When metro Seattle’s transit agency builds a station, it aims to be as efficient with the space as possible. Land is valuable. So after Sound Transit built Angle Lake station in 2016, the parking garage had an extra 33,500 square feet left over.
That space is being used for more than landscaping. Sound Transit is selling the land in South King County below market value to a nonprofit that will build affordable housing and ground-floor commercial or office space.
"We’ve really been thoughtful about how we design our stations so that land that we might need for, say, construction staging, we use afterward for transit-oriented development," explained Thatcher Imboden, director of land use planning and development at Sound Transit.
As transit ridership has declined across the country and housing costs increase, cities have looked to mixed-use projects near bus and rail stations known as transit-oriented developments (TOD).
Angle Lake station is just one example of a TOD. Cities including Los Angeles, Orlando and Chicago also have TODs in operation or progress. The Federal Transit Administration is awarding $11 million to 20 projects in 12 states through a pilot program, which will see a funding increase from last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law.
City leaders hope TODs can provide more housing and retail while making it easier for people to take trips on public transportation instead of by car. Meanwhile, cities and transit agencies must ensure that TODs benefit existing residents.
How Seattle uses its extra space at transit stations
Sound Transit has embarked on such projects all around the Seattle metro area. The agency has 2,500 units, primarily rentals, 795 of which are completed and open. About 64% of the housing units are affordable, Imboden said.
To reach that outcome, Sound Transit has focused on forming partnerships with developers, in addition to local jurisdictions and public and private funders.
"The Pacific Northwest and the Seattle region, in general, has very high land prices," Imboden said. "So even if we donate our land, the cost of constructing affordable housing is just so much that you need other resources to realize it."
At Angle Lake station, Mercy Housing Northwest will develop the TOD and build at least 85 affordable housing units. The nonprofit will pay a discounted land purchase price between $300,000 and $400,000. Deed restrictions will ensure that the housing remains affordable for 50 years.
Meanwhile, a developer will purchase a separate parcel of land at Angle Lake for $1.95 million. There, it will construct at least 230 units, 20% of which will be affordable and the rest mostly market rate.
When selecting a developer and concept for land it is selling below market value, Sound Transit awards money along with the property. Imboden said it’s a great way to ensure public entities, such as the city and county, align behind the same goals. It reduces risk and speeds up delivery while also helping developers navigate the various public entities involved in a project.
"Us aligning a lot of those resources on the front end has helped to reduce what could be a spin cycle of trying to figure out how to make your project go forward," he said.
Cities and agencies must also be mindful that these developments don’t heighten gentrification.
Scholars have expressed concern that TODs could replace more affordable housing units with luxury ones where residents don’t use transit, said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a distinguished professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles’ school of public affairs.
While co-writing a 2019 book on the effects of TODs on communities, Loukaitou-Sideris studied whether gentrification happened around new transit stations. The team looked at the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles and found that neighborhoods with a transit station tended to gentrify more than neighborhoods without.
"What we are arguing is not to stop transit-oriented development because it can bring along the positives, but finding ways through policy to protect existing residents of these neighborhoods from displacement," Loukaitou-Sideris said.
Creating affordable housing near transit is an effective tool for anti-displacement, said Patience Malaba, executive director of the Housing Development Consortium, an organization of nonprofit housing developers in the Seattle and King County area.
The Angle Lake TOD prioritizes family-sized housing, which is particularly needed in South King County where many Black, indigenous and people of color communities live, Malaba said. But it goes beyond constructing housing. Public entities must pursue strategies around land use, zoning, maximizing density and funding subsidized housing that help residents remain in their community.
"The equity concerns are very clear with transit investments," she said. "When they do come online, we know that often the impact is the skyrocketing value of land and properties around some of the areas. And what's important is that we proactively think of how do we advance this investment but also help people stay in their communities."
A transit-oriented development in a gentrifying neighborhood
In Atlanta, the metro region’s transit agency is working on a TOD of its own. Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority is accepting proposals for a future development at Bankhead rail station in northwest Atlanta. There’s about 235,000 square feet of land available.
The Bankhead neighborhood, where Atlanta rappers including T.I. and Shawty Lo grew up, is facing a threat of gentrification. In addition to rising housing prices all around the city, Bankhead is under particular pressure. Microsoft is developing a 90-acre campus in the lower-income neighborhood, news that Georgia lawmakers followed by giving $6 million toward updating the rail station.
MARTA is expanding the station so it can accommodate eight railcars by 2025 instead of the two it accommodates today. The transit agency saw the project as a prime chance to build a TOD, said Debbie Frank, director of transit-oriented development at MARTA.
"It was really seeing the opportunity to bring fresh capital into these neighborhoods," Frank said.
At this stage, it’s not known if the development will include housing since that will depend on what proposals come in. But if it does have housing, 30% of the units must be for individuals earning 80% to 120% of the household median income by ZIP code. Frank said the Bankhead station has two ZIP codes within a mile radius where the median income is $39,500 and just over $25,000, Frank said.
MARTA has also worked with Morgan Stanley and the National Equity Fund to create a $100 million fund for the preservation of affordable housing within a mile of MARTA stations.
For its upcoming TOD, MARTA has not yet engaged Bankhead residents. It plans to do so after identifying a developer.
Matt Garbett has doubts about whether this project will truly be beneficial.
"If you picked up this development and moved it away from the train station and nothing about it changed, then it's not TOD," said Garbett, co-founder of ThreadATL, a nonprofit that advocates for "good urbanism."
"It has to be designed with the train station as the focus of it," Garbett said.
The TOD must have multiple uses. "We call it the three Ts: tomatoes, tequila and toilet paper," he said. Everyone needs to be able to get produce, relax and use the bathroom, he explained.
Planners must create something useful for existing residents, not just new ones, Garbett said. It must be a hub of goods, services and housing. And for the Bankhead TOD, in addition to making sure it doesn’t displace existing residents, it must take into consideration the major street that the station is on.
"The road itself is a six-lane nightmare that no pedestrian would walk out of and feel comfortable. So is the TOD going to also calm traffic? Is it going to spur access to goods and services?" he said. "Or is the TOD just building some apartment complexes next to a train station that will predominantly give people the ability to walk to Microsoft to go to work?"
The past decade has seen public transit lose ridership nationally, and COVID-19 delivered another hit. Loukaitou-Sideris said cities must not forget this as they develop TODs.
"One of the elements of transit-oriented development is transit and if transit is losing ridership, then what’s happened to TODs?" she said.
Still, with the national Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act authorizing up to $108 billion for public transportation, there should be more opportunities for new TODs, said Michael Duncan, associate professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University.
As the U.S. population ages, these developments must also serve older adults, Duncan said. In a study of major transit stations around the U.S., he found that older adults are less likely to live in those areas. So there’s an opportunity for municipalities to promote TODs for people who may no longer be able to drive.
UCLA’s Loukaitou-Sideris said anti-displacement measures could include expanding rent control and inclusive zoning, plus eviction assistance for renters.
Malaba in Seattle said partnership and conversations with community members is key for an equitable TOD.
"That has to be done extensively through robust engagements that are not just a few slides to community, but it's really in-depth engagement with community to understand what their vision is," she said. "They know the solutions that work best for them."