MLK Site Layout

When Link opened in 2009, it was expected to be a catalyst for transit-oriented development (TOD) in the Rainier Valley: MLK Way is littered with the sort of auto-oriented, suburban-style development that defines placelessness, and is ripe for redevelopment. A unprecedented economic downturn delayed those aspirations somewhat, and for a long time The Station at Othello Park was the only example of TOD in the Valley–but things are looking up.

The Problem

MLK AerialThe Seattle Housing Authority has found a developer for its 3.2 acre site at the corner of MLK Way and Othello Street, right next to Sound Transit’s Othello Link Station. The plans are impressive: 505 market-rate apartments spread over three buildings, 17,800 sq. ft. of retail space, and a 10,000 sq. ft. of public plaza intended to provide space for a farmer’s market and community events. But the developer, Everett’s Path America, has fallen into the same trap many have when planning TOD by forgetting the “Transit” and focusing on the parking. Instead, Path America is proposing a whopping 523 surface and underground parking stalls for those 505 apartments.

It’s a serious and well known problem: A recent report from the Sightline Institute found that 21 of the 23 recent multifamily developments studied had more occupied units than occupied parking stalls, with an average overnight parking vacancy rate of 37%. Those empty stalls do more than waste space; they cost developers a lot of money, costs that ultimately get passed on to tenants:

…We estimate that the developments in our sample incurred losses on parking ranging from 6 percent to 42 percent of monthly apartment rents, or an average of money on parking. $246 per apartment per month. Assuming that landlords generally recover losses on parking through the rents they charge their tenants, an average of 15 percent of tenants’ rental payments in our sample cover the building’s losses on parking. In short, the tenants of the buildings in our sample—even those who didn’t park on-site—paid for on-site parking through their rent.

It’s exciting to see development in the Rainier Valley take off. Seattle needs more affordable housing, and converting low-density (or vacant) land uses to medium- and high-density housing is a great way to meet that need. Likewise, taking advantage of major regional investments in transit is critical for ensuring affordability by freeing tenants from the burdensome cost of owning and maintaining car. Considering such realities, it boggles the mind that a major developer is planning to put more parking stalls than actual apartment units next to three frequent transit lines (Central Link Light Rail and King County Metro Transit Routes 8 and 36) in one of the poorest parts of Seattle. Not only is it a wasted opportunity, but it denies affordable housing in an area that desperately needs it.

Take Action

The Southeast Design Review Board will be taking its first look at the proposed development (project notices #3017470 and #3017475) this Tuesday, August 26, from 6:30-8:00 pm at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, giving advocates a chance to urge the developer to use a saner amount of parking.

Please make it to the meeting if you can. Public testimony is certainly the most effective way to commute your thoughts to the Design Review Board. Alternatively, you can contact the Department of Planning and Development directly at PRC@seattle.gov or the project planner, Bruce Rips, with your comments. If you choose to send an email, note the urgency of your comments and be assertive that they must be read out or referred to the Board on Tuesday by the project planner.

8 COMMENTS

  1. It’s pretty disappointing to see SHA allow a developer to under-develop such a key set of parcels and drive up the cost of housing through so much parking that *won’t* be utilised. Given the development company though, I’m not entirely surprised by the project proposal. The company is basically an investment firm for Asians wishing to gain residency visas in the US–which is a fine programme. It’s just that the investors don’t have a direct stake in how the project affects the community, future residents, or the actual success of an individual project.

  2. Ok, but we have the intent to get businesses going there too. There was just a major tenant in the base of the existing “Station” development that went under. Like it or not, we cannot reinvent this neighborhood as being driven by foot traffic more than by car traffic overnight. Could it be that the parking is a strategy for making sure businesses can provide enough parking?

    • This thinking is likely what is driving the developer and financier decisions. The real question is whether or not that perception is accurate. With ~40% parking vacancy in similar projects, this seems unlikely. Furthermore, the neighborhood has an abundance of street parking.

      In short, businesses aren’t failing because there isn’t enough parking. It’s easy enough to build more parking in the future if there’s actually demand for it but once it’s built we’re stuck with it for probably 30 years.

      • I look at neighborhoods where there was a successful transition away from a dead, car-centric street scape (standard, litter-strewn, pedestrian-hostile, bad-air landscape) to a more pedestrian-friendly one. They have succeeded mostly in expanding what were already desirable walking areas and incrementally expanding the distance one might want to walk rather than inventing this demand from whole cloth…

        Which is kind of what seems to be proposed. I worry that trying to re-create a Ballard or Columbia City where there was previously less than none (very, very car-centric for decades at Othello and MLK) is destined to fail.

        Look at all the lovely, wide sidewalks on MLK north of Alaska, with residences and businesses opening to the street, trees, a light rail stop, etc. I live right there and I’ve seen a very limited growth in walking. The tracks are still scary to cross, there are limited crossing anyway, the street is still loud, litter-strewn, and polluted. They increased density and walking amenities, but the die was cast on MLK long ago. You can undo it with a magic wand.

        • I agree completely, that building upon already walkable areas is critical. You are right about the evolution of these areas.

          The only point we are making is that there is way too much parking in these developments (even if it’s not a walkable neighborhood) and is a long-term mistake.

          You should come by one of our weekly meetings if you’re interested in talking shop about walkability and urbanism. We’d love to have a more meaningful conversation than you can have in comments on the web: http://www.theurbanist.org/calendar

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