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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.

25 Responses leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    May 17, 2011

    Is it important that the area to the south of Sisley’s land stay single-family?

    • May 28, 2011

      It is important that single family neighborhoods be preserved, as so stated in the Seattle Comprehensive plan. Seattle has no need to grow as New York grew. Tee suburbs around Seattle are already in place. Fill them with high rises and connect the mass transit dots.

  2. BlancheattheDubois permalink
    May 17, 2011

    This is a great post Roger – there needs to be a well-facilitated community discussion focused on asking the right questions as you pose above. Roosevelt Neighborhood did a great job in getting Sound Transit to move the alignment – now reasonable density solutions need to be achieved to make the station a worthwhile investment – The neighborhood must insist that Sound Transit, the City and Roosevelt all work together to craft the solution – a la the Capitol Hill Champion.

  3. Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
    May 17, 2011

    I don’t think it’s at all clear that there isn’t much opportunity to create more housing other than on Sisely’s property. Directly south is the U-District, and there is a lot of opportunity to create housing along the stretch between 65th and 50th, on 12th Ave NE itself and the parallel 11th and Brooklyn on either side of it.

  4. Chris permalink
    May 17, 2011

    Sounds like a debate between Roger and Glenn, the dude who runs a local neighborhood blog (anti-up zone) is in order. …also, I live in the neighborhood and am all in favor of the up zone- or some up zone- but RDG has been pretty ham-handed about it all. combined with sissy as the land owner, its an odd situation.

    • May 28, 2011

      Not anti upzone, Chris. Two things come into play here. One is that the neighborhood has a plan, a plan that respects the importance of education as featured in Roosevelt High School, and a plan that respects this and all single family neighborhoods, the kind of thing that makes Seattle a wonderful place to live. I’m pro upzoning in locations that accomplish to two items just mentioned.
      Aside from that and something that has a great deal to do with what goes on in this neighborhood. Today’s paper reads: “No profit for Barefoot bandit.” You know who I mean. And our own criminal should not be rewarded for systematically and intentionally destroying approximately 4 blocks classic homes for future self-aggrandizement.

  5. Dan McGrady permalink
    May 17, 2011

    I think Roger framed the issue well and presented a thoughtful path forward. We have to get this right. There is a Sound Transit open house on May 26 to see for yourself what is possible.

  6. Benjamin Leis permalink
    May 19, 2011

    In my ideal world where Sisley wasn’t the property owner and the SPS wasn’t broke there would be a land swap where Roosevelt high school traded the west parts of the school property directly adjacent to the station for development and got the blocks on 65th farther away for a new track.

    In the short term also, focusing only on development opportunities to the east of the station does tend to obscure the reasonably good opportunity in all the other axes.

    Finally, the RNA is very active engaging with all stakeholders about land development. RDG and the RNA have been meeting regularly for more than a year now. The proposal put forth represents multiple years worth of meetings that have all been focused around upzoning and development. I’m not sure I see anything productive in calling for the city to facilitate more meetings. I think its time to vote on a decision.


  7. Bruce permalink
    May 19, 2011

    I question whether it makes sense for ST to get publicly involved in food fights like this, and I’m pretty certain they won’t. There’s no significant upside in it for them, and massive downsides if they give their anti-urban critics another stick to beat them with. In addition to the usual imbecilic canards about light rail “bringing criminals to our neighborhoods,” they’ll have to fight of idiots claiming the ST wants to flatten houses and build skyscrapers everywhere. Look at what’s happening in Bellevue now — it’d be much worse if ST was perceived as being an aggressive advocate for urban-density.

    ST should stick to building and operating Link. That’s plenty for any agency to work on.

  8. Neighbor in Article Neighborhood permalink
    May 19, 2011

    I don’t see why they don’t make the whole “panhandle” NC3P-65 and leave it at that. This would bring it up to the standard of central Roosevelt. 6 stories is the max you would want buildings going there…Any more and you’d be significantly changing the neighborhood above and beyond controllable levels. 12 stories is ridiculously high and 3 or 4 is far to conservative to be considered development or to validate the time and effort taken on this debate.

    Most of the friction in the neighborhood is due to the fact that Sisley intends for the buildings to all be rentals and keep ownership and not condos or sell them. He’s proven to not be a good landlord, time and time again….and that is a huge reason why the neighborhood is so “anti-development”. I feel sorry for RDG because they really do come off as nice people. Too bad they’re working for such a lousy client.

  9. Chris Stefan permalink
    May 20, 2011

    A really aggressive re-zoning plan would look a lot like Vancouver. We’d be allowing tall towers close (1/4 mile) to the station and step down further away. The very timid re-zones that make most lots near stations not attractive to redevelop aren’t going to help. It is sad that I’m seeing much better examples of mixed-use, multifamily, and townhome/rowhouse development on the Eastside instead of Seattle. Even though similar projects in Seattle would require far less parking.

    Another interesting phenomena is the relative lack of objections from existing residents including nearby single family homeowners. I’m not sure why that is, but you see large 6 story+ projects going in right next to established single-family neighborhoods without much protest from the homeowners.

  10. David permalink
    May 27, 2011

    Both the article and some of the responses appear to have some misinformation about the Roosevelt neighborhood. Fist of all, the neighborhood does not want “a lid on development” as stated by the author. Just because the neighborhood wants to limit height and density directly adjacent to single-family homes does not mean they are anti-development. The areas closest to the proposed station, adjacent to the other transportation corridors, and in the “heart” of the Roosevelt business district have been upzoned and could be used for increased development. In addition, the statement that “there isn’t much opportunity to create more housing other than on Sisely’s property” is ludicrous. There are numerous other open lots and redevelopable property close to the station. The fact is that much of Sisley’s property is adjacent to single family homes. The people who live or work here and walk around this area every day know this. The neighborhood wants to see development ramp up in height and density from single family homes to the station and the business district. The neighborhood wants and expects increased density. But the neighborhood also expects other areas close to other stations to take their fair share of density. Twelve story apartment buildings across the street or across the alley from single family residenses in Roosevelt is not the solution.

  11. Mark permalink
    May 28, 2011

    The Roosevelt and adjacent Ravenna neighborhoods both support increased density of significant degree. What they don’t want are monstrosities looming over single family houses, or development that defiles the neighborhood rather than enhancing it. I’m not sure what RDG would have done if they had had their own ideas but they don’t. By their own public admission they are constrained to build a minimum number of units by their agreement with Sisley, though they say that they are not permitted to disclose that minimum. Failing that minimum their deal, and their investment to date, is down the drain. Furthermore they’ve stated that they can’t afford to build handsome buildings that would complement the 100 year old neighborhood. So their plan turned into an all-or-none approach which hundreds of neighbors are staunchly against. My guess is-come up with reasonable heights, reasonable transitions, nice architecture, attention to pedestrian and bicycle needs and open space and support would follow.

  12. Walt permalink
    June 12, 2011

    While we have some specific numbers for the rezone heights, as was mentioned, the real issue is density. While I realize that there are a lot of variables that govern this, what kind of densities are we talking about? Both the U District and Northgate urban center stations are much different in character than the Roosevelt station. What densities are envisioned for these 3 north-end stations? And as I recall the drawings of the Roosevelt station, there didn’t seem to be much upward growth planned on top of the station itself. Why wouldn’t that make sense or is it a question of ST owning the land and not wanting to be a landlord?

  13. sierra permalink
    June 12, 2011

    The RDG should look at the apartments being built south of 45th/University. It’s so wonderful to see these new buildings blend in with the existing surrounding buildings. The tallest building between 45th and 65th is the UW building (fka Safeco building). We don’t need 12 stories buildings near Roosevelt HS.

  14. June 15, 2011

    A Sound Transit official told me that in response to the recent comments at the open house, it will downscale the Roosevelt station allowing for more intense development. A future owner of the staging area (now QFC) and the lots just north could cantilever buildings over the station.
    I think there are many opportunities for 6 story buildings on Roosevelt. Most existing buildings are only one story high. So, there is no need to give into Siseley and betray the RNA/DPD rezone plan. The U District and Northgate are designated for high density. We don’t need 3 very high density stations in a row. 65th is already congested.
    The city council should approve the RNA/DPD rezone plan.
    The comments that height does not matter are wrong. Height does matter. We don’t want to see the front of Roosevelt High School in the shade all winter long.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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  3. Roosevelt Environmental Benefits Statement | citytank
  4. The Value And Limits Of Neighborhood Planning | citytank
  5. Planning For Density | citytank
  6. Roosevelt Land Use Update « Roosevelt Neighborhood Seattle blog
  7. Action needed ASAP to support the Roosevelt Legislative Rezone | The Roosevelt Neighborhood Blog
  8. Public hearing with City Council tomorrow night (9/19) at Roosevelt High School | The Roosevelt Neighborhood Blog
  9. » Roosevelt Land Use Update Roosevelt Neighborhood Seattle

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