Missed Opportunity: We Should Be Building a Lot More Housing On Top of the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station

Two years ago this month I was visiting Seattle for a week of job interviews and apartment tours. My visit happened to coincide with the grand opening of the Capitol Hill and UW Link stations, and I was fortunate to snag a pass for the inaugural train ride from UW to Capitol Hill. It took 30 minutes by bus to reach the UW station from downtown that morning, and six minutes by train for the return trip.

The only disappointment of the day was emerging from the Capitol Hill station to see a two-block swath of vacant land above the station. Given that Seattle was in the midst of an unprecedented housing shortage—a shortage that has only worsened over the last two years—it seemed strange that this huge piece of land wasn’t teeming with construction activity. The construction of several thousand housing units should have ideally begun the minute the station’s concrete shell had sufficiently cured.

Fast-forward to the present day. I now live and work downtown, and frequently ride Link to Capitol Hill to run errands, meet with friends, and satiate my margarita cravings at Poquitos. The escalators finally seem to be working, and the station has become a neighborhood fixture.

Sadly, that empty tract of vacant land above the station has also become a neighborhood fixture.

What had been a continuous business district running up Broadway from Madison Street to Roy Street is now bisected by a moat of asphalt and chain-link fence. This may have been an inevitable consequence of building the station, but you’d think the effort to heal this wound in the urban fabric would’ve been treated with more urgency—and more ambition.

Groundbreaking is slated this spring for a mixed-use development on the site. Better late than never, I suppose, but the proposed design is inadequate for the needs of this city.

I’ve been in the architecture business long enough to know the design process is far more complicated than most people outside the profession understand. That said, it shouldn’t have taken ten years to design a project of this scope: four seven-story buildings containing 428 apartments and 216 parking stalls, ground level retail and a day care center, all surrounding a large open plaza.

Simply put: the development contains too little of what we need and too much of what we don’t.

The proposed outdoor plaza is a gratuitous gesture—Cal Anderson Park is literally across the street, and it’s not enough? The knee-jerk impulse to provide “open space” is practically gospel among urban designers of a certain vintage, but such spaces often end up becoming little more than barren, windswept pigeon colonies.

Those 216 parking stalls? It’s like attaching an ashtray to your treadmill. The whole point of building Link in the first place is so that we can reduce automobile dependency and stop devoting large, valuable chunks of our city to the sole purpose of storing cars.

And there’s no technical reason two or three 30-story towers couldn’t have been built on the site over a continuous retail podium, which would’ve quadrupled the number of apartments and doubled the amount of retail space. While building high-rises over the station would’ve presented some interesting structural challenges, it’s nothing that couldn’t have been accomplished by a competent design team. Given the current housing market, it would’ve been worth the extra effort.

Up in Vancouver, clusters of high-rise towers containing hundreds of apartments each surround numerous SkyTrain stations—even those far out in the suburbs. At New Westminster, four large towers straddle an elevated SkyTrain station, while a large Safeway and other ground-floor retail help anchor a vibrant business district. These hubs have thousands of units of housing; the plan for Capitol Hill amounts to a little over four hundred.

In Seattle, multifamily buildings are forbidden throughout 90% of the city by zoning codes written to preserve single-family property values above all else. Anything that deviates from the postwar suburban ideal is deemed an outrage by those with a financial interest in the status quo. (Scarcity drives property values up and longtime residents out.) Even in places where we don’t have to build homes with white picket fences, the desire to keep things “the same” spills out of the single family zones and sloshes all over the city. A big, ambitious cluster of towers going up over Capitol Hill station could be—gasp!—seen from some of those single-family zones higher up the hill. It would change the view, and we can’t have that because we can’t have change. Because if things change happens there, things might start changing in our precious single-family zones.

We have it exactly backwards. Given the local housing shortage and the planetary climate crisis, high-density urban housing—ambitious projects with as many units as we can possibly build—should now be our default approach. New York, Chicago, Vancouver, and even Seattle contain districts where mid-rise and high-rise apartment buildings contribute to livable neighborhoods and vibrant streetscapes. See: First Hill and Belltown. Each new apartment going up near (or over!) a Link station means one fewer house built in the suburbs, one fewer car on the freeway, and one fewer family being displaced from an older building elsewhere in the city.

And you know what? Building ambitious, high-density housing wherever we can decreases the pressure to rezone the parts of the city reserved for single-family homes. So people who want to preserve all the single-family zoning we have right now should be the loudest advocates for building apartment towers and blocks wherever current zoning allows—if it’s actually single-family zoning they want to protect and not a housing crisis that serves to drive their property values up ever-higher.

It’s probably too late to alter course at Capitol Hill. (And have you read the news lately? We may be reaching the end of a decade-long building boom, Trump is imposing steep tariffs on raw building materials, and storm clouds for another recession are gathering on the horizon. We’ll be lucky if anything gets built at all.) But the era of multifamily housing in Seattle defaulting to five stories of wood-frame construction above a concrete retail podium must end. Construction of this type is generally cheap and easy to build, but we should set our expectations much higher at busy transit nodes like this. We should be aiming for thousands of new apartments at Link stations, not dozens or hundreds. Not five-story buildings, but 25-story ones. When opportunities arrive to develop large sites like at Capitol Hill and Northgate for housing, we do a disservice to future generations by settling for milquetoast half-measures.


Originally published in The Stranger on 14 March 2018.