Tomorrow night at the North Link Light Rail Roosevelt Station meeting, the agenda includes a discussion of land use and Transit Oriented the Roosevelt neighborhood (find out what happened at last night’s meeting here). I’ve already talked about what I think might help the situation up in Roosevelt. Part of the fix is to have more, high level involvement from the City, and a bit of a cooling off period. More density is needed in Roosevelt’s plan, but it’s going to take some serious facilitation to figure out how to get an alignment of interests. But the process in Roosevelt sure could use more involvement, vision, and leadership from the agency at the heart of it all, Sound Transit.
First, the good stuff. Sound Transit has, over the years, overcome lots of big hurdles. I remember when the whole concept of regional transit was voted on back in the 1990s. The whole thing seemed pie in the sky at the time and the agency faced financial problems and a “tunnel or nothing” rebellion in the Rainier Valley. I never thought I’d see the day that I’d take the longest light rail elevator ride to a station on Beacon Hill. But Sound Transit made the first part of regional light rail and transit happen.
There are several reasons that Sound Transit offers about why it doesn’t get involved in local land use decisions. It doesn’t have the personnel. There are no upsides for the agency to anger local governments that permit their work. And there are dozens of local governments with lots and lots of bizarre local politics. How on earth could they sort all that out? Also, Sound Transit lacks the muscle I suggested the region needs in a transit agency.
Now the criticism and advice. Roosevelt is in real danger of losing, as it did in Beacon Hill, a big opportunity to get density appropriate for light rail. There isn’t enough leadership coming from Sound Transit in Roosevelt. Here’s what they’re doing wrong and how they could start turning it around.
- More creative and integrated station design–the current proposed design for the station is desultoryat best and abysmal at worst. Right now it’s two blocks of boxy blank facade along 12th Ave and no development on top. Do we want an airport concourse in the heart of the neighborhood?
- Transit to nowhere?–Roosevelt is not exactly nowhere, but are we really going to build millions of dollars worth of transit station so it can sit next to this? Sound Transit can afford to weigh in on this and other examples of it around the region. When local governments fail to do land use right it is a waste of transit resources. Sure, density may come years down the road. But now is the time to get the land use right. Transit is about more than driving trains and buses, it’s also critically linked to land use
- Where’s the planning and facilitation?–years ago when I worked at the City’s Department of Neighborhoods, Sound Transit actually funded staff at the City to help to station area planning. A lot of that work was what could be called “hand holding,” listening to neighborhood worries and dreams about the neighborhood but that had nothing to do with transit. But it helped immensely in terms of sorting out local problems before they became a land use failure. But for some reason that investment stopped.
As far as the first bullet goes, Sound Transit knows how to do this. What they are proposing at the University District station includes development on top of it. Yes, this kind of collaboration can create complications. It would require getting into partnerships and discussions about financing and design of housing and retail. And that would require, well, leadership.
The second bullet doesn’t need to be about heavy handed lobbying efforts of local elected officials. That won’t work anyway, since local political bread isn’t really buttered by Sound Transit. But it could be. That takes me to bullet number three. By investing again in local planning and development, Sound Transit can put a carrot even where it can’t put a stick. Good scoping and project management could burn out the NIMBYs, disperse concern trolls, and make local politicians look like visionary leaders bringing home the bacon.
Finally, this is regional investment. Until we get the kind of regional government that Oregon has, we’re going to have to rely on regional finesse. Allowing local governments and parochial concerns to play havoc with billions of transit investment is like re-wiring and re-plumbing an apartment building one unit at a time. Sound Transit has to stop playing passive defense and get into the TOD game. It won’t be easy and it might not be fun. And it will cost money and time which is scarce. Building regional transit that fulfills both regional and local expectations won’t be easy, but neither is leadership. The pay off, however, is worth it.