Community Post

Transit Oriented Development

Well Scott alluded to it, and as I have been deeply involved in the debates that are raging, I figure I will just bite the bullet and offer my perspective…

Please don’t be entranced by the arguments that use the ‘idea’ of Transit Based Development, confabulating it with the real need to have housing for all income levels, that are being used to promote a specific amendment to the Growth Management Act, HB1490/SB5687.  The outcomes of this legislation will tear apart the delicate fabric of a consensus developed in regions and communities around the state for the creation and preservation of sustainable communities.  The many folks who have envisioned sustainable communities, created Neighborhood Plans to build them, become trained as community planners, and who have a great investment in the Growth Management Act (including folks who made it happen in the first place) were marginalized out of the process of developing this bill and are being characterized by proponents as NIMBYs, anti-poor people (which is funny because a lot of them are poor), or just plain anti-sustainability.

Seattle actually already has a Station Area Transit Oriented Development chapter in the Land Use code:   Many of our neighbors are currently updating plans for the Light Rail Station areas now.  They expect it be dense, they also expect economic development and they expect to be able to stay in their neighborhoods.  Many of them oppose this bill.

Don’t get me wrong.  GMA can sure use some fixing.  And, I tend to agree when people promoting the bill say that this is not really ‘about’ Seattle.  It’s about every city and town in the state.  While I choose to live in Seattle, I also choose to respect the fact that every city or town does not develop the same way.

This bill will set a groundbreaking precedent of stepping right over local responsibility for zoning laws, and in return will not provide equity in housing and will produce increased sprawl.

There is a difference in what needs to be done in state law, and what really is best done by local jurisdictions if you want any local control over your life.  The state level is best at enabling legislation, standards, addressing concerns across the board, addressing inequities among regions and different populations, establishing processes, money with strings attached, and did I say money with strings attached.

I want a GREAT Transit Oriented Development law.  I want local jurisdictions to have to include chapters like Seattle’s in their Land Use codes.  Transit Oriented Development is not defined by a number.  Do not be confused by the sentence everyone is arguing about:  ‘The allowed net density for these transit oriented development areas must be fifty dwelling units per acre.’   The term ‘allowed net density’ (a single term or concept) is the result of a calculation of all the zoning (allowed) of land, less land used for roads and infrastructure (netting out).  The bill does have a required density number that must be zoned for -50.

A number of people have calculated that up zoning would be required in Southeast Seattle to meet that magic number of 50. This is in an area that is still under built.  Up zoning means higher property taxes.  Up zoning well before anyone wants to build is stupid because it invites speculation, absentee landlords and all of the wonderful things I’ve seen in the blocks around where I live.  It’s not guaranteed that Light Rail will bring a bunch of development.  I’ve seen it NOT happen in many other cities, even in the boom times.  But, there is no impact assessment planned before the sponsors plan to shove this bill through.

Other states have Transit Oriented Development laws.  These laws define transit stations specifically: a place where three or more bus lines come together, a light rail station, a ferry dock, etc.   This bill has some specifics, a bunch of exclusions, and misses mentioning many places that could be considered transit stations.  Ironically, many real mass transit stations are excluded precisely because of the fixed density number.  Other states may also define what governmental entity determines that a place is a transit center: local planning district and an agency of the state.   And, they do mandate something: that communities plan using accepted – and there are accepted – Transit Oriented Development practices.  They include density, diversity of uses, and design to support walking and bicycles, and promote use of mass transit.  They differ depending on the role a transit station is expected to play in the regional economy: employment center, downtown, city neighborhood, stadium, airport, suburban center, etc.  The density number is an outcome of regional and local planning, not a magic number. None of the other state laws, nor does our local code, define specific density.

The housing components should absolutely not be tied in with a definition of TOD and they possibly should not be part of GMA at all.  The people of the state need to establish standard measures, and rewards and benefits for all regions so we provide equity in housing in all jurisdictions.  The state needs to give tools to local government in the form of enabling legislation.  But, the people of Seattle need to do our own work to get elements of replacement and inclusionary zoning for the whole city added to our Land Use code.  It’s offensive to me that a duplex with two lower income families was replaced with 4 townhomes and one of those townhomes was not made available to a teacher or other working person making below 60% of AMI.  I am not in a Transit Station area and I am not even in the Urban Village, but I am served by bus lines within a few blocks in every direction.  This law does not provide a framework for housing equity throughout our city.  That reality underlies many of the objections we are hearing from our neighbors in the impacted areas.

Centralia has a rail station.  It’s a little town with not much there.  People commute by train to Olympia.  Should Centralia be mandated to be zoned at an average net density of 50 homes per acre within a half mile of the station?  What’s the effect of that?  Since it’s unlikely anyone will be building anything soon, the effect will be a rise of property taxes on a bunch of people who, from my view out of the train window, are not well to do.  It probably won’t change the rate of development, though.  But, should Centralia establish Transit Oriented Planning and Development standards?  You bet — if the state law actually set out the framework properly.  Not this bill.

Cities like Spokane would probably never build light rail, given the conditions in this bill.  But, the bill does provide a loophole that will create more suburban sprawl because by slapping up a ‘Transit Center’ (the bill does not define what such a beast is) and running buses often on a dedicated road, a suburban town could allow developers to build out on the edges of the urban/rural boundaries and call it a Bus Rapid Transit station area.  Expansion of developed areas is now slowed by a concept called concurrency.  But, call it a transit center, zone for an average density of 50, include low income housing and you have a little satellite suburblet where you can stash all the poor people if this law passes.

You can read the whole hodge podge of a thing for yourself:;year=2009  Look especially at Section 9.


0 thoughts on “Transit Oriented Development

  1. It sounds like a big fear is that allowing more density will drive up the property taxes of people in that area, thus pushing them out. Maybe there’s a fundamental flaw with the way we value properties, and we should rethink that to prevent zoning changes from having that effect.

    For example, instead of taxing property at a value related to its potential, we should tax it at the value related to its current use. Living in a single-family home in a zone that allows 5 story apartment buildings? Your property is taxed at its value as a single-family residence. Holding on to a vacant lot or an unoccupied structure that would support a much larger development? Your property is taxed at its potential value since you’re not using it for anything else.

    That could have the added side benefit of encouraging property owners to keep their properties occupied with renters or businesses until the moment they decide to replace it, so that they can have the advantage of being taxed on its use instead of taxed on its speculative potential.

    But the key thing is that higher zoning doesn’t force anyone to do anything. The city never says “You can’t build a 2 story building, the zoning here only allows 5 stories.” They never force anyone to tear down an older and smaller structure to replace it with something bigger. But the higher zoning allows increased density to gradually replace existing development if and when the property owners decide there’s a market for it.

  2. Yeah. DC cut property tax in half if you actually lived in your home. DC also had a real easy time declaring eminent domain on buildings that were deserted and locked up for too long. That would not fly here. One of the tactics of the Incentive Zoning program passed in Seattle last year was to not up zone, but grant up zoning based on participation in producing some below median rental or at median sale units.

    I opposed it because it did not go deep enough as far as income levels and also will not produce much below median income housing. And, with the housing market the way it is today, people will use it to make more than they would have just relying on the open market. That’s a problem of directly tying programs to income, or not having a formula that only lets the program kick in if housing is at inflated prices.

    It’s actually been a problem if land is zoned for 6 stories by design and someone underbuilds. Where the intent was multifamily apartment buildings in much of the Central Area, many developers chose to build townhomes.

    I agree that the locals are challenged to implement zoning decisions in a way that reflects neighborhood design, but hits the right timing. It would be really nice to be able to up zone when the time is ripe. I know — lots a luck there. Rest assured the station area plans in Seattle are and will be Transit Oriented plans. The rest of the Seattle neighborhood plan updates will have all forms of transit and transit served commercial areas as a huge part of the planning.

    It’s not the density per se, it’s that 50 is a stupid arbitrary number and numbers like that do not belong at the state level. It’s also that in Seattle we have an intense multi-modal transit system, so just turning station area planning into an exercise of up zoning completely misses the point of planning.

    For example, Califonia has a housing grant program that is inclusionary for all levels of income, available only to development in TOD zones. Numbers are down at the level of the program’s application process. There are numbers to assess the level of development of the specific TOD zone. There are target densities that depend on the location. I am sure that over the years, as things become more dense, those numbers will be adjusted. The scoring might also be adjusted to pay more attention to areas that just aren’t producing low income housing or other criteria. It’s all tied to goals and how to divide up the pie.

    While there is a minimum size for the development in the Cali program, the funding is for a specific plot of land. In an urban infill situation, the size of the development may be smaller. In an really empty area, the size may be larger. That, to me is a sensible ‘carrot’ approach that respects different realities around the region and state.

    I think the discussions that get us to understand more how things happen on the ground are great, they belong to us locally to resolve. I just want the state to pass laws that are appropriate and not dangerous. The house committee meets next week on this. I’m hoping for a rewrite and I’m hoping that at least some folks will look at the modifications through the lens of what is reasonable.

    That’s one reason I wrote this story. The other was that people who should be allies need to help each other and learn from each other. I don’t see simple presciptions, urban infill planning has some complexity to achieving a great outcome. I absolutely love the variety of architecture here and would hate to see complete replacement with one swell foop. But, I have to believe that we can figure it out because folks really just want to live in a nice neighborhood.

  3. King County taxes at ‘highest and best use’.

    If you are zoned for higher density, your land will be taxed that way. Your building won’t be taxed higher, just the land.

    Ask anyone who lives in a single family home on land zoned multifamily.

    Its incorrect to say higher zoning doesn’t force anything. When a person is taxed out of the home, speculators will acquire the property. Or someone will sell because the price looks better. Properties are amassed, bigger building go in scaring off the smaller homes next door. And it will cascade from there.

  4. kt, you raise many interesting points, but there’s one I have to respond to and that’s your claim that this bill would increase sprawl. The scenario that you describe is laughably implausible. No developer would be interested in putting up large buildings in such a location where there would be very little demand for housing.

    Yes, Seattle did station area planning ten years ago, but many of us believe that the relatively minor upzoning that came out of that long and laborious process is not sufficient in light of the global climate change crisis we are now facing. Many people supporting this bill do not believe we have the luxury of waiting for the local communities to get around to deciding if and when they will accept higher density at their station areas. We all recognize that it is not always appropriate for state governments to supercede local jurisdictions, but climate change is a planetary-scale issue — what happens locally affects people outside the locality.

  5. Dan think places like Spokane. Where citizens and leaders often have no interest in supporting the goals of GMA. Folks fought the Habitat for Humanity development tooth and nail. They would love to see it out of town. Far out of town and barely in the urban boundary. Then they can build a road!

    The technical issue is that the state concurrency planning cycle is changed to 10 years, with locals still doing 6 year planning. Add in the definition as written of bus station on dedicated right of way (as opposed to California which says at least three bus lines must be converging at that point as well), and there it is.

  6. If you displace a family from a home in a poor neighborhood, one-for-one “replacement” housing (i.e. a 2 BR apartment) won’t keep them in the city. They will move further out to find an affordable home, and alas, commute by car to get to work.

    Remarkably, no one supporting the Futurewise bill addresses the real concern about the bill: fixed density requirements for all stations. And using a number “50” that has no basis in the science of TOD.

    Sara Nikolic from Futurewise even admits that the issue isn’t density and TOD in Seattle – its in the ‘burbs. Fine then, fix that problem, don’t impose this nonsense on us.

  7. The HB is updated. Density of fifty applies to mixed-use centers and also says jobs are required. Very reasonable for urban and suburban centers. Leaves SE out of the density requirement, but all comply with the housing stuff which is a bit of a mish mash.

    Better. Still messy. Definitions are still very sketchy. Concurrency is still loosened.
    Sunday, February 15, 2009
    The latest version of the TOD bill hit the street Friday night, 02/18/09, and significantly waters down some density requirements (The Senate version of the bill is SB 5687.)
    The new draft requires 50 units/acre only in areas previously defined by the Puget Sound Regional Council as “growth centers.” These centers are: Auburn, DT Bellevue, Overlake, Everett, Federal Way, Kent, Lakewood, Lynnwood, Puyallup, Redmond, Seatac, Capitol Hill, DT Seattle, Northgate, the University District, DT Tacoma, and Tukwila.

    Get the latest version at

  8. Hi. Maybe I am getting lost in the details, but I just feel the Density Bill” is a trojan horse. I cannot get over the feeling that it is written to benefit some developer and not the people it seeks to help. I live near the proposed station that will go to the Eastside and a mile or two away from the upcoming Mt. Baker station. My neighborhood is all single family homes, townhomes, small (2 to 6 plexes) apartment buildings, and maybe even the occasional larger one (25+ units). Maybe I am having a hard time visualizing 50 units per acre, but that seems like a lot for such a space. It just seems improbable in certain neighborhoods that suddenly one would be mandated to have such a large building out of nowhere. makes sense to have large apartment buildings or towers close to the stations where they will be on main thoroughfares and density, etc. But a huge apartment building with retail or even a tower in a neighborhood with single family homes, townhomes, and small (again, 2 to 6 plexes) apartment buildings? Seems out of place. What I fear is that the bill mandates it, which is great for developers-they can come in and buy a small (or two) homes in need of repair, or try to and muscle the neighbors in to selling and create a big, huge tower in the middle of a neighborhood. No regard to traffic or parking, green space, light, etc etc. I am not trying to keep the city small and quant, but instead am suspicious if this is just another law that is made to look noble, with a “Green” attached to it, but instead places the developers (who have all the local politicians in their pockets) in a position to do whatever they want and create a semi-eminent domain like structure, that benefits them in the short term, but not the city, its neighborhoods, or residents in the long-term. I dont trust the Density Bill.

  9. Futurewise wrote the bill. Go see their website. Their whole purpose is about stopping sprawl and focusing growth in urban areas. Sure, developers will benefit from this. But I don’t see what’s wrong with that, as long as the developers are building projects that are aesthetically pleasing, with the right mix of land use types, at the right scale and in the right places.

  10. Exactly. I get that. Thanks. But what I am worried about is that there is no rules for any aestetics or land use, scale etc, and that the bill is just a free-for-all giveaway that can lead to issues later on, all masked as “GREEN” to make it look all warm and fuzzy. I am suspicious.

  11. Elmwood-

    The bill is trying to focus development and also protect lower income residents around transit stations. The land values will rise, that rise is paid for by taxpayers, so there is some interest that there be public benefit. Transit Oriented Development is a combination of design, diversity of use and density so you are right that a healthy combination makes a place where people would live. That number 50 is the density at which half the people won’t own a car. True in cities will well established rail systems. So, a developer can still sell those condos with limited parking. It’s happening on Cap Hill. But, it’s also true that it all depends on the kind of station, Urban Core, Urban Neighborhood, Neighborhood, Suburban Center, etc., what level of development makes sense.

    Most of us like the aims, our complaint is that it was (and to some extent still is) so badly crafted that the consequences could be pretty bad, either unleashing abuse (and the impact of drastic up zoning) in some places or causing places around the state to opt out of providing transit. People worry that the state level is messing with stuff that local people ought to thrash out for themselves, but recognize that standards and fairness across the board are a role that the state can play. The worst stuff was mitigated in the last rewrite.

    I also believe that the individual legislators behind this do want to protect people from the worst abuses of displacement that will happen in the burbs. When property values rise because there is a light rail station, then the government and developer frenzy starts. Bellevue is up zoning drastically and giving some developers a plum, out on Bel-Red Road. Question is will displaced businesses get help? The new version of the bill includes them.

    The whole city went through a neighborhood planning process that wrapped up 10 years ago that established the plan for how to grow nicely. There was considerable attention paid to what was thought would be station areas. The SE Seattle Station areas are now going through an update planning cycle, to be followed by the rest of the neighborhoods. You can be involved. It’s your neighborhood.

    DPD Planning:

    Check in with that process. Also, check out the zoning maps for where you live. Often zoning is higher than what you see and even new stuff may be under built. You can use the DPD GIS tool to see your area and the zones are explained here

    Your community council should be tracking, and Scott also posts info about, up zone requests and Design Reviews.

    There is a Central Area Neighborhood Plan Stewardship Land Use, Open Space and Housing Committee now assessing Land Use developments since the 1999 neighborhood plan.

  12. ‘from the worst abuses of displacement that will happen in the burbs.’ Don’t mean to imply at all that Seattle doesn’t have a serious displacement problem, just that these folks seem to be focused on Bellevue.

    Oh yeah and building new highrises puts CO2 out there, so it better be really worth it not just cuz a brand spanking shiny new building would be fun to have.

  13. Displacement Coalition Summary of the new substitute version of the TOD bill

    We’ve looked it over fairly closely now and thanks to Rep. Sharon Nelson for forwarding it to us for comment. This new version exempts from density requirements all stations except PSRC “designated mixed use centers” which include Northgate, UDistrict, Capitol Hill, and downtown stations. Other stations areas in Seattle (including Roosevelt and all the SE Seattle stations) are now exempt from density requirements. The revised version also has redefined net density and in so doing the density requirement has been reduced somewhat for the applicable TOD’s. (However, note there is a longstanding vehicle in place allowing cities to apply to the PSRC to have any of the other non-designated stations redesignated as urban center. The regional council will set new targets effective 2011 and Seattle could apply to have more TOD’s designated as urban centers – it is possible at least and the timing is right with the new targets being reviewed and reset)

    Now in the substitute “Net” means everything within a one-half “walkable mile” (whatever that means) of a station minus all right of way, public lands, critical areas, non buildable areas etc… which will bring down the calculation of net to about 300 acres give or take within each TOD. So you take that number and times it still by 50 which will equal 15000 or so units depending on exact calculations within each TOD. For these stations with centers that must still meet the density mandate a city must rezone if current capacity is below this threshold but to reach it they may also count employment towards the total meaning if there are 13000 housing units and 2000 jobs within a TOD, and the mandate calls for 15000, then you’ve reached the magic threshold. It is likely that the designated regional center TOD’s in downtown, Capitol Hill, and the U-District already have zoning (jobs and housing) that meet this new 50 per acre threshold. I could not say for certain however that this is the case at Northgate where the density mandates also apply but current capacities may fall below this revised 50 per acre mandate (meaning under this substitute language upzones could still be required there)

    The bill still waives parking requirements for new developments in all of the TOD area’s (including all SE Seattle stations and Roosevelt station) and rewards developers with 25% more density above normal zoning requirements although they must set aside 25% of their new units at or below 80 percent with 10 percent at 60%. This simply is a market rate incentive provision which rewards developers with added density. In return they have to set aside a handful of units at these lower thresholds which still are 100’s of dollars above what most tenants can afford. The rents on these set-asides (1140 for studio, 1300 for one bedroom on up) are essentially at market rate in SE Seattle. You can’t rent units too much above these levels anyway in these areas. Further there is no shortage of units at the rent thresholds of these set-asides city-wide but rather a surplus as a review of Craigslist listings will show. The shortage and the need is for units at or below 40% or less. Parking waivers and this housing incentive program are gifts to developers and will encourage more market rate development within each TOD setting off potentially more displacement and gentrification inducing redevelopment.

    The Subtitute bill does not yet include adequate language in the housing section to mitigate the increased risk of displacement generated by accelerated redevelopment of these areas. The revised bill however is a definite improvement in this regard. It retains language requiring that developers replace housing they remove 1 for 1 but still does not adequately define this. The language is too general and could allow cities to draft 1 for 1 replacement laws that developers could avoid. The Substitute now also has a notification requirement requiring developers who put up a low income apartment for sale within a TOD to alert Cities and non-profits. This is a needed provision we have been calling for – but again the language is too general right now and cities are not given enough direction on how to craft such an ordinance so that it really works. Also, there is now a provision in the Substitute requiring cities to prevent net loss of “low income and affordable units”. This too is great to see but again this language is too general, too vague. Here too, the language needs to provide more specific direction to cities on what they need to do to meet this requirement.

    We continue to have concerns about this bill – that there are any mandates at all that would apply to Seattle station areas. These areas have undergone station area planning and many likely have capacities already above the magic density mandates anyway. Further study of the impacts of these density mandates should be required and affected neighborhoods should be involved before any density mandates are set at all in any Seattle community. Blanket waiver of parking requirements pose seriously problems for neighborhood station areas and rewarding developers with more density on individual sights threatens further displacement and gentrification. Measures to mitigate the effects of increased development on existing low income housing still need to be strengthened in the bill.

    Also please remember the Senate version SB 5687 still contains the language from the original mandating 50 units per acre in SE Seattle and Roosevelt. There is a hearing right now scheduled for 330 on the 19th in Olympia but subject to change on this original version. We are encouraging folks still to call or write their legislators and Senators to air their concerns or come down to the hearing. Be sure and double check to make sure it’s stills schedule though later in the week.