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Getting High In Residential Transit Station Areas

2014 January 7
by dan bertolet

About 6 miles from downtown Vancouver just inside the eastern city limits is a residential neighborhood called Collingwood that looks like this from the SkyTrain:


And this:


And this:


And for perspective, a 2008 birdseye view of the whole area:


As I wrote back in 2008, this is what transit-oriented development (TOD) looks like:

Collingwood balances density with amenities: it has seven acres of park, an elementary school, a “neighborhood house,” a community gymnasium, and a daycare. It offers a variety of housing types at both affordable and market rates, with 20% of the units designed for families with children. There are towers ranging from 17 to 20 stories mixed in among 4- and 6-story mid-rise. Lower buildings and a park face the single-family zone to the south.

UPDATE:  Collingwood has become the densest neighborhood in Vancouver.

What’s conspicuously lacking from the built environment, both in Collingwood and throughout Vancouver, is the Seattle “breadloaf”—the 6- to 7-story mixed-use residential building type that has become ubiquitous in Seattle’s growing urban villages. During my recent Vancouver tour I only spotted one, near the Commercial-Broadview SkyTrain station:


The difference between Collingwood and any TOD in Seattle outside of downtown—existing or planned—couldn’t be any more stark. The Collingwood SkyTrain station is about the same distance from downtown Vancouver as the Othello LINK light rail station is from downtown Seattle, but in contrast to a station flanked by ten high-rises, at the Othello station area the maximum building height is only 65 feet, and only one large-scale private development has been completed since the trains started running 4.5 years ago.

Two stops closer to downtown Seattle at the Mount Baker LINK light rail station area, the City began a planning process in 2009 that culminated in a recommendation for an upzone to heights up to 125 feet in a small portion of the station area. But in late 2013 a Council vote on it was derailed by 11th-hour neighborhood opposition. At the future LINK station due to open in 2021 in Northgate, about 7 miles north of downtown Seattle, heights up to 125 feet are allowed in some areas, though there have been no takers yet—only mid-rise breadloaves so far. At the future LINK light rail station on Capitol Hill, the City’s highest-density residential neighborhood outside of downtown, all that the community could agree on was a meager height increase from 65 to 85 feet.

Demand for housing in Seattle is not going away any time soon. And if we can’t build up, we will build out. Inside the city that means increased development pressure on underdeveloped or underutilized properties, including housing that is relatively affordable. Outside the city that means more sprawl and loss of farms and forests.

As with my previous posts on downtown Vancouver and Vancouver suburbs, I am not claiming that Vancouver’s urban form is perfect, nor that high-rise is a cure-all that belongs everywhere. My point is that if Seattle hopes to grow into the most sustainable city possible,  high-rise will have to play a much larger role than it has. And Seattleites need look no further than the city across the border to see that it can work well. But if fear of heights continues to rule the day, ultimately both the City and the planet will suffer for it.


All photos except the birdseye taken by the author from the SkyTrain.


4 Responses leave one →
  1. Ben Broe. permalink
    January 8, 2014

    Couldn’t agree more, Dan. Why do you think there are no takers @ 125′ ? My guesses are either construction type cost/ft, sub-market rents or a mix of the two.

  2. January 8, 2014

    One name: Victor Steinbrueck. Come on Dan, throw some fire his way and do an expose on Seattle’s godfather of urbanism and his opposition to height. We’re all still paying the price for his arrogance. Or are you too comfy in Seattle’s political bubble to write something that may ruffle feathers?

  3. Brendan Hurley permalink
    January 9, 2014

    Commercial-Broadway is an interesting point of contention for the TOD height discussion in Vancouver.
    The Grandview Woodlands Neighbourhood (centered around Commercial Drive) was one of the first of Vancouver’s Neighbourhood Plans (It was a politically active neighbourhood back then too). The planning process predated SkyTrain, and was one of the first area planning processes for what became Vancouver’s City Plan. Collingwood and its associated towers was a late 1990s document. Few of the buildings in Grandview-Woodlands were designated for much more than 4 storeys and the development controls in the area (as well as the soon-to-come station area) were some of the most restrictive in the City.
    The Broadway Station site has become a hub with the intersection of a second line at Commercial (So big in fact that they are expanding the platforms to load and unload on both sides of the trains) and has always been ripe for redevelopment. However the main landholder (Safeway) of the catalyst site for the neighbourhood has held off over the last 30 years. And most redevelopment has been based on the existing plan. (The missing breadbox is a funny note. It is not a new building on Commercial Drive, but a renovation of a 4 storey office and cinema complex from the late 70s.)
    The inclusion of towers in the most recent iteration of the plan at that site has been expectedly met with resistance, and the overall plan has been sent back to the drawing board. Density here in Vancouver has its detractors and they can be very powerful ( and come in all political stripes), but the debate rages on. I still have hope for the Broadway Station area as a hub anchor of the City’s East Side. Interestingly it will likely be won and lost on the quality of the human scale urban design and how well and openly the narrative of the redevelopment is presented.

  4. Nate permalink
    January 10, 2014

    To be fair, SkyTrain has a ~20-year head start (23?) on ST Link, and Seattle’s system began service in the heat of the Great Recession. I get the rest, on micro-level issues with Seattle’s citizen attitudes and the political headwinds they bring to TOD’s potential here. Good post.

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