By Ka-Chung Kwok
This week’s blog post began with a very simple question from my girlfriend as we were driving North along Aurora Avenue / Highway 99 – “Why don’t they build the light rail along highway 99 instead?” Upon consideration, this is actually a very logical and instinctive inquiry that some of us who have lived long enough in Seattle may have been blindsided to.
Aurora Avenue which once served as the region’s primary commercial North-South artery, had deteriorated since the opening day of I-5 into a patchwork of un-coordinated, pedestrian unfriendly, low density retail and industrial pockets. It’s character today is still influenced by its origins as a major commercial transportation corridor as evidenced by the number of cheap motels that still stand today. Over the years, disparate portions of Aurora Avenue had been developed at intersections along major cross streets with retail potential, but many portions in between had remained as abandoned sites that many Seattleites consider transient wastelands.
When looking further upon Seattle’s Zoning map, it shows that along the entirety of Aurora Ave North of 85th Street up to the north boundary of the city (145th street) – almost all sites along the highway had been zoned as Commercial 1, Commercial 2, Commercial 3 or Low Rise 3, with height limits of 65’-0”. It is clear that the patchwork of 1-story retail boxes that exist today have not lived up to the site’s full potential, and this seems to be an extreme luxury in Seattle today when we are reaching historical peaks of housing supply shortages.
So other than continuing to turn a blind eye and ignoring this increasingly valuable underdeveloped asset, why not consider using it as an opportunity to develop some truly integrated transit-oriented mixed use residential developments?
The existing plans for the light rail extension North of the Northgate station, serves the East side of I-5 which are predominantly low-density Single family housing neighborhoods. Counter to basic principles of mass transit, this infrastructure serves the lowest density of neighborhoods (least effective ridership) and development around the stations are also restricted by Neighborhood groups who resist densification. Future growth and payback for the infrastructure investment at the stations have been limited from day-one by its location, and this strategy chooses a path of least resistance over sustainable growth.
Why not consider re-routing the future path of the light rail extension to run along Aurora avenue instead, and create opportunities to develop true mixed-use urban-density residential projects along this corridor? Land is available for vast expanses along this corridor as shown by its existing underutilization, and neighborhood opposition for densification (conversion to mixed use) should prove less challenging as a majority of this land is currently zoned commercial. This could potentially allow each station built along the way to have an appropriately dense and self-sustaining neighborhood to support its infrastructure investment, and provide Seattle with much needed accessible market-rate housing.
Another fortunate outcome may eventually be the rejuvenation and rehabilitation of Aurora avenue into a thriving residential avenue that links together and support the new satellite residential communities for our next generation of Seattleites.