Tag: transit-oriented development

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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Guest Editorial: Spend County Revenues on Housing, Not a $180 Million Stadium Subsidy

SafecoFieldTop.jpg
Image via Wikimedia Commons

The following is a guest editorial about a proposal by King County Executive Dow Constantine to spend $180 million in hotel/motel tax revenues on maintenance and capital improvements to Safeco Field, on which the Seattle Mariners’ lease is about to expire. The Mariners, and Constantine, have argued that the county has an obligation to spend future hotel/motel tax revenues on the stadium; housing advocates have countered that a larger portion of the lodging tax should be spent on affordable, transit-oriented housing. The King County Council meets this morning to discuss, and possibly vote on, the proposal.

Later this morning, the King County Council could decide how to allocate the remaining 25 percent of the county lodging tax revenues. Council members face a stark choice: Use the dollars for affordable housing or offer a $180 million subsidy to a private corporation. The highest value of public and economic benefit the County can create with this revenue is to invest in affordable housing, community development, and good jobs.

Demand for affordable housing in our region is at an all-time high, which is why we should use lodging tax revenues to help address homelessness and promote affordability. To maximize economic benefit from the hotel/motel tax, the County should also create high quality jobs for our communities by utilizing community workforce agreements with housing developers or local housing authorities. These agreements help create apprentice opportunities and ensure dollars flow to the pockets of lower-income workers, which creates a greater economic benefit since low-income households spend a greater percentage of their income on goods and services than higher-income households do.

Multi-billion-dollar for-profit corporations asking for public subsidies must prove that these resources are better spent on their enterprises than other compelling public needs, like affordable housing. And they must commit to transparency and accountability with regard to how those resources are used. The Mariners are a successful team that many people love and support. Yet, for continued public investment, they must demonstrate exactly what they need public resources for and how it will support good jobs in the region. To date, the Mariners ownership have simply not met this benchmark.

Recent letters from Craig Kinzer (current) and Terrence Carroll (former), members of the Public Facilities District (the committee that has been in lease negotiations with the Mariners) reveal that the proposed lease is simply a bad deal that should be revisited.

The Mariners are a successful team that many people love and support. Yet, for continued public investment, they must demonstrate exactly what they need public resources for and how it will support good jobs in the region. To date, the Mariners ownership have simply not met this benchmark.

The Mariners’ owners even want to do away with the annual requirement that they publicize financial information about where the public dollars go, so we won’t know until after the fact whether the dollars were used appropriately. The new lease deal must include financial transparency so that the public can understand how investment in a stadium would maximize public benefit and support good jobs. Instead of a win-win deal for the public, the lease and subsidy appear to be a win-more for the Mariners ownership.

We recommend the following uses and requirements of the County’s lodging taxes.

1. The vast majority of the remaining 25 percent of future lodging tax revenue should be committed to affordable housing. Funding should also be considered for community-based economic development that creates even more jobs and stability for communities at risk of displacement. By investing in community development, we will create good jobs, apprenticeship opportunities, and net income for our communities as families find more money in their pockets for basic needs.

2. Any projects funded by lodging tax revenues must be covered by a community workforce agreement (CWA) that guarantees good jobs, worker retention, high-quality apprenticeship opportunities, and a priority to hire local residents most in need of those opportunities. Both the City of Seattle and King County have highly successful priority hire programs that show tremendous public value when done right.

3. Any use of lodging tax revenues must have the highest level of transparency and accountability. While nonprofit housing developers typically must account for every public dime that they spend, we do not apply the same scrutiny to private corporations that receive public resources. Any money that goes to the ball park should require that the Mariners ownership open their books to the public and show the number and quality of jobs that they are creating with public support.

As a result of our upside-down tax code, where low-income people pay up to seven times more of their income in taxes as the top one percent, state and local revenues for needed services and community development are scarce. We must take care on how our region allocates funds, and ensure that new investments maximize public and economic benefit. Like the other groups who are also interested in these funds, the Mariners must demonstrate clear need and a clear financial case for their request.

Many of the King County Councilmembers have not yet decided how to prioritize investments from the lodging tax. Now is the time to let them know that housing, good jobs and meeting community needs is the highest priority.

Nicole Vallestero Keenan-Lai is the Executive Director at Puget Sound Sage. She has more than a decade of experience in research, advocacy, civic engagement, racial justice organizing, social services, and community and business outreach.

David Rolf is the founding president of SEIU 775, which represents more than 45,000 long-term care workers in the Pacific Northwest. He serves as an International Vice President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Misha Werschkul is the executive director of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, where she guides the organization’s strategic vision and ensures its position as a leading voice shaping the debate around budget priorities.

Why Are There So Many Vacant Properties Near Rainier Beach Light Rail Station?

Image via city of Seattle interactive map of MHA rezones: http://seattlecitygis.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=6aafeae86b1f4392965531c376489676

This post originally ran at the South Seattle Emerald.

Plans to turn some of the land immediately adjacent to the Rainier Beach light rail station into the centerpiece of a new “food innovation district”—a proposed network of food businesses and food-related activities aimed at creating living-wage jobs and preventing displacement in the Rainier Valley—remain stalled, after a property that advocates hoped would serve as the hub for that district sold last month to a company controlled by a local landlord who owns numerous single-family homes in the area.

As the Emerald reported back in May, the Rainier Beach Action Coalition had hoped to purchase the property on the southeast corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and S. Henderson St., which is currently the site of a Mexican grocery store. Those plans were thwarted when another bidder, former city council member (and onetime food innovation district champion) Richard Conlin, outbid RBAC. (At the time, Conlin said he had no idea RBAC was bidding on the property, which he planned to develop as affordable artist housing). However, Conlin subsequently withdrew his bid, and the property sold to a mystery backup bidder.

The new owner, the Emerald has learned, is Greg Goodwin, a Rainier Beach landlord who owns and leases about a dozen single-family houses in the blocks surrounding the light-rail station. (Goodwin is the son of the late Albert (A.C.) Goodwin, a longtime property owner and manager in the area; the Goodwin family companies now include Greg D. Goodwin Co., Civetta Properties, and Roan Properties, which purchased the light-rail station property through a Las Vegas-based subsidiary called Radner Properties).

Neither Goodwin nor his sister Gael Goodwin, who is listed as the agent for the now-defunct A.C. Goodwin Properties, returned calls seeking comment about their plans for the property. David Sauvion, the co-founder of RBAC and coordinator for the food innovation district, says RBAC has tried to reach out to the family but “they don’t want anything to do with us. They are difficult to engage.” However, Sauvion says he has heard that “they have no short-term plan for the property; as far as we know, the space will stay vacant.”

Although the first leg of Sound Transit’s Link light rail opened nearly a decade ago, the corridor still has no shortage of vacant properties. Many are owned by Sound Transit—recognizable by their chain link fences and gravel lots, which leaf-blower-wielding workers periodically clear of trash and other detritus. So why are there so still many empty lots along the southern leg of the light rail line in the Rainier Valley? And why is it so hard to build new housing at light rail stations in South Seattle, given that “transit-oriented development” is such a critical component of new light-rail stations elsewhere in the city?

To answer those questions, you have to go back to the early 2000s, when light rail was still immensely controversial in the Valley. At the time, a group called Save Our Valley (whose members included Pat Murakami, a current candidate for Seattle City Council) was fighting to force Sound Transit to run its rail line underground instead of at-grade in order to minimize the impact on neighborhood businesses. Although SOV lost that battle, Sound Transit tacitly acknowledged their objections in its approach to buying land-use for light-rail construction staging in the area; they aimed, in the words of Sound Transit land use and planning director Brooke Belman, to “take the smallest amount of property as possible and acquire as minimal a footprint as possible. … The [Sound Transit] board, at the time, was certainly cognizant of not wanting to buy too much property from the existing property owners down there.”

The result was that Sound Transit was left with a large number of oddly shaped “remnant” properties that can’t be easily developed, including parking strips, narrow parcels immediately in front of existing businesses, and those weird fenced-in lots that dot the length of the light rail line.

Today, Belman says, Sound Transit’s approach to property acquisition “has done about a 180” since a decade ago. If light rail was being built in the Valley today, “We probably would have consolidated a lot of the staging that we did instead of just leaving those remnants.”

One issue Sound Transit didn’t anticipate, Belman says, is the failure of the private market to build housing, retail, and services in Rainier Beach on its own. “There was a lot of hope that private development would come right behind us in the Rainier Valley” and start to create residential and retail hubs at the stations, she says. But that hasn’t happened—at least not yet.

Sound Transit isn’t the only agency responsible for the lack of development at the Rainier Beach station; the city—specifically the mayor’s office and the city’s planning department, now known as the Office of Planning and Community Development—bears some of the responsibility as well. Right now, much of the land near the light rail station is still zoned for exclusive single-family use, rendering it off-limits for new apartment, townhouse, row house, duplex, or retail developments. The rest is low-rise or neighborhood commercial—land use designations that allow things like townhouses and four-story apartment buildings, not the kind of intense development seen at other stations (like Columbia City a few miles up the road.)

That is slated to change under HALA—the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which would upzone much of the station area, allowing four-to-seven-story buildings—but the fact remains that the zoning throughout much of the Rainier Beach station area is more fitting for a sleepy area with limited transit access—say, Blue Ridge—than a growing, but still relatively affordable, community within a few blocks of a major light rail hub.

Robert Scully, OCPD’s point person on Rainier Beach station development, says former mayor Mike McGinn directed the department to begin work on rezoning the area, but that work stalled under new Mayor Ed Murray, who wanted to take a more comprehensive approach to updating land use throughout the whole city. “We had a rezone proposal kind of ready to go up to the mayor’s office; we just got held up,” Scully says. That proposal would have provided incentives for food production facilities—in other words, a food innovation hub. Now, Murray is focused on affordable housing, not food production.

The land also presents other challenges—it’s shoehorned into a valley, with rising hills on each side, which makes large developments challenging and expensive. The single-family lots around the light-rail station are owned by dozens of different property owners, so any developer who wanted to build, say, a large affordable-housing complex would have to convince many different people to sell. And there’s really no way, Scully says, for the city to force land owners to include food production in private developments.

“We live in a political system and an economy that’s heavily based on property rights and the real estate market,” he says. “In doing this for the past five years, I’ve kind of arrived at the conclusion that the best tool is for the community, maybe in partnership with a developer or a nonprofit, to actually [purchase] some land down there—enough so that they could actually develop this facility, and that could help influence other development in the area.” Of course, that’s what RBAC had hoped to do. For now, the land will remain vacant.

“We tried,” Sauvion says.