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.

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.

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.




Repairing I-5’s Gash Through Downtown: Put a Lid On It?

Capitol Hill Seattle Blog recently covered architect Christopher Patano’s plan to put a “lid” on I-5 through a two mile segment alongside First Hill and Capitol Hill to create a linear park. It’s an exciting idea. Obviously it would be very expensive and require a huge political lift. But let’s discuss its merits. I’ve covered the damage freeway construction did to urban neighborhoods; this is one way to mitigate that damage without sacrificing highway capacity.


Christopher Patano has proposed an ambitious two-mile linear park capping I-5 and has the renderings to envision it. (Patano Studio Architecture)

Scott Bonjukian covered this idea last year on his blog, conducted graduate research on an I-5 cap, and is planning a reveal more of his findings in an imminent blog post. His 2014 redux proposal focused on a 9.6 acre expansion of the existing Freeway Park between Pike Street and Seneca Street. He projected a $200 million price tag for this expansion. Patano insists on deflecting the question of cost for now, but Bonjukian had a longer option that went 2.5 miles from Galer Street all the way to Yesler Way, and he estimated a freeway cap that length would cost 2 billion dollars.

Detailed Lid Plan

Scott Bonjukian starts with a more modest 9.6 acre freeway cap in this 2014 proposal. (Scott Bonjukian)

That hefty price tag could be partially—perhaps even mostly—offset by selling off some of the land parcels created over the freeway trench. Bonjukian estimated that the land created in those choice neighborhoods could be worth roughly $18.1 million per acre. Meanwhile the cost of the freeway cap is estimated at $20 million per acre, based on similar projects in Dallas, Philadelphia, and the Freeway Park project in Seattle.


Seattle’s Freeway Park has an architecture about as brutalist as the name would suggest. The maze-like concrete installation hasn’t become popular with park-goers as far as I can tell, although it does have a Tumblr dedicated to it with almost 2000 notes. (Mark Careaga)

If land values continuing shooting up, one could see land values surpassing the cost of creating that land with a freeway cap. Of course, some acreage would have to be set aside for cross streets and to reserve space in the middle for the parkway with a bike and pedestrian trail.

There is also the caveat there is developers would be hindered in how high they could build and in digging parking garages over the freeway due to the obvious engineering limitations. That would likely lower the land value. However, even low rise parcels could have very high value. Plus, the lid could be engineered to support mid-rise buildings; it just have to be further reinforced, which is expensive, but the increased costs could be covered by a developer wanting the extra height.


This rendering hints at what Patano has in mind for the freeway cap in East Lake where I-5 is elevated. It appears the protected bike lane would be at street level and the park seven stories above. (Patano Studio Architecture)

Moreover, the freeway cap could present a unique opportunity for the city to guide positive urban design in a way it rarely has the power to do. Instead of lamenting limited parking opportunities, the city would create a car-light, mixed-income zone with fantastic access to the newly created bicycle and pedestrian trail, not to mention frequent transit. I expect further cost savings could be realized by integrating foundation work into the freeway cap construction so that wood apartment buildings could go up quickly. Not having to dig parking ramps saves time and money. The apartments could be targeted at low and middle income tenants without cars and looking to take advantage of the new bike trail and great pedestrian access to downtown and Capitol Hill.

The project could be done in sections. However, once the low hanging fruit are completed nearer downtown (where I-5 is in a trench), a northward expansion would require more significant engineering and probably a lengthy closure to construct a more complicated cap, such as encasing the freeway in a seven-story structure like in the rendering. It appears apartment or hotel units are built right into the structure, which might work but doesn’t exactly make for very enticing real estate.

Patano’s vision for the northern half of the linear park is reminiscent of the much ballyhooed High Line in New York City that it seems every city now wants to copy (and which New York copied from Paris’ Plantee Promenade). Park space several stories up in the sky is a nice novelty but it’s hardly central to good urban design. High Line replicas run the risk of being exorbitantly expensive, underutilized flops. The High Line works well in New York because the surrounding neighborhoods are quite dense and, to be believe the boosters, the park catalyzed redevelopment that wouldn’t have otherwise have happened in the up-and-coming Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. The elevated park also draws a large number of tourists.


The High Line elevated park in New York City has proven to be quite popular. (Beyond My Ken)

If your city doesn’t have redevelopment opportunities or a serious shortage of park space and tourist attractions near its planned elevated park then it might just be a vanity project. Unfortunately spending billions of dollars to build a High Line-like park on top of I-5 between East Lake and Capitol Hill might fall into that category. The downtown section of Patano’s plan seem more likely to have enough benefits to outweigh the costs. Capping the freeway downtown would provide a marked improvement to the public realm in this neglected area of the city and hopefully allow additional blocks to be developed to relieve some of the housing pressure in Seattle.


Highway Mission Creep

Last week, I wrote about the progress of the highway funding bill through Congress. A few politicians—Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Rick Santorum—don’t want to fund highways at the federal level any more, endorsing transportation devolution. I also talked about Chuck Marohn’s Strongtowns no new roads message, which has proven to have some appeal in the urbanist community.

I didn’t delve into the history of we got to the overbuilt highway system we have today. It’s a story of mission creep. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was instrumental in building the Interstate Highway System through the Federal Highway Administration (FHA). The lore goes General Eisenhower was impressed with the efficiency of German autobahn system during World War Two and sought to emulate it in the United States. The catch was Eisenhower didn’t envision plowing highways through major cities. Eric Jaffe tracked down the Eisenhower memorandum detailing his chagrin at highways steamrolling through cities in this City Lab article.

(No Exit) Fast Lane Tolls

This Andy Singer cartoon highlights the destruction urban highways have wrought on cities, offer justified with questionable traffic volume projections. (Andy Singer)

Eisenhower obviously was naive in not anticipating that once he fully unleashed the highway industrial complex, its appetite would grow, and it would set its sights on urban areas. Eisenhower went on to compound his naivete with aloofness while the FHA bulldozed through cities under his nose during his eight years in office. Much like his warning about the military industrial complex, Eisenhower’s warning about the highway industrial complex seems futile, like Dr. Jekyll saying on his way out the door: by the way I’ve created a monster, good luck with that.

(No Exit) A Highway Map of the USA

Andy Singer pokes fun at endless highway expansion in this cartoon from his book “Why We Drive.” (Andy Singer)

Once the Interstate System was set in motion, the FHA eventually did pave highways through almost every major American city, cementing suburban sprawl growth patterns and hollowing out and sapping the vitality out of vibrant urban neighborhoods. Jaffe estimated 335,000 homes were razed in the first decade of Interstate highway construction alone. Throughout its history, interstates have displaced millions of Americans. Highway planners disproportionately chose to level and pave over neighborhoods with large minority populations. In many cities, they bisected thriving black neighborhoods, hastening their decline and depressing property values.

Redlining and urban highway construction were a one-two punch that did much to impoverish black communities, proving racial oppression wasn’t just a lingering legacy of slavery, but also an active ongoing process that continued to tighten the screws on black Americans. Every American generation has found a way to put its own signature on the ongoing saga of racial oppression—segregation, discriminatory voting laws, discriminatory urban “renewal,” neglected urban schools, racial profiling and police brutality—and intermittently pay attention long enough to make some progress.

They may have chosen to level minority communities, but, at least in part, highway engineers’ intentions were good in building urban highways. Speeding interstate travel and making intercity trips more convenient is a noble goal; however, highway expansion in urban areas proved to be misguided. Congestion persisted even as cities sacrificed more and more neighborhoods—and the tax bases along with them—to the chopping block for highways. Each new highway promised to reduce congestion and commute times, but almost universally the promise rang hollow. More highways begat more traffic congestion.


This map shows the havoc that the I-94/I-35 interchange wreaked on Minneapolis. A few dozen city blocks were blasted off the map and paved. In total, Singer estimates freeway construction cost Minneapolis at least 52 million dollars per year in lost property tax revenue.  (MnDoT)


In 1968, mathematician Dietrich Braess formulated what became known as Braess’ paradox: in a congested road network, the addition of a new route will increase overall travel times. Seattle Urban Mobility Plan said the paradox can also be expressed as “the theory that direct routes often function as bottlenecks, and so reductions in total capacity can reduce congestion.” Cities have seen results that support the conclusion. Seoul saw traffic volumes decrease and property values go way up after it demolished Cheonggye Expressway, its downtown highway viaduct, and replaced it with a linear park. Stuttgart, San Francisco, Portland, New York, and Milwaukee have seen similar results when tearing down urban freeways.

Recently, Amherst professor Anna Nigurney argued the Braess paradox stops applying at sufficiently high congestion levels and a new route will have no effect on travel times, which is almost as damning and undercuts the justification for expanding urban highway infrastructure. Nigurney’s findings bolster the case against highway expansion, as Lisa Zyga explains:

In a sense, the negation of the paradox actually adds to the paradox’s original conclusions: when designing transportation networks (and other kinds of networks), extreme caution should be used in adding new routes, since at worst the new routes will slow travelers down, and at best, the new routes won’t even be used.
This academic view of highways has yet to enter the mainstream. Generally the public is very supportive of infrastructure spending. It sounds wholesome. PBS’s slant is pretty clear from this article’s title alone: The Highway Trust Fund keeps bridges from falling down, but will Congress reauthorize it? The Maddowblog couldn’t help but lambaste Republican presidential candidates for not wanting to invest in infrastructure at the federal level. It’s worth criticizing the Republican plans since cutting transit funding, an explicit goal in most GOP plans, is a bad, dangerous idea. However, to not criticize the transportation status quo is to overlook how state and federal Departments of Transportation are saddling us with an ever-growing portfolio of highways of dubious value and a massive maintenance backlog that is coming due.

Mixed Signals on the American Superhighway: Devolve, Evolve, or Prod Ahead?

Congress finally did something! It appears poised to pass a two year patch for the debt ceiling and a “six-year” transportation bill that in truth contains money for only three years and does not account for rising construction costs and dwindling gas tax revenues. The highway funding bill is headed to conference to hash out differences in the senate and house versions. Our country’s monstrous highway network actually needs a major infusion of cash to keep up with “business as usual” and holding spending level flat for three years will not do that. It’s just a band-aid, and not a good one at that.

Enter America’s political brain trust.

GOP wunderkind and insider favorite for the presidential nomination Marco Rubio dropped a plan titled “Letting States Pave the Way” with an enormous freeway interchange on the cover. Ever the visionary, Rubio calls the federal gas tax outdated and proposes slashing it by 80% and turning over highway funding to the states, a maneuver called “transportation devolution.” Essentially he just endorsed the Transportation Empowerment Act written by conservative ideologue extraordinaire Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. Mike Graves of Georgia (and one has to imagine largely ghostwritten by the Heritage Foundation with Koch money), which did the same thing.


Marco Rubio echoes calls for transportation devolution in which the federal government relinquishes funding responsibility to the states. (

Now, as far as serving Rubio’s stated purpose of spending even more and wider roads, cutting the federal gas tax is likely a self-defeating idea. The federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993 and is falling woefully short of maintenance needs; Congress has resorted to using billions of dollars of general funds to prop up the highway trust fund. Cutting the 18.4 cent federal gas tax will exacerbate the problem and then foist it on the states. To think states would immediately pick up the slack and cover transportation costs with augmented state gas taxes or other revenue sources is very wishful thinking. State politicians might be just as tax-averse and let their state’s highway system crumble and deteriorate. On the other hand, transportation blogger Ken Orski reported that 23 states, many of them GOP controlled, considered measures to raise transportation revenue as federal funds lagged and threatened to disappear. A few unlikely states even passed measures: “Georgia, no bastion of free-spending fiscal policy, raised its fuel tax to 21.7 cents and indexed it to inflation. Maine Gov. Paul LePage, as cranky an antitax zealot as there is in the country, has proposed a new $2 billion plan to rehabilitate state infrastructure.”

(Note that most presidential candidates aren’t embracing the issue of the dwindling highway trust fund. It seems to be a bit of political hot potato. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders don’t include transportation funding on their campaign issues pages, likely because progressives are split on the direction to take. Clinton did endorse an infrastructure bank last month—a plan in which the federal government would put up something like 10 to 50 billion dollars to kick start a private-public partnership for infrastructure projects with corporations or states selecting the projects and put up the money to get the loan from the infrastructure bank—although it’s not clear to what extent this could replace the federal highway trust’s role if at all.)

The Urbanist Case

Surprisingly, Rubio’s plan is similar to what some urbanists such as Strongtown‘s Chuck Marohn have suggested. Governing summed up Marohn’s unconventional message thusly:

“At a time when half of Washington is batting around numbers that purport to reveal how much money Congress should spend to save the nation’s troubled transportation system, Marohn is suggesting the simplest number of all: zero. What the system needs, Marohn says, isn’t a big infusion of cash, but a thorough examination of what it ought to be doing in the first place. Barring such an examination, he wouldn’t give the transportation system a dime.

Marohn has described our transportation system as a Ponzi scheme for years, and wrote earlier this year:

“This is our system: one big Ponzi scheme attempting to prop up a rolling development extravaganza of strip malls, big box stores, fast food and cheap residential housing. You want to spend more on this? … I’m going to aggressively oppose any increase in transportation funding in Minnesota, any other state or at the federal level, until there is aggressive reform of this system. At this point, communal funds must be for maintenance only with any system expansion being paid by some form of user charge.”

Getting rid of the federal highway trust fund and turning over responsibility for the highway system to the states would give states more autonomy notwithstanding the giant new budgetary obligation. Rubio would have states focus on freeway capacity and slash transit funding. Marohn and his ilk would likely do the opposite. Either way there is some unlikely consensus from folks on the political far right and certain urbanist thinkers that transportation devolution is the way to go.

If devolution did happen, it seems possible that urban states with popular mass transit systems such as New York, Illinois, California, Massachusetts and Washington would use their greater autonomy to devise ways to boost transit funding. However, predominantly rural states would keep the focus on highway expansion, and I don’t see our country’s many Republican controlled state governments boosting the state gas tax enough to maintain their colossally overbuilt systems. The fear then is that poor states would shirk on their responsibility and let their highways fall into disrepair. Eventually we would see the interstate highway network develop gaps, perhaps most of all in the Deep South, Appalachia and the sparsely populated West. There are also reasonably wealthy cities that massively overbuilt their highway networks such as Kansas City, St. Louis, and Houston (the top three cities in highway lane miles per capita according to this study) that might struggle mightily to keep up with maintenance without the federal government to bail them out.

Republicans have complete control of 30 state legislatures and 32 governor's mansions. Devolution would have to come to terms with that reality or one similar to it for the foreseeable future.

Republicans have complete control of 30 state legislatures and 32 governor’s mansions. Devolution would have to come to terms with that reality or one similar to it for the foreseeable future. (Washington Post)

Now the real fairy tale ending to this scenario is that these cash-strapped state DoT’s (departments of transporation) would then see the error of their ways and the unsoundness of investing in highway capacity and turn to improving more versatile and profitable city streets within the grid and encourage multi-modal living and smart growth. That’s the dream anyway for urbanists who support devolution.

The Climate Change Argument

Another argument for devolution is that cutting the federal purse strings would shock state DoT’s into fiscal restraint or starve them out of their consumptive practices, pulling us out of our spiraling cycle of induced demand via endless highway expansion. The status quo is steadily paving over our exurbia, choking our skies with greenhouse gases, and allowing us the lead the world in carbon emissions per capita. That’s not the leadership Obama et al are referring to when they talk about American leadership on climate change, and, as we approach Paris Climate Talks, America’s emission heavy ways frankly undermine its message and self-proclaimed leadership role.

This graph of carbon emissions per capita per country are based on 2007 numbers.

This graph of carbon emissions per capita per country are based on 2007 numbers. (International Rivers)

Concrete is a large and often overlooked contributor to carbon emissions. In her article Cement Industry Is At The Center of Climate Change Debate, Elisabeth Rosenthal said, “Cement plants account for 5 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. Cement has no viable recycling potential; each new road, each new building needs new cement.” Much of the emissions result from the chemical reaction that produces cement; thus, it’s difficult to make an environmentally friendly concrete. (Using fly ash, a by-product from coal power plants helps but coal is hardly a fuel of the future.) Generally, a ton of concrete produces nearly a ton of carbon emissions.

Asphalt has its own problems, and it’s used to surface 90 percent of highways (although it typically rests atop concrete base.) In a National Geographic News article, Marianne LaVelle reported, “Conventional hot mix asphalt must be heated to 300°F (150° C) or more so that it is workable during mixing, laying, and compacting. But by introducing water into the asphalt mix through foaming agents, or with the help of additives such as waxes, asphalt makers have found they can reduce the temperature of the mix by 50° to 100°F (30 to 60°C), while still providing a road-surface medium with the same properties as hot mix.” The industry is also moving toward recycling old asphalt. “The U.S. industry, which is now producing about 400 million tons of new asphalt paving annually, reclaimed about 73 million tons in 2010,” LaVelle said. That reclaimed asphalt is used instead of virgin rock, which is a scarce resource in itself. Rock makes up more than 90 percent of both asphalt and concrete and mining, crushing and hauling it consumes a colossal amount of energy.

Another important factor to consider is how road smoothness effects the fuel efficiency of cars using the roads. Rough roads can decrease fuel efficiency by as much as 5 percent compared to smooth roads, which is a big deal in the grand scheme of cutting carbon emissions. This would suggests highways, particularly busy ones, should be assiduously maintained for optimal smoothness to boost the fuel efficiency of cars passing over them. It’s precisely what we are not doing now as Seattlites motoring across the many washboard sections of I-5 can attest. This focus on maintenance dovetails nicely with Marohn’s no new roads mantra.

I don’t know if devolution is the answer. I certainly agree with Marohn that our highway network is overbuilt and building new roads should not be the goal. Returning DoT’s focus to maintenance would spare us the added costs and Paul Bunyan sized carbon footprints of new highways while maximizing the efficiency of highways we already have. Alas, new roads are seen as a sexy investment with an easy political constituency while maintenance is seen as boring and an easy thing to put off and pay for later. Delaying maintenance exacerbates the problem as repairs get more and more expensive the longer you wait and DoT’s meanwhile pile on new highways that will also get thrown on their massive maintenance backlog. It’s a vicious cycle seemingly headed to bankruptcy and ruin. Devolution would grant states the opportunity to re-calibrate their budget priorities and perhaps get themselves on a more sustainable course. If the states would really take the opportunity to change their ways is another question entirely.