A Plan for Sound Transit’s Orphan Properties and a Clash Over Funding Sidewalks in Seattle

Sound Transit, the regional light rail agency, is working with the city’s Office of Housing on a plan to finally use a dozen slivers of unused, surplus land along the current light-rail line for transit-oriented development—specifically, homeownership opportunities on 12 pieces of property that have laid fallow for years. Sound Transit, with federal approval, would transfer the properties to the Office of Housing, which would then put the word out to developers who work in low-income homeownership (such as Homesight) and issue contracts for several properties at a time. At last week’s Sound Transit board meeting, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan praised agency staff for working on  “low-income housing opportunities” that will “allow people to actually continue to stay in Seattle.”

“We’ve got these orphan parcels, as we might call them, from previous iterations of Sound Transit, and being able to put them to work for low-income housing, in particular ownership opportunities, at this time in Seattle will make a phenomenal difference,” Durkan said.

There’s still a long way to go—Sound Transit staffers say they hope to have a proposal by the end of this year, but that it could be a decade or more before all the parcels are developed. Outstanding issues—which Sound Transit and the city will hammer out in collaboration with Puget Sound Sage include what “affordable homeownership” means and what size units the program will incentivize. Seattle currently provides tax breaks “affordable homebuyer programs” for people making up to 120 percent of median income, and directly funds homebuyer programs for people making up to 80 percent of median. Currently, most of the units that get built in Seattle are studios and one-bedrooms, not family-sized units—the two-, three-, and four-bedroom townhouses and condos that might make it possible for people with kids to afford to stay here.

I have a call out to the Office of Housing and will update this post with any new information.

Durkan was less complimentary when the discussion turned to a station access fund for projects that will help pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders get to existing and future light rail stations. Two of the city’s top-priority proposals—sidewalk, lighting  and crossing improvements near the future Judkins Park light rail station and upgrades to sidewalks on Beacon Hill—received a middling rank of “recommended,” getting mediocre ratings on several of the five criteria Sound Transit staff used to rank 55 projects around the region. Each of Sound Transit’s five subareas is eligible for up to $10 million from the $50 million fund; Seattle’s requests totaled more than $12.7 million.

Shouldn’t Sound Transit have taken into account, for example, the fact that at-grade light rail in the Rainier Valley has created more “safety concerns” than in other areas where rail is elevated or underground? Durkan asked rhetorically.

“It seems to me that a …. factor that would be appropriate for staff to look at and for us to look at is what is the overall safety mitigation needed in a community because of choices Sound Transit made,” Durkan said. “So for example, on the south end, we decided to have our rail at grade, and that has created more impacts. … How do we mitigate against those and score differently than an area that also doesn’t have sidewalks but doesn’t have that same issue?”

Everett city council member Paul Roberts, whose city received a “highly recommended” ranking for a $1.9 million sidewalk and lighting project at the Everett Station, responded pointedly that staff had prioritized projects in cities, like Everett, that have been proactive about preparing for transit-oriented development by significantly upzoning the areas around stations, as Everett did and Seattle has not. The city of Everett, Sound Transit noted in its recommendation, “recently changed zoning in the neighborhood to allow for 11- to 25-story buildings to support residential, retail, and office uses.” In contrast, under the new Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, the area around the Judkins Park station will be designated Low-Rise 1, the least dense multifamily zoning designation.

In other words: Cities that have made an effort to improve safety, access, and housing opportunities around light rail stations in advance should get priority for their projects.

“In areas, station areas in particular, where there are adopted land use plans that recognize [the value of] transit-oriented development… It seems to me that ought to weigh in and be elevated in the funding” decision, Roberts said. “That means the jurisdiction, whatever it is, wherever it is, has already taken the task of adopting station area plans, the land use and planning and transportation links are in place, and this now becomes a value-added piece, as opposed to this sort of being in isolation.”

Seattle’s applications for the Judkins Park and South Seattle projects describe a number of longstanding issues that the city has failed to address for many years, including the lack of safe crosswalks on Rainier Ave. S., gaps in the sidewalk and greenway networks in Judkins Park, missing curb ramps, lack of lighting and safety improvements on the existing Mountains-to-Sound Greenway (which the city’s application describes as “an uninviting environment for people concerned with personal safety”), and “critical gaps in the sidewalk network along key streets” serving four existing Southeast Seattle light rail stations.”

Rainier Ave. S., in particular, has long been acknowledged as Seattle’s most dangerous street, yet the city has been slow to make improvements that would save lives, particularly north of Columbia City, where crosswalks are rare and people often jaywalk instead of walking half a mile or more out of their way.  “Frustration with long detours leads many people on foot to take risks that they normally wouldn’t,” the application says. “The resulting crashes, between an unprotected person and a high-speed vehicle, often have disastrous results.”

This is all true. But in ranking Seattle’s Southeast Seattle projects below Everett’s, Sound Transit staff appear to be affirming that station accessibility dollars are meant to reward cities that are already working to make transit accessible, not serve as a replacement for projects cities should be funding in the first place.

Sound Transit staff will recommend a list of projects for all five subareas on September 5, and the board will vote on which ones to fund on September 26.

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12 thoughts on “A Plan for Sound Transit’s Orphan Properties and a Clash Over Funding Sidewalks in Seattle”

  1. Yes, I think these opportunities to use existing public properties for low-income housing must be aggressively implemented, and it really makes me question City Leadership’s seeming tragic lack of urgency on these opportunities over the past 10 years? The difference now, as it appears to me is Jenny Durkan, who seems to be the only one so far to finally be taking actual actions that may help reduce homelessness and disrupt the “can’t do” status quo culture of just enabling it.

    1. It’s distressing to see so many lost opportunities. For example, directly north of the North Seattle College is a 10 acre parcel owned by UW which is vastly underutilized and with no plan to do anything…the examples of under-used public property with no action plan are extensive….sad.

      1. That property isn’t doing nothing – it’s a wetland and green space that provides a place for birds to land on their migrations and makes oxygen out of all the carbon released on the freeway next door. We do need green space in the city to keep it livable.

  2. There’s a significant amount of publicly-owned land (many parking lots) which could be used to build housing….and I don’t mean to get rid of the parking….I’m suggesting housing ABOVE parking ….in air space ABOVE the lots…

    Consider the 13+ acres at North Seattle College. Huge potential — and a ped-bike bridge being built in near future connecting the N’gate Link Station!

    Rep Jessyn Farrell proposed legislation to authorize a study (backed by Speaker Frank Chopp) to do a feasibility study. But so far as I understand, the College administration freaked out and caused more political trouble than it was worth to even study it.

    Ask Chopp and Farrell.

    I can send you the documents if you like.

    It certainly makes me skeptical that there is much genuine good-faith concern for building more housing.

    And I haven’t even mentioned the air rights above the Roosevelt LINK Station — a huge lost opportunity for now.

  3. Great substantive post. I only have an annoying pedantic comment that it should be “lain fallow.”

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