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.