Get ready for this sales pitch: "We know it's tough for you apartment hunters out there. Can we perhaps interest you in a brand-new one-bedroom


Double dipping

Get ready for this sales pitch: "We know it's tough for you apartment hunters out there. Can we perhaps interest you in a brand-new one-bedroom at our newest development, the Towers at Park & Ride Vista? With a breakfast nook overlooking the express lane? If so, you'll be thrilled to hear about the latest 'public-private partnership' being undertaken by King County...."

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As part of its push toward "transit-centered development," the county is looking to create housing in, around, and above Park & Rides. It has several pilot projects in the works, including two on the Eastside and one up at Northgate. The idea is to get more people living within easy reach of bus service, thereby reducing both residents' need for cars and developers' need to build parking. The projects were highlighted in the so-called Smartgrowth initiative outlined by King County Executive Ron Sims last month.

Allowing folks to Park, Ride & Crash in the same general locale sounds like pretty good urban planning, especially in light of the Growth Management Act's push for more dense urban development. But after a couple of years' worth of scandals involving Nordstrom and the Bellevue Convention Center, among others, it would be foolish not to feel alarmed when you hear the words "parking garage" and "public-private partnership" emanating in the same breath from elected officials.

in Redmond, on a hillside next to Group Health Hospital, 4 acres of asphalt and a few trees make up the Overlake Park & Ride. The site is only a mile from Microsoft and just steps away from a giant Safeway, Sears, and Fred Meyer (as well as a half-dozen restaurants, including Coco's). What this neighborhood of massive shopping opportunities lacks is housing. So sometime later this summer, the county will invite developers to purchase—or lease—the "air rights" to the Park & Ride. County officials hope to see four stories of mixed-income, multifamily housing rise above the lot.

Would anyone want to live in a place where, every weekday, 374 Metro buses pass under their kitchen window? Some housing developers think so. In fact, it was developers, not bureaucrats, who first raised the "air rights" idea. Clyde Holland, West Coast managing director of Trammel Crow Residential, says the project could be designed in such a way that residents won't even be aware of the buses. His firm has done a number of transit-centered developments elsewhere, Holland says, and would be interested in building as many as 400 rental units above Overlake.

What makes the idea attractive to developers is not simply the Park & Ride's location (or its natural beauty). Parking can be one of the biggest costs for developers, especially in urban areas where they have to construct an underground garage rather than simply lay an asphalt lot out front. The operating assumption is that in Redmond, as at the other pilot sites, the housing developments would be allowed to make use of the Park & Ride spots for apartment visitors during evenings and weekends.

In addition, since the residents would be living right on top of a major transit stop and therefore would have less need for a car (theoretically, at least), regulators might further reduce the parking-supply requirements for developers. "[They] generally have to provide 1.5 parking stalls for each unit of multifamily housing," says Ron Posthuma, government relations administrator for King County's Department of Transportation. Those stalls cost around $10,000 each. So if the parking ratio can be brought down to 1.0, Posthuma notes, the developer of a 200-unit building could save $1 million.

The county may use this incentive to encourage more housing in the center of hardscrabble Renton. City officials there are in the middle of a multimillion-dollar effort to revive their charmingly old-fashioned downtown. They have bought out several car lots, which they hope to redevelop; they are building a public plaza and new sidewalks; and Metro is building a big transit center there.

Sue Carlson, who does economic development and planning for Renton, says the city wants to avoid the typical suburban downtown of deadly, single-story, strip-mall development. Instead she hopes to attract thousands of people to live downtown, creating a lively urban zone anchored by transit—the ultimate Growth Management Act fantasy. Already, a new retail/residential development is under construction, the first big-money investment that downtown Renton has seen in decades.

But attracting more developers may be a challenge. Carlson says there is a gap between the cost of downtown land—especially land that may already have, say, an auto body shop sitting on it—and the return that a developer can expect to get from Renton's low rents.

City and county officials are considering a Park & Ride strategy to plug that gap. The county would buy some land downtown for a new Park & Ride, then try to attract development above or alongside the lot by agreeing to share those parking spaces on evenings and weekends. "It would be additional parking that developers wouldn't have to build," says Carlson, who adds, "It may not necessarily be free. They might lease it."

By reducing the parking requirements, Posthuma says, "All of a sudden [the project] becomes affordable"—affordable, that is, to the developer. In both the Redmond and Renton cases, the housing would be mostly for middle-income customers (though Posthuma says, "We'll attempt to make some affordable to people of lesser means"). Officials will spend the next several months studying the plan.

at Northgate, the county is also trying to promote housing as part of a massive mall expansion about to get under way. Mall developers are planning to build—what else?—a big entertainment retail complex, with bookstores, theme restaurants, and a giant multiplex cinema, in the huge parking lot just south of the mall (it is now used mostly for RV shows). The plans also call for a 200-room hotel, office complex, and some housing.

The developers intend to build enough parking for about 2,000 vehicles, and the county is interested in perhaps sharing the spaces, since it would sit right next to Metro's big Northgate transit center (which has minimal parking). Given that entertainment retail is mostly a nighttime and weekend time-waster, "the parking characteristics fit very nicely and symmetrically with Park & Ride use," says Posthuma. The county would help finance the project "if we can get guaranteed use of some of the stalls. Theoretically, he pays half and we pay half." The more housing the developer is willing to include, the more generous a deal the county is likely to offer.

What about the inevitable concerns about corporate welfare? "We're doing it to increase transit ridership and to increase the supply of mixed-income housing," Posthuma replies. He notes that the Redmond and Renton air rights will be sold "through competitive bidding. The market process is not a giveaway."

Still, it can't be reassuring that the Northgate developers are being advised by attorney Gerald Johnson of Bogle & Gates, a key player in some of the more outrageous taxpayer fleecings—sorry, public-private partnerships—of recent years, including the baseball stadium and the Nordstrom­Pine Street deal. Let's hope the Park & Ride negotiating team has a little more mettle.

Related Links:

King County site about SmartGrowth

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