Economic analysis doesn’t inform Roosevelt station design decisions

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The Seattle Light Rail Review Panel is looking at the Brooklyn and Roosevelt Stations and the questions are beginning. The Roosevelt station has problems that we’ve already talked about. But here’s what’s mystifying. Sound Transit says that housing and retail isn’t economically viable above the new station. But when asked directly about the economic analysis behind this conclusion, Sound Transit staff basically said there was no analysis done. So the design decisions, premised on the idea that retail and housing wouldn’t work on 12th, took place in the absence of any actual financial or economic review of design potential of the site. 

The Seattle Light Rail Review Panel is essentially the Supreme Allied Command of design for light rail in Seattle. It’s composed of members of lots of other commissions and boards like the Design Commission, Arts Commission, and Planning Commissions. City staff also participates.

These meetings are tough for agency architects, I’m sure. Often the questions are odd and focused on really small details or worries about possible bad things happening that are out of the perfect control of designers. Some panelists expressed worry about station icon signage, safety, and location of ticket dispensers. Important for sure, but kind of life and death on the Sarengetti (and the icon for the Roosevelt station is obvious: a toothy smile with a mustache!)

Both stations are in early design, only 30 percent. A big problem with the Roosevelt station is that there is no development above the station. Lyle Bicknell, senior planner at the City, pointed out that TOD is not just a preference but federal policy. Why isn’t it happening at Roosevelt? What’s interesting is that there is development being planned above the Brooklyn Station. There has been lots of thanks all around for that at the meeting as well as praise for the focus on pedestrians, integration of the station into existing green streets, and bicycles.

The design team was pretty adamant that retail and housing won’t work and that given existing zoning those uses were not “economical.” David Hewitt the architect designing the station said that any “commercial venture at the site would die” on 12th. Presumably this is the same for housing or other uses above the site. But asked directly whether the analysis that was behind that conclusion was available Sound Transit staff said that analysis was just finished last weak and that they “hadn’t read it.”

So the gigantic footprint for the station entrances, which consumes prime real estate in the neighborhood, is premised on a economic analysis which appears to be anecdotal at best and non-existant at worst. Making the entrances smaller, like the ones at Capitol Hill, makes a lot more sense. It saves room for more density and higher use. Putting more development on top is even more important when considering the lack of density in other parts of the neighborhood.

Members of the panel asked really good questions. Sound Transit does do TOD according to Sound Transit staff. One member asked “why in other places, but not here.” The answer was that it’s not economical. But we’ve already seen that the analysis there is absent. Given ridership patterns, 8,000 boardings at Roosevelt compared to 16,000 at Capitol Hill, why are the entrances so big? Again the answer is that other uses on 12th won’t work because they aren’t economical.

One final sort of, well, shocking thing said by Sound Transit staff was “we build our stations to existing zoning.” I think I actually slapped my head. I’d be a terrible poker player. I just can’t conceal my shock and disappointment. I can sort of understand why Sound Transit doesn’t want to tangle with local land use issues and get into big complicated development projects. But c’mon folks. The neighborhood is on record supporting rezones and they might be willing to consider more density if problems and concerns can be addressed. But Sound Transit seems to have a one station fits all solution here.

I want Sound Transit to have more authority and resources to do TOD and to get these projects done. We certainly don’t want to flummox light rail with lots of process. But basic due diligence is important. Basic economic and land use analysis of what might work in the future at station areas is a small cost. If there is some data that shows that the big suburban entrances are warranted then share that information. But it likes like the decision at Roosevelt was made before any of that was done.

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10 Responses to Economic analysis doesn’t inform Roosevelt station design decisions

  1. Barb Wilson says:

    by attending LRRP reviews you have now passed into “Total Junkie” mode!! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Transit Oriented Development requires “Tough Love” | Seattle's Land Use Code

  3. Pingback: No Economic Analysis Was Done For Roosevelt Station - Seattle Transit Blog

  4. David Sucher says:

    David Hewitt is a very good architect but is not a developer and such statement (assuming that it is is accurate) that retail on 12th Avenue work is preposterous.

  5. David Sucher says:

    I guess I should have added that there commercial already exists on 12th Avenue. I know Hewitt and I cannot imagine that he would make such an odd statement and I suspect he was misquoted.

  6. . says:

    Thanks for the comments David.

    You wrote that “such statement (assuming that it is is accurate) that retail on 12th Avenue work is preposterous.”

    Did you mean won’t work? I am guessing since you were referring to something I wrote in the post. If that is what you meant, I would agree.

    But I would agree not so much because I know that it “will work” but because Hewitt and Sound Transit would make such a statement without any underlying economic analysis, envelope study, or pro forma. Maybe development above the station entrances or along 12th between 65th and 67 is folly. But how would they know if they hadn’t done the work to find out if it was indeed “not economical.”

    As for your second comment, others were there and I think could confirm what both Sound Transit and Hewitt said. I don’t think they’re bad people or being deceptive. I think they’ve make decisions about the design and are pushing ahead. They should simply say why, not attribute the reasons to some analysis of housing and retail development that has never taken place.

  7. David Sucher says:

    What I am trying to say is that yes, commercial — retail specifically at street level will work on 12th Avenue NE because it ALREADY EXISTS there.

    Yes I am shouting because I am astonished that anyone could even be discussing it.
    There are several small shops on 12th between 65th and 66th and then there is a QFC at between 66th and 67th so far as I understand, supermarkets are retail establishments.

    How could there be any discussion about the matter? Am I mixed up about which 12th Avenue NE in the R’velt neighborhood at issue?

  8. . says:

    Hi David,

    Yes, I share your confusion. Indeed, we are talking about 12th between 65th and 67th–where retail ALREADY EXISTS!

    You make a caps lock point that underlines what we’re saying about the station design: it’s not based on anything. Sound Transit seems to have made their design decisions in a windowless room somewhere. Now they’re trying to justify it. And as you point out, anyone who drove around those blocks would see that, in fact, retail ALREADY EXISTS!

    I’d urge Hewitt and Sound Transit to either revise their design or come up with some actual reasons why development on that block and an overbuild wouldn’t be “economical.”

  9. David Sucher says:

    Why don’t you email to Hewitt? Of course he has responsibilities to the ST line (he’s the client!) but Hewitt is a smart guy, sincerely cares about Seattle and maybe the specific issue can be revisited.

    I understand that their institutional inertia aims to getting the line built rather than making sure that the line functions as part of overall urban planning — but maybe that’s a good time to stop.

  10. David Sucher says:

    Of course, for the record, I did not mean “(he’s the client!)” but that “(ST is Hewitt’s client.)”

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