City Living - LINKed by light rail

by Sarah Radmer - July 17, 2014

Communities plan for development around stations

The tunnel boring machines for the Northgate and University District Link light-rail stations began boring early this month. By 2021, North Seattle will be completely connected, with light-rail stations in the U-District, Roosevelt and Northgate.

As Sound Transit finishes up the plans for these stations and continues with construction, communities have formed around the stations, calling for different developments that will suit not only the transit hubs but the neighborhoods they serve.

Sound Transit spokesperson Bruce Gray said the ridership speaks for itself. Ridership has doubled since it opened the Link line to the airport, and officials expect those numbers to continue with their highest ridership ever when the North End stations open.

“The designs are getting pretty well wrapped up,” Gray said. “What happens afterward is people start to realize what they want around stations, and a lot of work that goes in on the city’s part is to have urban development around the stations.”

These new light-rail stations will be distinctly different from the existing, above-ground stations dotting Southeast Seattle right now. Those stations didn’t have the same opportunity for on-site development, but they are seeing the same kinds of nearby growth and development that’s expected in the North End.

“The coming of light rail brought us the legitimacy in the eyes of the developers that this is a good place to develop,” said Columbia City business owner and activist Robert Mohn. 

U-District

The U-District will be home to two Link stations. The Husky Stadium Station that will connect to Capitol Hill will open in 2016. The other station, in the heart of the U-District, will open in 2021.

Cory Crocker has lived and worked in the U-District for the last 23 years. He has a background in web design and architecture and studied urban spaces in Europe through the University of Washington (UW).

The idea for a public square came not from Crocker but from UW professor Phil Theil. Crocker and Theil connected, and from there, the U-District Square partnership was formed.

With an underground station, there’s room above for public space, Crocker said. But that space isn’t up for grabs. Sound Transit swapped the land with UW, who plans to put a building above the station.

Sound Transit’s role is to design the station to accommodate the building above, Gray said, and the agency plans to build it to support a tall tower.

“Part of our goal is to get as many people as possible on the trains,” Gray said. “Development above that is the easiest way” to get the density necessary. 

U-District Square has come up with three different design options for a public space, which organizers want as close to the station as possible. In these ideas, the UW could still retain ownership while a nonprofit leases the area and manages the public square, Crocker said.

Crocker sees the public space as an intersection of all the different modes of transit, with an open square like you’d see in a European city. “If we can lock in how cities should be, it could be a lab,” Crocker said, to show how these kind of spaces could be used.

What sets this station apart is its proximity to campus. However, Crocker is worried about what could set it apart in the future. With proposed, new upzoning, the U-District could see taller buildings than ever before.

“We want density; we want all the benefits,” Crocker said. “But we don’t want to give it away and not have anything coming in.”

Without preemptive planning and limits, the area could become “canyons of streets with tall towers and no livability,” he said.

The UW’s Board of Regents and president Michael Young have said the idea of the public space is “compelling,” Crocker said, but no plans are being considered right now.

“There’s no one looking at the big picture, and that scares me,” Crocker said.

The U-District Square received funding from the city to host an open forum. So, this fall, the group plans to host three events to find out what the community members want.

There is plenty of time between now and the station’s conclusion to push their position, Crocker said; right now, the group is focusing on getting its idea out into the community.

“I think people are realizing it’s not just enough to have station,” Crocker said. “They want lively activating spaces.”

Northgate

The Northgate station will also open in 2021, and unlike in the U-District and Roosevelt, it will be an above-ground station.

Feet First, a nonprofit dedicated to making sure Washington state has walkable communities, has been advocating for a pedestrian bridge across Interstate 5 to connect pedestrians with the above-ground station. Multiple nonprofits have joined together around this issue because they don’t want the station to only serve people who drive to it.

The city has pledged $10 million to the bridge, which needs $25 million in funding. The city is applying for a grant for the additional funding, but Feet First executive director Lisa Quinn is skeptical it will get the money. If the remaining money isn’t collected by summer 2015, the project will be cancelled.

Sound Transit has $10 million set aside for pedestrian improvements: Half of that will be for the footbridge, and the other half will be for pedestrian and bike improvements in the area, Gray said. If the bridge doesn’t get all of the necessary funding, the $5 million Sound Transit has set aside for it will go to another pedestrian improvement.

Without access from the other side of I-5, that side of the neighborhood will be cut off from the transit infrastructure, Quinn said. She estimates 7,000 people would use the bridge every day to get to the light-rail trains. Prioritizing people over parking stalls would reduce auto trips and focus on the light rail’s users.

The community is completely on board with the plan, including nearby North Seattle College, Quinn said.

Quinn is pushing for leaders to look at other sources of funding and “not just have the attitude of wait-and-see,” she said. Feet First has been scheduling meetings with local politicians and leaders to “let them know this is a priority for the community.”

Quinn’s main concern is that the project doesn’t get dropped if they doesn’t get the funding by the “arbitrary” 2015 deadline.

“To scrap the project would be a shame for all of the work from the community and City Council,” she said.

Roosevelt

The Roosevelt Station is also under construction on Northeast 65th Street and 12th Avenue Northeast. Jim O’Halloran has been involved with its planning since the beginning, both as president of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association and now as an engaged community member.

The community first got involved advocating for the precise location of the station while Sound Transit was deciding where it should be. They “lobbied intensely” and won, O’Halloran said.

Density and where it should be has also been an ongoing conversation in the neighborhood. During the rezoning process, neighbors and developers were able to compromise on a height limit of six stories near the station, O’Halloran said.

The design plans for the Roosevelt Station will be 90-percent complete by the end of this year. Even though there isn’t any formal community activism around it, O’Halloran has been inquiring about a small piece of available transit-oriented development (TOD) property that could be used for public space.

Sound Transit will finish construction first before it focuses on any of the outside development, Gray said; there’s still plenty of time to work on the development outside as the station is created, he said.

Many residents, like O’Halloran, are excited about the new buildings, residents, shops and restaurants. They’re ready for Roosevelt to become a “vibrant, urban village,” O’Halloran said.

O’Halloran is proud of the impacts the residents have made, and he believes the collaborative approach they’ve taken has been the reason they could get there.

“I hope we’re able to achieve our open-space, public-realm ambitions in much the same way, by engaging [and collaborating],” he said. 

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