Puget Sound Business Journal

Tug of war over density, open space in U District by Marc Stiles

Puget Sound Business Journal - Tug of war over density, open space in U District

By Marc Stiles - April 15, 2014

Seattle’™s U District light rail station isn’t scheduled to open for another seven years, but already there are different ideas about what should go on top.

A community group called U District Square is pushing to have some open space above the station, which is now under construction on the east side of Brooklyn Avenue Northeast near Northeast 45th Street. But an agreement between Sound Transit and the University of Washington calls for construction of housing and office space above the station.

This push and pull between the community and university comes at a pivotal time for the U District, and has a nonagenarian UW professor emeritus pushing for open space where authorities are talking about adding significant amounts of urban density.

In addition to the arrival of light-rail service in 2021, the city is in the early stages of possibly rezoning the U District, and - under one scenario - buildings of up to 340-feet-tall would be permitted in the heart of the neighborhood. Thats 15 feet taller than UW Tower, the U District’s tallest building, which is just west of the future light-rail station.

Ultimately it is up to the University of Washington to decide what happens on top of the station. UW spokesman Aaron Hoard said the university hasnt decided what it might build on the station. But as part of a property swap with Sound Transit, the UW bought the air rights over the station and the deal commits the transit agency to design and build the station so that a transit-oriented development could go there. Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray said buildings between 85 feet and 125 feet could be built on top of the station.

As the name implies, transit-oriented developments are real estate projects - usually residential and commercial buildings - near transit stops. The idea is to have people live and work nearby without needing cars.

A TOD makes tremendous sense for the U District Station, which is part of Sound Transits $2.1 billion light-rail project that will extend service 4.3 miles between the Husky Stadium and Northgate. Sound Transit forecasts that the new segment will add 62,000 daily boardings by 2030 to the overall light-rail system, with 12,000 of those occurring at the U District Station. Riders will be able to get from the U District to downtown Seattle in just eight minutes. The trip to Northgate will take only about four minutes.

But members of U District Square, a group of citizen volunteers, say development of the station presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a public square above the light rail station. According to the groups website, the open space could be furnished with sculptures and murals, and ringed with trees and benches. It would become a center for arts-and-culture events and a farmers market.

The UW wants to see more open space in the U District, Hoard said but, We are just not sure where that is most appropriate to happen. He said station entrances and mechanical equipment will rise from the ground plain. When Sound Transit is done, the site is not going to be a flat, open site.

It seems odd that there's a need for more park space in a neighborhood, which is home to one of the nations most beautiful college campuses with hundreds of acres. But U District resident and business owner Cory Crocker, a member of U District Square, said city data show the neighborhood needs two more blocks of open space.

The problem with the campus is that it's not technically open to everyone. You cant hold a protest or have a farmers market there, and homeless people are escorted off the property, Crocker said, adding, It becomes a social justice issue.

U District Square has looked at several sites in the neighborhood for a plaza, but is focused on the property above the light-rail station. We think the closest we can get to the station the more successful the square will be, Crocker said.

The group is not inflexible. It has proposed slightly shifting the location of the open space so it would be next to the station. This would allow development on top of the station area, but it also would require buying additional property.

The group isn’t opposed to high-rise development, either. Under one U District Square proposal, the public space would be on top of the station but with a new tower across Brooklyn from UW Tower. Tall slender towers could be very livable, Crocker said, adding what residents don’t want is another blocky building like UW Tower, which does feel claustrophobic. But, he said, high-rise developers should be required to provide or help pay for amenities, such as open space and a new public elementary school.

Philip Thiel, a 93-year-old professor emeritus in the UW’s Department of Urban Design and Planning, is a key proponent of having open space on top of the light-rail station. He has been more or less the passion behind this effort, said Crocker.

Crocker, a web designer who has studied public spaces around the world, said he is helping because its his passion to ensure the U District ends up with some great public space of its own.

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Marc Stiles covers commercial real estate and government for the Puget Sound Business Journal.