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Rough Ride: Roosevelt Rezone Creates TOD Opportunity

2011 May 17
by Roger Valdez

Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood is the ideal place to build the kind of transit-oriented community that many of us hoped would proliferate with the development of light rail. Roosevelt has all the right ingredients: a planned light rail station, proximity to open space, an iconic public school, lots of buses, and a healthy business district. But what it doesn’t have—and may not get any time soon—is zoning that allows development intensity appropriate for a high-capacity transit station area.

The light rail station entrances are going to be located on 12th between 65th and 67th. Most of the land on the three blocks forming a panhandle to the east—between 12th and 15th—are owned by Hugh Sisely, who has been a long-term object of anger in the neighborhood for not maintaining his properties. A few years ago the City got aggressive (after lots of complaints from the neighborhood) with Sisely, fining him $75,000 for numerous violations of the code.

The three blocks in red are the contested space

Now Sisely’s development partners, the Roosevelt Development Group (RDG), are looking to significantly upzone the panhandle from its current multifamily and NC 40 designations to 120 feet. They’ve submitted a contract rezone proposal to the City Council.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood has its own plan. The Roosevelt Neighborhood Association is proposing that Sisely’s panhandle blocks on the south side of NE 66th St. between 12th & 14th Aves NE go from “Neighborhood Commercial 1 with a 40’ height limit (NC1-40) to Neighborhood Commercial 2 with a 40’ height limit (NC2-40).” On the north side of NE 65th St, between Brooklyn Ave NE & 14th Ave NE and the NE corner 14th Ave NE and NE 65th St the neighborhood proposes a shift from “Lowrise 2 (LR2) to Neighborhood  Commercial 2 with a Pedestrian designation and a 40’ height limit (NC2P-40).”

This puts the developer and property owner at loggerheads with the neighborhood. The neighborhood wants a lid on new development while the developer is proposing significant increases in height (up to 120 feet). Height isn’t the issue in and of itself, however. What matters is density.

The Futurewise Blueprint Transit Oriented Communities for Washington State documents how TOCs come together when there is a high enough concentration of people around the stations. Density of residents and jobs is crucial to sparking a true TOC at Roosevelt.

[An analysis] of the 2001 U.S. National Household Transportation Survey and concluded that given two identical households, if one is located in a residential area with 1,000 more dwelling units per square mile (1.6 units per acre) more than the other, the occupants will drive 1,171 miles per year less.

Walking around the future station area it becomes clear that east of the new station there isn’t much opportunity to create more housing other than on Sisely’s property. The stretch of 65th already has good transit connections and would allow links to a node of commercial retail on 20th and 65th. The proximity of Roosevelt High School means there’s no room to grow there, and to the south of Sisley’s properties is more established single family.

Beacon Hill Station -- Millions in infrastructure with bad land use

We are, potentially, headed for another Beacon Hill, where we have hundreds of millions in regional infrastructure poking its head out of the ground surrounded by parking lots, low rise retail, and single family homes. We can’t let that happen in Roosevelt. It’s true that the neighborhood plan does propose upzones, but the panhandle is especially crucial. The meager height increases for the three blocks are not enough.

Beacon Hill suffered from a lot of contention over upzones around the station. Instead of dealing with those concerns when the neighborhood plan was approved years ago, the Council kicked the can down the road, deferring tough land use decisions for more than a decade. Now the City is playing catch up with rezones that should have happened before the station was built. The Beacon Hill problem can be avoided in Roosevelt by trying out this approach:

  • RDG should drop its proposed contract rezone—This would be a compromise since, if their proposal goes through, RDG and Sisely would get 12 stories. They’ve already put a lot of work into this, but it’s not what the neighborhood wants to see happen. They can come back to the table and work with neighborhood on another solution.
  • The neighborhood and DPD should hold off on their proposal—The proposal as it now stands simply keeps the Sisely panhandle properties fallow, which is worse than nothing. The boarded up buildings are an eye sore. The community certainly wants more than this:

  • The City should facilitate a round of dialogues about the future of these blocks—This process should have a timeline and not be open-ended. Both sides will have to give something up in order to get some benefits. But this is a decision that will impact the neighborhood—and the whole city—for years to come.
  • Sound Transit needs to get into the game—Sound Transit has often said that it’s a transit agency, not a land use agency. Fine. But building expensive regional infrastructure and not getting the land use right is wasteful. Sound Transit should help with funds and staff, dialogue, and the solution.

It’s understandable that the neighborhood is not happy with the land owner. And there may even be legitimate disagreements about how high the buildings should go. But this is a chance to make something positive for current residents of the neighborhood and lots more people who would benefit from living and working right next to a major regional transit link. The City needs to hear from people who support density around the Roosevelt light rail station, and soon. You can send your thoughts to the folks at DPD here.

Finally, we have to start aligning regional transit investments with local land use. Spending billions on light rail to connect regional population centers but then leaving the land use decisions to the parochial concerns of dozens of city councils is a formula for failure. Policy and planning should be implemented to ensure that communities directly benefiting from the light rail investment reciprocate by embracing appropriate density.


A version of this post originally appeared at Seattle’s Land Use Code, an ongoing blog about reading zoning code.