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Capitol Hill Station TOD: Dr. Density’s Prescription

Apr 15, 2010

by Matt Roewe, aka Dr. Density, aka VIA’s Director of Mixed Use + Major Projects

 Capitol Hill Housing sponsored a spirited panel discussion April 14th on what to do with land above and around the new Capitol Hill underground light rail station. The residual lands around the station are the result of a massive excavation to build a concrete station box 65’ underground which also connects to the surface with three head house entrances. The result is the demolition of one and half city blocks in the most authentic, fine grained and densely populated urban neighborhoods in the northwest. As one can imagine, in the heart of Seattle’s most bohemic community, all eyes are focused on the development potential here and how it will fit aesthetically, culturally, socially and ecologically.

150 people attended this event which was held in The Erickson Black Box Theater on Harvard Avenue. I was asked to be a panel member along with several other well known civic and community leaders:

  • Dow Constantine, King County Executive, Sound Transit Board Member
  • Cathy Hillenbrand, Co-Chair, Capitol Hill TOD Champions
  • Grace Kim, Architect, Schemata Workshop
  • Michael Malone, Developer, founder, Hunters Capital
  • Alex Steffens, Author, founder and executive editor, worldchanging.com

An extensive series of public meetings has been ongoing for about three years, including design charrettes, Sound Transit briefings, and city sponsored station area planning. A long list of aspirations and expectations have been developed by the stakeholders including a “woonerf” type lane (in the alley) to host a weekly farmers market, a community center, affordable housing, wider sidewalks, subsidized small/local retailers, public plazas, arts facilities and more. The stakeholders want the developer to pay for all of this.

Sound Transit will need to sell the properties prior to the 2016 station opening. They plan on issuing a request for proposal to development teams, which means those teams would have to offer money, as well as basic design concepts to win the right to develop the project. What is unknown is how many strings will be attached to the sale, such as providing some of the desired community amenities.

County Council Executive Dow Constantine is a voting member of Sound Transit’s board. He noted that laws and funding requirements for the project require the residual land be sold at fair market value, so they can’t reduce the price to enable the public benefit features. However, the City may be able to help out by entitling the project with greater capacity or height with incentives.

Much of the panel discussion was centered around the public amenities and uses at street level. Everyone agreed that the project must be exemplary in quality, as a green sustainable project and as a context-responsive solution. The panel disagreed on the scale of individual parcels. Developer Mike Malone suggested that the larger parcel be divided up into 5,000 SF lots that would incrementally be built in the manner of the rest of Broadway. Grace Kim argued that that was unrealistic as the economics of each parcel having stairs/elevators/utility meters/parking would be extremely inefficient.

Another part of the discussion centered around the massing and height limits which are 65’ along Broadway and 40’ along 10th Avenue. Recent developments along Broadway were a concern as a monotony of “bread loaf” buildings may be the result. Portland’s Pearl District prototypes were sourced as good precedents, which include historic preservation, midrise and high-rise building forms, with generous block-wide open spaces and pocket parks.

In my alter ego as Dr. Density, my approach was to swing for the fence and boldly propose that a stellar, 200’ or taller iconic residential tower be place on this site as a graceful and stunning beacon of light signifying this new nexus location. I framed this as just one lone skinny tower with a 30’ to 40’ tall podium at the base. One of the benefits of this approach would be the added value of a high end tower with more capacity traded for building public amenities desired by the neighborhood. By doubling the value or more, some portion of the profit could be directed by the private sector to help fund the public plaza, community center, subsidized local retail, wider sidewalks and of course, affordable housing. That will be an interesting equation that won’t fund everything, but will certainly help justify the upzone.

Instead of throwing stones and shooting arrows, the majority of the audience surprisingly loved the iconic tower idea. Even the panelists liked it, after initially not thinking it was the direction to go. Thus, the most vibrant and engaged community in the region may boldly support a responsible and well crafted development that is catalyzed by a significant tower that breaks all the zoning rules. Maybe we need a radical process to envision a solution that fully meets the community’s aspirations.

To watch video of the panel, click here.