Ridges and Slough
Tactical Transit for Seattle
Transportation in Seattle has a middle ground problem. Forces from all sides of politics, economics, neighborhoods, and government pull transportation issues in so many different directions that when the dust settles — if it settles — the landing area is a hard packed chunk of mediocrity. Unfortunately, this is not a position of compromise. It is a position of zero sum failure.
That’s a trite enough entrance, but there’s a different kind of absent middle ground at play in Seattle. The city has a history of grand visions and auspicious attempts. It also has a history of pitched local battles and hyper focused decision making. There are very few attempts to connect the two levels, nowhere that broad strategy meets quotidian details, no connection between the high minded and the mundane. The city has a wide chasm between its vision and its daily life.
In short, we’re left to forge the in-between steps on the fly. We’re presented with the spectacular and left asking “okay, what does this look like at my house?”
The ST3 Conundrum
This void is most apparent with Sound Transit 3. ST3 is forward looking and elaborate and an answer to the most general of questions: where should Seattle build transit? In some ways, it’s a historic document, responding to pressures and plans drawn up over a half century ago but always omitted from budgets and laws and zoning often for damnable reasons. It’s also responsive to fundamental changes in the city over just the last decade, including explosive growth in a handful of neighborhoods and critical bottlenecks in current infrastructure.
In the end, ST3 takes a bright red line and draws it over a huge chunk of the metro region.
This is not to take away from the people who work at Sound Transit or who put together the proposal that was sent to voters. The Sound Transit staff forged a visionary program out of the many compromises and realities of getting a $50 billion project funded through voters in dozens of jurisdictions.
But they were focused on the biggest of pictures and the end result. Many people who are now attending meetings and reading about light rail in the paper are focused on what it means on the most micro scale. What’s the distance between my door and the new station? Where do we cross this road? How will customers get to my store? Will my property be demolished? When is it coming?
So this paper is a first draft of the middle. We have a good idea of the bread we’re using — light rail stations in particular neighborhoods. But we have no idea what we’re filling the sandwich with. In this paper, we’re going to talk about tactics, connecting that strategic bright red line to the small details of what can exist on the ground where light rail touches.
Some ground rules
- Light rail is coming and ST3 is the map.
- Locations of light rail stations should be obvious and visible in the pattern of city development.
- This development will necessarily be different — more dense, more diverse, less auto-dependent — than what currently exists.
- Light Rail should not bring the same type of development to every station.
The Typology of ST3
The bright red line of ST3 is wide and variable. From meetings and discussions, we know that the final routes are not finalized and the station footprints are in motion. That means that we are putting images of stations that we already have into communities that currently exist.
Such a mental collage does a huge disservice. These neighborhoods were, by definition, built without light rail. When it arrives, the neighborhood will be different and it will be changed. We have to divorce the things we believe about what’s coming from what’s actually confirmed. And to do that, we should look at what we absolutely know about ST3.
So it starts with a map. This is the ST3 map that was approved and shared during the election.
Sound Transit 3 Stylized Map. Sound Transit.
But let’s move away from the stylized. That is a pretty good metro map, once it’s in operation. However, let’s move away from the stylized. When we do, we can see some truths about ST3. It covers a lot of distance. The round about to Paine Field is not insignificant. And most importantly, ST3 follows arterials and highways.
ST3 Map. The Seattle Times c/o Sammamish News March 25, 2016
Let’s take a step back. Why are these arterials where they are? They connect certain important locations.
Step back further. Those places were built as forts and settlements at connections between roads and water and hills and forest. They became important as the roads became bigger. The roads became important as the places became bigger. The roads too were built to follow easy passes through the landscape. They crossed rivers at narrow points. They rode the edges of hills and clearings. They followed streams where they flattened out.
1908 Map of Seattle, University of Texas Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection.
And what we find is the most simple of Seattle assessments. If the stations are not along the tops of hills, they are in wide valleys.
What do we know about hilltops? What do we know about valleys? They serve unique purposes. They etch differently into the landscape. No two are the same, but they have some very specific shared characteristics that will guide our understanding of connecting infrastructure to place. Our stations should reflect the typology of either ridges or sloughs, with variation for local circumstances.
A ridge is a long narrow hilltop, a mountain range, or the line formed where two sloping surfaces meet together. It is the connected up thrust, built of pressure, growing taller. A chain of tall peaks.
The stations in downtowns are the start of the Ridge. The stations in Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma on Link are parallel peaks to Baker, Rainier, and Hood in the Cascades. But they cannot be the only peaks. A person should be able to look and see the locations of a light rail station based on the peaks of buildings built around it.
- Peaks of development following highways connecting major centers.
- Anywhere that a light rail station is buried should automatically be considered a Ridge Station.
- New stations adjacent to large undeveloped parcels like golf courses or highway intersections.
- Locations where density and development can offset costs for highway/railway lids and brownfield remediation.
The core of Ridge Stations are tall enough to be visible from development at the prior station. On the ground, Ridge Stations are fundamentally urban, a connected ridge of city between traditional downtowns. The walking experience is busy, with multiple levels of ground floor commercial space, frequent interesting stores, and green spaces focused on well used public plazas and greenspace. Large commercial (gyms, groceries) are above or below the sidewalk level. The neighborhood is open 24 hours. Public facilities like schools and libraries are developed as parts of other buildings with apartments, condos, and offices rising above them. Automobile lanes are narrow, limited and serve the buildings but do not act as arterials. Parking is underground with limited paid street parking. Deliveries are integrated into the buildings or made off hours, not from the street. Sidewalks are wide enough to handle passing pedestrians, street trees, and outdoor seating.
A slough is a marsh, a wetland, a habitat where freshwater widens and slows, moving across flat surface. Occasionally soaked, usually wet, it is a mini ecosystem that is nourished by the river and in turn filters the water. A slough is diverse with creatures living close to the water. It changes with the seasons, even while remaining fundamentally the same: a place to live.
Slough Stations are where the torrent of commuters from light rail can enter a residential neighborhood. The capacity of the train spreads out into a community and steps down and decants from the station. Filling the valleys that light rail moves through, Slough Stations can take on very localized personalities, from very traditional baugruppen to newer concepts like eco-districts.
- Stations at grade in road right-of-ways and within natural topographic valleys.
- Neighborhoods with significant historic or natural assets.
- Elevated stations that can be integrated into commercial levels of new buildings.
The core of Slough Stations grow progressively from their locations within predominately residential areas, and the surrounding area grows out from each station. At opening of the station, buildings surrounding the core of a Slough Station rise to 10–12 stories on commercial pedestals. There are no height limits, but increased density is organic, with newer buildings permitted to add two or four stories over their immediate neighbors.
On the ground, Slough Stations are mixed use, walkable, and vibrant neighborhoods throughout much of the day. Ground floor commercial space and frequent offices are punctuated by mezzanines and balconies at important intersections. The commercial heart of the neighborhood extends blocks in each direction from the station, with locations for groceries and child care throughout Slough Station areas.
Public green space is integrated into Slough Station core areas, designed for intense use and connecting through greenways or streamways to larger facilities outside the station walksheds. Public facilities like schools and libraries are developed as landmarks in conjunction with the parks. Parking is underground with limited paid or permit street parking. Sidewalks are wide enough to handle passing pedestrians, street trees, and outdoor seating with integrated bicycle facilities in the adjacent road.
As said, light rail cannot bring the same development to every station. There have to be exceptions. On the current line of sixteen stations, three stand out. SeaTac Station is a connection to the airport and the height limits imposed there. University of Washington and Stadium Stations are exits to major facilities.
These exceptions make clear what the rule can be. Stations at major public facilities and stadiums should be integrated into the system differently. This also narrows what should be considered limiting factors in applying Ridge or Slough typologies to the rest of the stations. If it’s not an absolutely unique natural resource or public facility of regional importance, it’s not an exception.
More importantly, these stations show how the exceptions can be mitigated. While SeaTac station is a link for air travelers, the airport only limits the station to the west. To the east, all the hotels and restaurants must be strongly connected to the station, as an asset to travelers and the workers in these businesses. UW provides a lesson in a slightly different direction. As a large facility in the city, the school has a development plan for the entire campus. That can focus its transportation program to bring people in and out of the station, as has been seen with the rerouted Metro busses in the area. Also, the school is getting a second station, with the University District station a strong contender for Ridge Station typology.
The Stadium station is its own beast. Built under a highway intersection and constrained by the ballparks, the rail lines, and the bus terminal, it really serves a limited purpose. Fortunately, it is the exception even among exceptions and can be focused on completely uniquely.
- Stations directly adjacent to major infrastructure or public facilities.
Facility/Exemption Stations must vary in their approach to the opportunity of light rail. But the actual area impacted by the facility must be closely constrained and limited. Where development can only happen on one side of a station, it is maximized there. Where the station exists for its connection to the stadium or public place, the walk and access is broad, pedestrian friendly, and amenity filled. These are exceptions because they are exceptional.
To understand cities is to see how global wealth and massive infrastructure make food appear on an individual dinner plate. Cities are connections between the massive and the daily, the epic and the mundane. Where that connection works well, cities are magic. Where the connection fails or is not clear, cities are sources fear.
The potential for a massive infrastructure project is in its completion. But when we focus on its completion, we miss the many steps that show why the investment will be worth it. Better commute times to downtown only goes so far when there is a disconnect that can be filled with images of destroyed neighborhoods and low-bid facilities.
But if we start understanding the middle — the positive mark that light rail can leave on our neighborhoods — we will have a better, stronger discussion of why we should fight for its future. The discussion starts with two ideas: a line of Ridge Stations that connect and extend dense urban downtowns, and courses of Slough Stations that integrate channels of stations into their residential communities.
What comes next? Which stations should be Ridge or Slough stations? Let’s hear from you.