LRT vs BRT: West Seattle Needs A Full And Unbiased Analysis

[This article is cross posted at The Urbanist.]

Bus rapid transit (BRT) proponents argue that dense population and growth centers of West Seattle are too spread out to be effectively served by one light rail line, and they’d say even a dual line wouldn’t cut it. It’s a worthy debate that has been extensively hashed out between light rail and BRT evangelists, but one piece of the debate has recently changed. In early December, conversations by Sound Transit staff and decision-makers began to consider a larger investment package for Sound Transit 3 expansion plan.

Instead of a mere $15 billion, the region may see a transit measure closer in size to $25 billion or $30 billion. Naturally, with more monetary resources comes more investment capabilities. At the same time, Sound Transit also released a comprehensive “Corridor Summary” that projected daily ridership as high as 50,000 for its “West Seattle Junction” elevated light rail option and as many as 40,000 daily riders for its Delridge Way at-grade light rail option. That’s as many as 90,000 riders combined for perhaps a $3 billion investment ($2 billion for Delridge and $1.8 billion for “West Seattle Junction” but the two lines share the cost of first three stops and the Duwamish rail bridge thereby reducing the overall cost). Of course you’d have to adjust for the first three shared stations so you couldn’t just add the numbers together. Still, these aren’t paltry ridership numbers when compared to other high performing alignments like Ballard to Downtown Seattle (up to 133,000 daily riders for a $4.7-$5.3 billion investment).

West Seattle Combo

The red line is a light rail routing that I previously suggested for West Seattle; it’s a combination of the 3-A and 3-C options in Sound Transit recent study. I estimated a cost of $3 billion to do both based on Sound Transit numbers.

The skeptics would have you know that several Sound Transit Boardmembers seem to favor light rail to West Seattle and have all but promised an alignment there. They would also suggest that Sound Transit is inventing these numbers out of thin air to ensure that outcome. So who cares what the numbers say?

They might be right. The ridership numbers seem inflated.

Sound Transit should take BRT seriously and appropriately evaluate it. How much ridership would a West Seattle BRT see? How would Sound Transit handle operations? Would they build it and then hand it over to Metro Transit? The key to clarity for high quality transit to West Seattle is Sound Transit studying both light rail and BRT options extensively and honestly so we can make an informed decision.

Buses In The Next Transit Tunnel?

The utility of West Seattle BRT hinges on access to a Downtown transit tunnel to speed trips through the core. Sound Transit recently studied a second transit tunnel, and it seems more and more likely they’ll build it. The big question for BRT fans is whether they will allow buses in the tunnel if built.

Bus and rail already share one transit tunnel in Downtown Seattle, but that relationship has been tenuous at best. Bus operations have always been relatively slow in the tunnel. Increasing Downtown bus trips and combination of new light rail service necessitated the permanent elimination of some routes from the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel early on. Then in 2012, the Ride Free Area was ended and threatened increased average boarding times for buses. Metro responded by platooning buses and hiring staff to load buses via the backdoor with mixed results. Subsequent rounds of service changes have kicked more and more buses out of the tunnel and onto city streets, but buses may hang on until the early 2020s before being fully eliminated from the tunnel. In the meantime, light rail service in the tunnel is regularly delayed by bus operations.

Sound Transit likely doesn’t want to unnecessarily recreate such poor service delivery. But if buses are denied access to a transit tunnel, we’d have to assess how rapid BRT to West Seattle could effectively work through Downtown Seattle.

Growth Potential

Much of West Seattle’s light rail long term viability hinges on growth. Skeptics say West Seattle simply won’t grow enough to justify light rail investment. Underlying this is the assumption homeowners and neighborhood activists will block changes in zoning and impede development. They might be right, but the irony is that the BRT crowd is perfectly willing to talk politics when it supports their point on land use (i.e., NIMBYism will prevent West Seattle from ever growing into a community large enough to support light rail). On transportation, however, they don’t want politics to factor into a sober assessment of transit quality. They say BRT could serve more of West Seattle and Delridge with one seat rides for much cheaper, so we should just dismiss some people’s stated preference for rail as a frivolity. At least in Sound Transit’s survey, West Seattle elevated light rail had strong support, getting more votes than any other listed project. If we think we can overcome rail preference to sell BRT to West Seattle, I expect we might be able to sell them on zoning changes too.

Current Density

In 2010, the US Census Bureau found that the wider West Seattle community had a population just shy of 83,000; Southwest with 48,008 and Delridge with 34,904.

This is how the City of Seattle roughly delineates its neighborhood communities for statistical purposes, although the 2010 census data may represent a slightly different region. (City of Seattle)

This is how the City of Seattle roughly delineates its neighborhood communities for statistical purposes, although the 2010 census data may represent a slightly different region. (City of Seattle)

West Seattle and Delridge are growing steadily, although nowhere near as rapidly as the incredible rates achieved in Downtown and Lake Union. From 2000 to 2010, West Seattle grew by 4.6% while Delridge grew by 6%. Recent data from The Seattle Times, showed continuing growth concentrated most heavily around Avalon and Alaska Junction. Moreover, a quick glance at Seattle in Progress confirms that more than a dozen big projects are on the way.

Chad Newton at Build The City blog made this nifty density map based on 2010 census data. As you can see, West Seattle has only a few sections in the orange (10,000 to 25,000) density level. (Chad Newton)

Chad Newton at Build The City blog made this nifty density map based on 2010 census data. As you can see, West Seattle has only a few sections in the orange (10,000 to 25,000) density level. (Chad Newton)

BRT proponents say that even if West Seattle grows significantly, its transit demand still won’t catch up to denser areas in the central core of the city or the dense urban swath found from Ballard to the University District. That may be, but this doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition.

Hypothetically, West Seattle and Ballard both could get light rail. We could even build the Metro 8 Subway if we lobbied Sound Transit hard enough. Sound Transit could also help Metro upgrade its most successful RapidRide line — the E Line — to as close to full BRT as possible. The E Line (Aurora Village) reached 15,800 weekday rides in 2015 and leads the RapidRide pack by far; this seems an obvious place to invest further. Adding more BRT lines than just a hypothetical West Seattle line would also avoid accusations of favoritism, and it’d spread ST3 benefits across a wider area.

Maybe BRT will ultimately be the best solution for the West Seattle peninsula, too. But at this juncture, we need to study both light rail and BRT options further to evaluate their costs and benefits.

A Loopy Idea for ST3: Circling Lake Union, Doubling Down in West Seattle

[This article is cross posted at The Urbanist.]

To make a long story short, I’m making the case a wide subway loop around Lake Union. To accomplish, all you need to do is build the Ballard Spur and the first part of the Metro 8 Subway, and then loop these stub lines together via Central Link’s Capitol Hill to University District segment and the planned Ballard to Downtown (via Interbay) line. The loop replaces the operation of the Ballard Spur and Metro 8 Subway alone, allowing the routes to flow into one another and facilitate diagonal movements such as Ballard to Capitol Hill. I’ll go into more detail below.

Lake Union Loop

The Orange Line represents the Lake Union Loop. The yellow dots are possible in-fill stations on the Ballard Spur. The Gray Line indicates the tighter loop with an optional extension to Phinney and Greenwood. (Interactive map)

I also think that building both West Seattle light rail alignments, 3A (Delridge Way) and 3C (West Seattle Junction), together would best serve that portion Seattle, at least based on the Sound Transit study data. The two routes would share the expense of the Duwamish rail bridge and the trackage in SODO. I think both would pencil out better this way. Building Ballard to Downtown, the Ballard Spur, a starter line for the Metro 8 Subway and a split West Seattle light rail line is going to be expensive. Thus, this is also an argument for STcomplete, Seattle Subway’s idea of doubling the timeline to 30 years so that we have the money to pay for all our good ideas.

Predicting the Leaning of the Sound Transit Board

Sound Transit has less than a year before Sound Transit 3 (ST3) goes to the ballot. The Sound Transit Board must finalize their project list and decide on a time span for the next phase of buildout. Expanding the timeline means more money and more projects. At 15 years, Sound Transit would have funding capacity of $15 billion for investments. Adding years beyond the base fifteen expands the capacity exponentially due to Sound Transit’s bonding going off the books.

At 25 years, Sound Transit would have more than $30 billion to work with. A few Sound Transit Boardmembers have indicated a preference for 20 years or perhaps even 25 years in a transportation expansion package. That would expand the number of projects to serve the many light rail-hungry voters in the region. The following is a list based on the latest Sound Transit study:

North Spine – Lynnwood to Everett

  • Cost: $3 to $5 billion
  • Ridership: 42,000 to 58,000
  • Travel time: 25 to 38 min, depending on option

South Spine – Kent to Tacoma Dome

  • Cost: $3.5 to 3.7 billion
  • Ridership: 49,000 to 69,000
  • Travel time: 28 minutes
  • Alignment: I-5

Ballard to Downtown

  • Cost: $4.4 to 5.3 billion
  • Ridership: 67,000 to 87,000
  • Travel time: 19 min
  • Alignment: Favoring a grade separated Interbay routing

New Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel

  • Cost: $2 billion
  • Ridership: bumps Ballard line to 102,000 to 133,000

Ballard to Ballard High School Elevated Extension

  • Cost: $350 million
  • Ridership: 4,000 to 5,000
  • Travel time: 2 minutes

West Seattle Junction to Downtown

  • Cost: $1.8 billion
  • Ridership: 39,000 to 50,000
  • Time: 11 minutes
  • Alignment: Favoring elevated light rail

West Seattle Junction to Burien

  • Cost: $2.8 billion
  • Ridership: 18,000 to 26,000
  • Travel time: 22 minutes

Downtown to Delridge to White Center

  • Cost: $2 billion
  • Ridership: 34,000 to 40,000
  • Travel time: 18 minutes

Ballard to University District Subway (Ballard Spur)

  • Cost: $3 billion
  • Ridership: 19,000 to 24,000
  • Travel time: 7 minutes

Totem Lake to Issaquah

  • Cost: $3.2 to 3.4 billion
  • Ridership: 12,000 to 15,000
  • Travel time: 31 minutes

Overlake to Downtown Redmond

  • Cost: $1 to 1.1 billion
  • Ridership: 8,000 to 10,000
  • Travel time: 8 minutes

1. Spine Obsession

The Board’s obvious first priority is in building the Spine from Tacoma to Everett, and it would appear they might have $9 billion or more sunk into that endeavor. Part of the reason that number has climbed so high is Sound Transit is letting Snohomish County talk its way into working in a Paine Field dogleg that would cost about $2 billion more than a simple, direct I-5 route — and maybe $1 billion more than a SR-99 routing that is the most urban and transit-oriented development supportive option for the county.

2. Bowing to Booming Ballard

In Seattle, connecting Ballard to Downtown stands out, particularly with a new Downtown transit tunnel, which allows the whole project to draw a projected 102,000 to 133,000 riders for a capital investment of about $7 billion. In comparison, the Spine’s $9 billion is projected to add 91,000 to 127,000 riders. (Personally, I’m generally skeptical that suburban routes will meet estimated projections.) Ballard is a rock solid investment.

Anton's proposed Belltown alignment. (Anton Babadjanov)

Anton’s proposed Belltown alignment. (Anton Babadjanov)

The latest work from Sound Transit shows a Ballard to Downtown light rail line that manages to completely avoid Belltown, veering toward South Lake Union instead. Anton Babajanov, a write for The Urbanist, presented a nice alternative routing that manages to connect both Belltown and South Lake Union via the Ballard line.

Initially, I thought the the ideal solution to the Belltown/South Lake Union problem would actually be two subways; that being the Metro 8 Subway along Denny Way paired with the direct routing of the Ballard line through Belltown. Unfortunately, Sound Transit doesn’t appear to want to touch the Metro 8 Subway with a ten-foot pole. It might be up to Seattle alone to build that urban line. Anton’s routing could help Seattle jump start the lurching progress of planning Metro 8 Subway and cut its eventual cost down the road by getting three pricey underground stations built with the Ballard line (it also helps with a loopy idea I will get to later on).

3. The West Seattle Political Expediency Express

West Seattle seems to be the Board’s second priority, and most people expect the 3A option to West Seattle/Alaska Junction even though the Delridge Way (3C) routing projects to get almost as many riders and more effectively meet the Board’s own equity goals. Part of the momentum to 3A stems from what seems to be Sound Transit inflating their numbers. Their latest “Corridor Summary” has 3A inexplicably getting ridership of 39,000 to 50,000, despite projecting to have a population of just 21,300 in the West Seattle Junction corridor. As part of the same study, but at a more detailed level (page C-46), the report showed 3A getting a ridership of 23,000 to 29,000. Meanwhile, the Delridge option projects ridership in the 34,000 to 40,000 range in the same Corridor Summary (versus 19,000 to 22,000 in the more detailed study), despite a slightly larger population in the corridor.

West Seattle to Downtown Seattle alignments. (Sound Transit)

West Seattle to Downtown Seattle alignments. (Sound Transit)

It’s surprising that the Delridge Way alignment performed so well in the Corridor Summary since Sound Transit included only three stops in Delridge, and none for a 3-mile stretch from about Spokane Street to Thistle Street. Most of Delridge Way isn’t particularly dense, but it doesn’t cost much to add an at grade station. Adding a station near the Delridge Library and another at Orchard Street would rectify this oversight and make the Delridge line even more useful. The Delridge Way line would serve a substantial minority population who make up 54% of residents. Yet, the elevated West Seattle Junction line would only serve a resident minority population of 28%. Choosing an alignment solely to West Seattle Junction could open the Board up to severe criticism over the lack of equity and run counter to stated agency social goals.

Maybe we don’t have to choose. The new rail bridge to cross the Duwamish is one of the most expensive elements of reaching West Seattle. If we can engineer a rail junction at Delridge Way, both lines could share the new bridge. Approximately $1.8 billion for SODO to Alaska Junction and $2 billion for SODO to White Center via Delridge Way could potentially become $3 billion or less for both. The split line would offer much higher combined ridership than one line alone. And Delridge Way provides a more direct route to Burien. That should translate into some major savings off of the lofty $2.8 billion price tag of to reach Burien Transit Center from Alaska Junction. That figure could be cut in half, if not more so, since White Center (the last stop of the Delridge Way line) is midway between Alaska Junction and Burien Transit Center.

Combined West Seattle options.

Combined West Seattle options.

One downside is not directly reaching the Morgan Junction or High Point, but a light rail extension could be added later, while in the meantime we would serve those neighborhoods with restructured feeder buses from West Seattle Junction or Delridge Way.

4. Burying the Spur?

Sound Transit has studied light rail that would connect Ballard to the University District (the Ballard Spur). But the study tacked on an operations and maintenance facility to the project, perhaps inflating its cost relative to others. This suggests the Board isn’t too interested in building the Ballard Spur this time around. Still, it draws 19,000 to 24,000 riders for $3 billion and serves Fremont and Wallingford with light rail where other projects do not. It seems bizarre that Sound Transit maintains that a 4.7-mile West Seattle Junction line would see more than double the ridership of the Ballard Spur’s, despite the Ballard Spur having more than double the population. Further, West Seattle Junction costing $1.8 billion to the Ballard Spur’s $3 billion is also a headscratcher.

I suspect the spur’s lackluster ridership numbers relative to other lines hint at weakness in their ridership projection model. It seems doubtful that Sound Transit projections fully account for growth near stations affecting future ridership and the extent pedestrian-friendly environments encourage people to walk to stops whereas hellish motor-nightmares encourage people to seek other modes.

Beyond the Spine: Prioritize Urban Centers, Hubs, and Villages

Seattle Subway’s guiding principle is that every neighborhood deserves high-quality light rail. More and more, I’m seeing the wisdom in that. We need to distribute growth throughout the city so that it is equitable and spreads the benefits of vibrant urban commercial districts. The question is how to prioritize which neighborhoods should be served first. The densest and fastest growing neighborhoods make the most sense. Seattle projects that 80% of the city’s job and housing growth in the next 20 years will be in urban centers, hubs, and villages, which I will collectively refer to as “urban nodes”.

The Seattle 2035 draft plan is still awaiting approval by the City Council. (City of Seattle)

The Seattle 2035 draft plan is still awaiting approval by the City Council. (City of Seattle)

Urban nodes are already denser than average Seattle neighborhoods and growth will make them more so. Thus, urban nodes seem prime candidates for light rail stations. Ideally, we would connect every urban node in ST3. This would also help the ballot measure appeal to a wide spectrum of the population. The question is whether even $30 billion would be sufficient to finance that much light rail mileage.

Who Gets Left Out?

The urban nodes of West Seattle Junction, Uptown, and Ballard look to make out splendidly in ST3, and Anton’s routing suggestion allows both Belltown and South Lake Union to get in on the fun. Capitol Hill, University District, Roosevelt, and Northgate all will be served once the ST2 investments in the Central Link go live. That covers many but not all of Seattle’s designated urban nodes. Notably missing are a myriad of urban nodes like Lake City, Bitter Lake, Upper Queen Anne, Central District, Fremont, Admiral District, First Hill, and many others. The City’s draft comprehensive plan calls for adding an urban village in the 130th Street area near Jackson Park. (Some, The Urbanist included, want to go farther and have pushed the City to add urban villages in more places, such as Wedgwood, Magnolia, Madison Park and Sand Point.)

Some of the omissions can be explained by geography. Lake City is far to the northeast and Bitter Lake is far to the northwest. The Admiral District is inconveniently located toward the tip of the peninsula in West Seattle. South Park fits neatly into neither the Fauntleroy nor Delridge corridor. Others look good on a map, but topography provides a challenge. Upper Queen Anne would require a underground station hundreds of feet deep, greatly adding to the cost. First Hill didn’t get a Central Link station because Sound Transit said it was physically impossible due to soil conditions.

Some neighborhoods likely won’t get light rail because they would too closely duplicate spine service, such as Eastlake and Green Lake. Central District could be served by the full Metro 8 Subway, but that subway hasn’t even been studied by Sound Transit let alone strongly considered. Meanwhile, the Ballard Spur might replicate the Ballard to Downtown line in some people’s eyes, but it does bring light rail service to Fremont and Wallingford.

Lake Union Loop

In a dream scenario fully exploiting STcomplete, Seattle would build Ballard to Downtown via Interbay, the Ballard Spur, and at least the first part of the Metro 8 Subway. With the about-to-open University Link extension, we’d have the lines to run a big loop around Lake Union to serve the urban nodes of Ballard, Lower Queen Anne, Belltown, SLU, Capitol Hill, University District, Wallingford, and Upper Fremont in a continuous circuit. Not serving the central business District (CBD) would be unorthodox, but, as South Lake Union develops as a job center rivaling the CBD, it could make more and more sense. To me, it just seems like a shortcut to more frequent service and one-seat rides throughout this dense and quickly growing part of Seattle.

A Lake Union Loop seems really far-fetched at first but it might not be so outlandish. The Ballard to Downtown line seems to be Sound Transit highest priority within Seattle. From Anton’s suggested South Lake Union station, it’s just a 3/4-mile extension to reach Capitol Hill Station, thereby alleviating one of the most tediously slow bus routes in Seattle, the Route 8. This is the only section of the Route 8 that the loop would absolutely need (extending it to the Central District would be nice, eventually). You would also need the Ballard Spur, but justifying its $2 to 3 billion cost might be easier if it offers more one-seat rides and better service to a wider swath of Seattle via the loop.

More Ambitious Loop With Lower Fremont, Queen Anne

We also have the option of tightening the loop by adding another line through Lower Fremont and Queen Anne. Unlike the latest Seattle Subway map, I’d run this line as an extension of the Metro 8 Subway rather than having the Metro 8 Subway head south to Tacoma in a U-shaped fashion. (You can view my map illustrating that idea here.)

The tighter loop would branch off from the spur in Upper Fremont and head south picking up Lower Fremont and South Pacific University before reuniting with the tweaked Ballard to Downtown line in Queen Anne. This would be a 2-mile section to connect 45th Street and Linden Avenue (where I have the Upper Fremont station straddling Aurora Avenue and Fremont Avenue) to Queen Anne Avenue and Galer Street. Two miles of twin bore tunnel and two more underground stations could cost upwards of $2 billion. Since the Ballard to Downtown and West Seattle to Downtown lines seem to be first on the pecking order, it may be awhile before Sound Transit has the funds to pay for these urban routes on the loop.

The Upper Queen Anne station would be expensive since Sound Transit has indicated it would have to be a particularly deep station. However, once you commit to that, it could still be incorporated into the Ballard to Downtown line without sacrificing much in terms of directness. This get Queen Anne light rail service much sooner and prepares the system for the 2-mile tunnel to branch off to Upper Fremont closing the loop.


As always with high-quality rail, cost is a clear concern. The tweaks I’ve outlined to the Ballard to Downtown line could push it to the high end of cost estimates ($5 billion) and perhaps beyond with the new Downtown light rail tunnel (projected at $2 billion). However, piggybacking so much on this high priority line not only lays the foundation for a potential loop but also makes for a dynamic line connecting Interbay, Queen Anne, Uptown, Belltown, and South Lake Union, hopefully without sacrificing too much speed.

To close the loop, we are talking maybe $4 billion in addition to the modified Ballard to Downtown line, which projects to cost $7 billion with a new Downtown transit tunnel. We should also plan at least $3 billion for my West Seattle light rail idea. That’s $14 billion in Seattle light rail projects plus $9 billion for the Spine, $1 billion to reach downtown Redmond, $1 billion to reach Burien, perhaps even $3.3 billion to add a dubious Totem Lake to Issaquah line. It’s adding up, but we are still under $30 billion.

Even the the 3/4-mile segment to link South Lake Union to Capitol Hill station might push a $1 billion with the tunneling work and additional station. Running this as a continuous loop would require engineering intersections where they don’t exist on the Central Link alignment. We could plan intersections right into stations in Ballard and South Lake Union if we decide to go ahead with the loop. I think building the three-quarters of the subway to connect the new South Lake Union station in the Ballard line to Capitol Hill is a no-brainer no matter what. Sound Transit might try to get Seattle to foot some of the bill and this corridor is so important I wouldn’t rule it out.

Some lines could be more important to ST3’s electoral success than the Ballard Spur. Extending the Ballard line to Lake City would serve a large population of North Seattleites, picking up Crown Hill, Greenwood, and Licton Springs. That’s a promising project too. With so many intriguing projects, STcomplete is a must. I hope we see at least a 25-year timespan for the system expansion.

The Development of Frelingford

It’s easiest to document the changes taking place outside your own window, which for me looks out on Woodland Park Avenue and Stone Way. From my vantage alone, I can see two large construction sites. Frelingford is undergoing a transformation.

What is Frelingford?

What is Frelingford, you ask? Well that’s the name some people use to refer to our neighborhood: the nether region between Fremont and Wallingford. Officially, our apartment on Woodland Park Avenue is in Fremont, but, since Stone Way divides the two booming neighborhoods, Wallingford is just a block away. It feels like we have a foot planted in each neighborhood. I’d contend the area between SR-99 and Interlake Avenue is Frelingford; plus I’d even claim Wallingford’s southern peninsula below N 35th Street, an area more than ten blocks from Wallingford’s main business district on N 45th Street.


Frelingford is a boot shape neighborhood with the inclusion of the Gas Works Park area. (Graphic by Justin Roth)

Within a block or so of Stone Way also happens to be where much of the latest round of growth in both neighborhoods is taking place, particularly the largest mixed use projects. Perhaps, the Stone Way district will even begin to rival’s Wallingford’s 45th Street commercial district and Fremont’s busy 36th Street business strip. Many projects do include first floor commercial space to lend new additions to existing mix of restaurants, coffee shops, and retail.

Kitty corner from me, a full block mixed use building has sprouted at 3801 Stone Way including 278 apartments and 8,215 feet of commercial space.


Stone Way Apartments will include six commercial spaces at street level. The building is still partially curtained but appears to be nearing completion. (Stone Way LLC)

Just south at 3627 Stone Way a tower crane just went up for another large apartment building containing 124 units.


The project at 3627 Stone Way includes 7,400 square feet of retail, perhaps for a restaurant. (Bayliss Architects)

Additionally, a potentially iconic triangular 23 unit apartment building is in the works two blocks north of us at 3860 Bridge Way.


The triangular plot at diagonal Bridge Way somehow fits 23 apartments and might even do so in style by the looks of it.(KO Architecture)

Our building, Velo Apartments, is a relative newcomer, too, going on the market fall 2014 with 171 units. Velo was built by Mack Urban, who also completed “Ray” a building at 3636 Stone Way with 137 units in 2015. Next month Mack Urban will start renting “Smith & Burns” a 150 unit building at 1321 45th Street, just off Stone Way.


Smith & Burns includes 6,000 square feet of retail near the intersection of 45th Street and Stone Way. (Mack Urban)

On another triangular plot at 1240 N Midvale Place, a building with 30 apartments and 2,338 square feet of office space is under construction.


The 44 bus passes right by this new triangular building and will likely be heavily used by tenants since no parking is planned. (Caron)

Lagging Growth Elsewhere

Meanwhile, growth in the central area of Fremont seems tepid in comparison. One six story mixed use building with 48 units is replacing a smaller existing apartment building at 3519 Fremont Place N. A few town homes are going in here and there. Plus, a five story office building is replacing the current site of Milstead Coffee and Cafe Turko (don’t worry both staying open at location just up the street), and just north a five-story mixed use building with 56 apartments and 1,881 square feet of retail is going in at 743 N 34th Street.


Milstead is going back in once the new 108,777 square feet office building is done. Cafe Turko is staying at its new location. (Weber Thompson)

743 N 35TH ST

A 56-unit apartment building is under construction just east of the Fremont Branch Library. (B9 Architects)

Wallingford is seeing a few more new projects, but the largest are within a few blocks of Stone Way or at the far south edge near Gas Works Park, where two apartment buildings and the NorthEdge office building are under construction.


On the northern shores of Lake Union, Gas Works Park has become a gathering place for the Wallingford and Fremont communities and will soon see a lot of Tableau employees. (Perkins & Will)

Data visualization software company Tableau leased out an entire NorthEdge office building with space for 1,300 employees. The expectation of several hundred new tech hires moving to the area is a big reason Fremont and Wallingford are seeing such a dramatic boom.



Tableau already had 200,000 square feet of office space in the Fremont area even before it signed an 11-year lease on NorthEdge’s 210,000 square feet of office space in Frelingford.(Perkins & Will)

Two apartment buildings  are going up two blocks east of the new Tableau office building. Designed by AMLI Residential Partners, the twin five-story structures will together they will have 239 units.


The buildings at 3400 and 3326 Wallingford Avenue will collectively 212 apartments and 27 live-work units. (AMLI Residential Partners)

Meanwhile in old Wallingford, the pharmacy chain CVS bought the building previously housing Moon Temple (and a Tully’s Coffee) at the prime intersection of 45th Street and Meridian Avenue, and, in a display of urban ineptitude, refused to put up a mixed use building and instead chose to renovate the existing one story building to get around obstruction by the neighborhood design review board.


It’s really unfortunate this corner won’t be put to better use. (Seattle Curbed)

CVS also planned to add one story suburban style stores in West Seattle and Lower Queen Anne but encountered a large backlash from neighborhood activists. Thanks to this pressure, the city council passed a minimum floor area ratio measure (a density requirement) that helped force CVS to add two additional stories to its Lower Queen Anne location. The Wallingford location is proceeding as a renovation of the existing one story building—to me the worst compromise and a skin-deep concession to historical preservation. Either leave the two small storefronts in the old building, or, if you’re going to displace them, put up something more visionary and worthy of a prime piece of land.

At 45th Street and Woodlawn Avenue, a 48-unit apartment building is going in with 3600 square feet of retail. Stephen Fesler gave the design a glowing review. I’d concur; it’s a handsome brick building. At just three blocks east of Stone Way, this building very nearly falls in Frelingford.


The 45th & Woodlawn apartments will be across the street from Molly Moon’s and fill in a gap in the streetscape. (B9 Architects)

Rounding out the big projects in Wallingford, a four story Bedrooms & More retail and office space complex is under construction at the neighborhood’s eastern edge at 324 NE 45th Street.


This building will function as Bedrooms & More’s showroom, its office space and the owners will even live in the fourth floor condo. That’s a very personal approach to mixed use development! (Stuart Silk Architects)

Why the lag?

While at least 1500 new apartments have been built along Stone Way since 2012, comparatively few have gone in the central districts of Fremont and Wallingford during that time span. Why is Frelingford seeing more intensified growth than the even more bustling and high demand hearts of these neighborhoods? The answer, I think, has a lot to do with zoning and with a perceived desire to keep much of the one- to two-story retail that predominates in both business districts, not to mention not touching the sacred single family neighborhoods just a block or two off the business strip. Plus, I expect parcels along Stone Way may have been easier/cheaper to acquire as a former industrial/warehouse area already zoned for mixed use.

Getting Zoning To Match Urban Village Aspirations

Both Wallingford and Fremont were deemed urban villages in the 1994 Comprehensive plan, but to a large extent zoning changes envisioned did not materialize. The 2035 Plan—which should finally be passed next year—suggests easing zoning restrictions within its boundaries within the Wallingford Residential Urban Village. As you can see below about half of the “urban” village is still zoned single family.

Click to access fremont-sf-zones-and-expanded-UCUV.pdf

Notice how the Wallingford urban village is weighted heavily to the western side and much is within the Frelingford area I’ve described. East of Sunnyside Avenue, the village’s boundaries are pencil thin, not even a full block. The Urbanist Editorial Board has recommended expanding the boundaries of high demand urban villages and mentioned Wallingford specifically:

The city needs to go further and expand the areas of urban development in urban villages and high-intensity zoning in urban centers, especially where there is extraordinary demand for housing (e.g. Ballard, Wallingford, South Lake Union, and the University District).

I like the idea of stretching the urban village’s boundaries from 43rd Street to 51st Street throughout Wallingford. That doesn’t mean all the single family homes within that boundary would be redeveloped, but it would spread the growth and hopefully allow building diversity in age and type. Moreover, 40th Street looks ripe for redevelopment since it has good bus service with Routes 26, 31, and 32, and Wallingford Avenue already has some some commercial use that could be built upon with relaxed zoning along its spine and near Gas Works Park.

The 2035 plan calls flirts with expanding the Fremont Hub Urban Village 1994 boundaries by a few blocks. Currently, 40th Street delineates the northernmost extent, but much of Upper Fremont is already zoned Low-Rise Multi-Family meaning growth could climb up the Fremont Avenue corridor, and to some extent already has. The Urbanist has recommended making Upper Fremont an urban village in its own right. Notice again, the urban village already stretches to Fremont’s far eastern edge a.k.a Frelingford.


Fremont’s urban village boundaries appear ripe for expansion. (SDPD)

As Fremont and Wallingford are currently zoned, growth has been concentrated along the Stone Way corridor. I’ve argued this could lead to Stone Way rivaling the traditional hubs along 36th Street in Fremont and 45th Street in Wallingford. Stone Way’s mixed use growth could also lead Frelingford to feeling increasingly like a distinct neighborhood. It’s already cut off from the rest of Fremont by SR-99, and Wallingford’s business district is a long walk up the hill for those of us at the bottom. As more cafes, restaurants, shops, bars, and businesses go in along Stone Way, we in Frelingford will have more excuses to stay in the immediate neighborhood.

The development of a strong mixed-use district along Stone Way is a good thing, but it also highlights the need for zoning to allow more mixed use development in other areas of Wallingford and Fremont so that the traditional centers of these neighborhoods do not stagnate and so that even more people can enjoy the high quality of living here.

The HALA report has recommended shifting the height limits up in low rise zones: LR2 zones go from 30 to 40 feet and in urban village LR3 zones 40 increases to 55 feet. NC65 (Neighborhood Commercial 65′) would go up to NC75. These changes still need to be enacted by the city council, but doing so would allow new buildings an additional floor or two which might change the calculus in favor or redeveloping more plots. Another reason to make sure the HALA recommendations are enacted!

Incentive Zoning Helps Bring In $45 Million For 809 Affordable Apartments

Seattle’s Office of Housing is set to make the largest annual investment to affordable housing in its history, as Mayor Ed Murray’s office announced via this press release.

The 2015 award is the largest ever annual investment in affordable housing by the City. Last year, the Office of Housing awarded $22 million. In his 2015 State of the City address, Murray pledged $35 million to support the recommendations of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) advisory committee.

Mayor Murray credited developers for allowing the city to surpass his pledge by $10 million.

This year’s extraordinary funding level is due to significant contributions from developers who have benefited from the recent building boom. Developers who participate in Incentive Zoning provide payments to the City’s affordable housing fund, which the Office of Housing uses to leverage other state and federal funding.

It’s a nice sentiment that developers, the city, and housing advocates are all working together. That said, developers certainly acquired a benefit for themselves through incentive zoning programs. It’s not exactly charity. Still, kudos to them for participating.

Murray said the $45 million investment would create 809 affordable apartments. That works out to an average cost to the city of $55,624.23 per unit. The city is not the exclusive source of funding on these projects. Some cities have done a lot worse—Chicago Housing Authority comes to mind—in efficiently administering their affordable housing programs.



Bellwether Housing is planning this 7-story, 133-unit building at 15th Avenue NE and NE 50th Street in University District with first floor retail and 113 underground parking spots. It will replace the University Christian Church’s surface parking lot. (Bellwether Housing)


Bellwether Housing is planning this 7-story, 133-unit building at 15th Avenue NE and NE 50th Street in University District with first floor retail and 113 underground parking spots. It will replace the University Christian Church’s surface parking lot.


Mayor Murray has promised to build 20,000 affordable homes over the next decade—that’s 2,000 per year. At a 809 home per year pace, incentive zoning programs alone aren’t a strong enough funding mechanism to get to Murray’s goal as currently devised. That’s why the press release segued to the need to renew the Seattle Housing Levy:

The Seattle Housing Levy remains the most consistent and important funding source for affordable housing in Seattle. Starting in 1981, voters have approved one bond and four levies for a total of $388 million dollars. These funds have been instrumental in providing more than 12,000 income- and rent-restricted apartments in Seattle. The Seattle Housing Levy is up for renewal in 2016.

Murray said he wants to expand the levy, and some advocates are pushing the city to double it. As the most dependable funding source of affording housing, it’s crucial the levy remains and expands to meet the growing housing shortage. The city estimates it has a shortage of almost 60,000 units: 23,500 units for households at 30 percent AMI; 25,000 units for households at 50 percent AMI; and 9,300 units for households at 80 percent AMI.

The levy is the backbone of affordable housing but the city has already looked to put more meat on the bones. Last month in an unanimous vote the city council passed for the framework of the “Mandatory Affordability Program,” which is the official name of the commercial linkage fee program. The Urbanist delved into that program here. To summarize, the city allows commercial developers to build a few stories higher by easing zoning restrictions (upzones) in exchange for either directly building affordable housing or paying into the affordable housing fund.

Potentially, the Mandatory Affordability Program could create a substantial amount of affordable housing once it goes into effect, which is whenever the city council passes the upzone for the respective neighborhood. I will let our resident urban planner Stephen Fesler explain the legalese:

As it is devised, the Commercial Linkage Fees will only become effective when formal changes to increasing zoning or development capacity in a targeted area directly refer back to the Commercial Linkage Fee ordinance (Chapter 23.58B), or are subject to certain contract rezones. South Lake Union and Downtown Seattle are the first likely locations where the this would be instituted, and according to Councilmember Mike O’Brien, that’s slated to happen in the first half of 2016.

The city is celebrating a success with incentive zoning securing $45 million for affordable housing through private development, but much works still needs to be done. First, the city council needs to pass upzones in South Lake Union and Downtown before the commercial linkage fee will go into effect. Second, the Seattle Housing Levy needs to be renewed and hopefully expanded in 2016. Third, we need to continue to innovate and come up with new solutions to tackle Seattle’s affordability crisis.

Click to access NOFAApplicants_2015.pdf

Click to access NOFAApplicants_2015.pdf

FAST Act Makes Slow Progress

The sausage has been made and the federal transportation bill has emerged from the conference committee with a treacly new name: Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (“FAST”). “Fixing” is much too ambitious of a word for a 5-year, $305 billion bill. Maybe “hot-gluing” but fixing America’s rickety infrastructure in five years with so little money? I think not. The vast majority of the bill is business as usual, continuing the quixotic quest to build enough highway lane miles to somehow keep America’s gigantic fleet of cars in constant motion—all without raising the fuel tax from its 1993 level. That said, the sausage was sprinkled with a few nutritious nuggets.

16 wide world highways

FAST ACT keeps the highway megaproject gravy train rolling, which makes possible things like the new 520 Floating Bridge. (Washington State DOT)

  • Transit funding got a 18 percent boost (compared to 15 percent boost for highway spending). There was some fear Republicans would use their muscle in each chamber to shrink transit’s share from of funding from one-fifth, at which it has generally stood since the 1980s, but the share actually increase ever so slightly.
  • The New Starts program survives for funding transit projects, although at a 60 percent federal match, down from 80 percent.
  • The Small Starts program remains intact. Mostly used for bus projects, the program maintained a 80 percent federal match.
  • TIFIA financing program was made more available to smaller cities by lowering the threshold from $50 million to $10 million. The program, which offers loans to local governments at favorable rates,  should help small cities expand their transit networks and perhaps improve their public realm. However, overall TIFIA funding took a big hit shrinking from $1 billion to about $250 million. And big cities still have an advantage because their larger staffs can process applications faster, Eric Jaffe argues.
  • Bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure funding was preserved and will actually increase slightly from $834 million per year to $850 million per year by 2019. Not bad considering legislators had to beat back three amendments attempting strip bicycle funding from the bill.
  • Local governments were given more autonomy from their state departments of transportation (DOT’s). In metros with more than than 200,000 residents, local leaders get to control a portion of their federal money rather than having to go through the car-happy need for speed crowd at the state DOT to get it. It should be noted, though, that the federal money doesn’t amount to much in the annual budgets of most metropolitan transit agencies.
  • Liberates cities from imbecilic highway design manuals incompatible with good pedestrian design. Ironically, pedestrian advocates hope to use the FAST act to slow motorists down to increase pedestrian safety and comfort. In his write-up of the bill, Eric Jaffe laid out how FAST will allow cities to build narrower, safer streets without interference from the state: “Moving forward, for federally funded projects where city officials are taking the lead, planners will be able to use a street manual that differs from the state’s official road design publication, provided that manual is approved by the Federal Highway Administration,” Eric Jaffe writes. “This theoretically frees cities from the conventions of car-first street standards and lets them design streets more friendly to bikes, pedestrians, and transit users—such as the celebrated Urban Street Design Guide put out by the National Association of City Transportation Officials.”
  • Strangely, the transportation bill also includes provisions for affordable housing and promoting energy efficient buildings. Deron Lovaas spotted this tasty but unexpected morsel “Tucked waaay back at the end of the bill, remarkably, in a tribute to affordable housing lobbyists there are several non-transportation sections covering low-income housing, including apartment buildings which receive assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).” Lovaas also highlighted a pilot program for a public-private partnership funding more energy efficient housing.
  • A small opening for an enterprising state to toll existing interstate lanes. Despite continuing the tolling prohibitions on existing interstate lanes, the FAST Act preserved a little known pilot program dating back to 1998 that grants an exemption to three states allowing them to toll their interstates. It’s not well known because the three states occupying the program’s slots—Virginia, North Carolina, and Missouri—have neglected to implement it. The new language would kick those states out of the slots in three years if they fail to actually start tolling. Another states could then slide into an open slot. If Washington state was feeling adventurous it could seek a slot and set up congestion pricing in the Seattle metro to reduce congestion at rush hour, to discourage people from driving to work downtown, and to raise revenue it a way that discourages greenhouse emissions.
  • Finally the cowardice of legislators in using general taxpayer funds rather than increasing user fees strengthens the case for transit funding. Motorists frequently complain that the gas tax is used to fund transit instead of highways. However, the gas tax was not sufficient to pay for the $305 billion bill. The FAST act has a $70 billion funding hole that will be filled in a variety of other ways: $53.3 billion from a Federal Reserve bank surplus, nearly $7 billion from reduced bank dividends, $6.2 billion from the sale of oil reserves, $5.2 billion or so from customs fees, and $2.4 billion from a new tax collection scheme, according to The Hill. Congress has come to rely on general funds to finance the transportation bill, empowering transit, bicycle and bicycle advocates to come for their rightful share. So get ready for that argument in five years time when we hot glue this thing all over again.
  • Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor finds firmer financial footing. The bill gives heavily traveled Northeast Corridor $2.6 billion over the five year bill while National Network gets $5.5 billion. “The new arrangement should make it easier for Amtrak to focus investments on the heavily traveled Washington-to-Boston-via-New York corridor instead of using that profitable region to subsidize money-losing (but Congressionally mandated) routes in other parts of the country. Passengers at Union Station in D.C. and Penn Station in New York might especially benefit, as the FAST act calls for Amtrak to consider revising its inefficient boarding procedure, whereby passengers crowd at the gates instead of spreading out along an entire platform.” Jaffe explained

There was also some not so nutritious additions to the sausage:

  • TIGER grants got axed, eliminating a valuable funding source for transit projects including projects too big for the Small Starts program.
  • Lots of carbon from trucking. The bill’s focus on freight trucking rather than freight rail ignores trucking’s big carbon problem. “In the U.S., the big concern may be freight; indeed, trucks alone account for 12.5 percent of total U.S. carbon emissions,” Yonah Freemark writes. “Though mechanisms to reduce freight emissions exist—shifting shipping to rail, for example, would significantly limit the rise in pollution—FAST will dig the hole deeper. The legislation includes a massive new freight program that is almost exclusively dedicated to the movement of traditional, highway-based, diesel-polluting trucks.”
  • Lots of carbon from continued highway expansion. The fact that highway spending went up 15 percent makes it easier for state DOT’s to continue their never-ending asphalt ecological death march into  exurbia. Some fiscal conservatives, sprawl opponents, and environmental advocates pushed a”fix it first” maintenance-focused policy. That did not happen. Highway construction emits a massive amount of carbon; the new highways then induces even more driving, spewing even more carbon. We failed to break out of this toxic cycle.
  • Big commercial banks succeeded in buying Congress on yet another bill. Banks totally lobbied their way out of taking a $17 billion hit to their bottom line via lower dividends from the Federal Reserve Bank, which the Senate version had proposed. The House version raided the Fed’s rainy day surplus instead. In conference committee, the House mostly got its way. Just $7 billion will come from lower bank dividends. Definitely worth those lobbyist checks!



In Search of a Sensible Sound Transit Expansion Plan

Seattle Subway has proposed an alternative to ST3 called STcomplete that would double the timeline from 15 to 30 years allowing Sound Transit to “complete” the network rather than going back to the voters to approve further funds after first 15 billion dollars is spent.

STcomplete would allow Sound Transit to offer benefits to the whole electorate, Seattle Subway argues. By contrast, $15 billion planned for ST3 is not enough to build rail near every major constituency voting on the measure. And since Sound Transit Board seems to be prioritizing very expensive rail to West Seattle, Seattle’s portion may not stretch very far at all.


Seattle Subway latest map shows rail from Tacoma to Everett and as far east as Issaquah. (Seattle Subway)

Seattle Subway plans to exploit the fact that Olympia hasn’t set a sunset clause on Sound Transit’s taxing ability. They could raise a billion dollars a year indefinitely. Sound Transit would be within its legal parameters to put a 30 year, $30 billion proposal on the ballot with a wider selection of improvements to entice voters. Per year, the funding commitment doesn’t go up. It’s just a longer commitment.

The possibility of funding an extensive network in one fell swoop is tantalizing. The risk of Seattle Subway’s approach is that it could give fiscal conservatives and anti-transit folks enough ammunition to shoot down the ballot measure, sending us back to square one.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Transit Blog has presented what they call a “peanut butter plan” using bus rapid transit (BRT) to stretch higher quality service to West Seattle and points south, and still allow enough money for the for the Ballard to UW rail line sometimes called the Ballard Spur. It’s a refreshing approach but would BRT be enough to seriously improve the transit experience in outer Seattle and get people to vote for ST3?


Red lines denote BRT, the thick blue line represents the WSTT, a second downtown transit tunnel to relieve pressure on the current one and speed up service. (Frank Chiachiere)

Both plans address the troubling direction Sound Transit seems to pushing ST3 in Seattle. The West Seattle to Ballard light rail line is expected to cost upwards of $7 billion, exhausting the entirety of Seattle’s subarea funds. The Ballard Spur subway can connect Ballard to downtown via the Link at almost the same travel time as the more expensive Interbay route, and it would pick up upper Fremont and Wallingford along the way. Interbay, on the other hand, is lightly populated and not much of a destination.

Sound Transit estimated the Ballard Spur subway (the A3 option) would cost between $1.4 and $1.9 billion. However, their initial study included only one station between Ballard and the U District, a glaring oversight. Seattle Subway issued a A4 plan that rectified that, including stations for West Ballard, East Ballard, Upper Fremont, Wallingford and the U District. The two additional stations would bump up the cost, but $2 billion is a fair ballpark estimate and would still be a bargain considering how substantially the subway would improve on the tortuously slow Route 44 bus and provide a 20 minute ride to from Ballard to Westlake Station crushing the times of the RapidRide D Line (about 30 minutes on a good day but often much longer).


Meanwhile tunneling directly from Ballard to downtown via Interbay causes costs balloon above $3 billion according to Sound Transit’s study. Plus, I imagine engineering a tunnel underneath Salmon Bay could be challenging and lead to cost overruns. If we don’t build a ship canal tunnel, we’re stuck with reliability issues since a bridge has to go up or swivel to allow ship traffic to pass. And a lift bridge or a swivel bridge ain’t cheap either. The Interbay LRT would be faster to downtown but would not address the issue of slow east-west movements. I’m not saying never build the Interbay route, which not only could be faster for Ballardites but also connects Lower Queen Anne and Belltown along the way. I just think the Ballard Spur is a higher priority.

This is where STcomplete pulls away from ST3. Conceivably STcomplete could allow us to build both the Ballard Spur and the Ballard to West Seattle LRT in time. The sting of whichever route they choose to build first will be lessened by knowing another option will be on the way eventually. There is some argument about whether LRT is even the right solution for West Seattle, but at least if we are going to make the huge investment to built a questionable LRT line, it won’t be one of the only things Seattle proper gets out of the next ST package.


Sound Transit divides in taxing jurisdiction into five subareas to ensure each area gets its fair share. This could present an obstacle to scaling up a Seattle core first approach since Seattle draws only on the North King subarea. (Global Telematics)

So push the Sound Transit Board to put STcomplete on the ballot November 2016 or at least to prioritize the right projects in ST3. Below is how I would prioritize for Seattle. Granted Sound Transit might need to be dragged kicking and screaming into boring a urban subway like the Metro 8 (replacing the Route 8 bus). Still, we are allowed to dream.

  1. Ballard Spur subway –  $2 billion – 4 miles
  2. Metro 8 Subway phase one – $3 billion – 4 miles
  3. Metro 8 Subway phase two – $2 billion – 3 miles
  4. Full BRT improvements for West Seattle – S1 billion – 8 miles
  5. Downtown to Ballard subway – $2.5 billion – 3.5 miles (sharing tunnel with part of Metro 8)
  6. Ballard to Crown Hill to Northgate – $2 billion – 4.5 miles
  7. Northgate to Lake City – $1 billion – 2 miles

*I’m totally spitballing with the budgets. Inflation alone could drive the project costs way up over a hypothetical STcomplete’s 30 year life span.