating new retail and housing would benefit everyone.
It makes sense that the neighborhood is not happy with the land owner. And there may even be disagreements about how high the buildings should go. But here’s a chance to make something positive for current residents of the neighborhood and lots more people who would benefit from living and working right next to a major regional transit link.
Finally, we have to start aligning regional transit investments with local land use. It doesn’t make much sense to spend billions on light rail to connect regional population centers and then leave the land use decisions to the parochial concerns of dozens of city councils. That leads to expensive transit stations without adequate density around them to support transit oriented development. Light rail is a huge investment in a community and the communities that get light rail should reciprocate with appropriate density.