AIA Awards


November 20, 2003

Monorail to move urban design as well as people

  • Transportation project can be catalyst for development

     Yesler station
    Image courtesy of Seattle Monorail Project
    Stations such as this one at Yesler are being designed to strengthen neighborhoods.

    Many attractions lure people to Seattle's city center — shopping at Pike Place Market, catching a baseball game at Safeco Field, or listening to great music at Benaroya Hall. All these places add color and vibrancy to the character of the Emerald City. But one key to Seattle's continued quality of life is making inner city travel easier, more convenient and less harmful to the environment.

    Enter the Seattle Monorail Project, whose Green Line will stretch 14 miles between Ballard and West Seattle, carrying as many as 69,000 riders per day. Running above traffic using clean energy, the Green Line will serve many of Seattle's most popular destinations, including the theater district, Experience Music Project and Seattle Center, the growing Belltown neighborhood, the downtown shopping and business district, Pike Place Market, Benaroya Hall, Pioneer Square, the International District and our city's two sports stadiums.

    But the vision for mass transit projects like the monorail extends beyond quick and convenient transportation. Opportunities for transit-oriented development abound along fixed mass transit lines like the Green Line. How the monorail is being designed will contribute to its role as a development catalyst that helps to implement the city's comprehensive plan and individual neighborhood planning goals.

    “Access is the key to making an urban community the thriving, exciting place it can be,” according to Bryon Zeigler, a principal and urban planner for Mithun, who is part of the Mithun and Swift & Company team working with VIA Suzuki to develop urban design guidelines for the Monorail's Green Line.

    “Creating a great urban place that can be enjoyed by residents and visitors alike depends on thoughtfully linking mass transit with smart urban land use strategies,” Zeigler said. “The city has worked hard in the past decade to provide a solid platform for new mixed-use development linked with mass transit. Some great new urban places for the city can come of it.”

    Organizations like the Urban Land Institute are focusing attention on the topic, and see the trend as vital to urban redevelopment and economic revitalization efforts around the country. In its recent publication “Ten Principles of Transit-Oriented Development,” one of the institute's top recommendations centered on improving urban livability by developing full-fledged transit-centered communities. And the success of such communities depends heavily on using design principles that create “a genuine sense of place.”

    It's just this kind of thinking that is focusing the efforts of the monorail urban design guidelines team. According Mithun landscape architect Debra Guenther, “We are striving to balance two perspectives in the urban design guidelines. One is to make sure monorail stations provide excellent pedestrian and bike access and connect with multiple transit options such as Link Light Rail and bus. The second is to explore mixed-use opportunities that meet the needs of transit riders and are consistent with the neighborhood.”

    Ultimately, the urban design guidelines team is setting standards that will enable the monorail to not only function as an efficient mover of people, but also as a feature of the urban landscape that captures and enhances the character of each Seattle neighborhood in which it is located.

    Bringing both people and development opportunities to urban areas is a goal that can be achieved by thoughtful planning and design approaches. For instance, the proposed design for McClellan Station, a light-rail station located in a designated urban village, was influenced to foster both public and private interests.

    “It's important that a multi-modal hub like the McClellan Station is designed to be independent of the need for private funding or implementation, and that the station itself can be a magnet for new, neighboring private development," said Lee Copeland, consulting principal at Mithun who worked on the McClellan Station area urban design. “The public and private interests run parallel to each other and support each other at the same time.”

    Critical to the success of transit oriented development (TOD) is a mix of uses, which is also a key component of safe, livable and walkable communities. In areas where it is consistent with city policy, providing housing is an important part of TOD.

    “The synergies between mass transit and nearby residences are very high. When the need for residents to own a car is reduced, use of mass transit increases. As a result, those living in a TOD have overall lower living costs,” Copeland said.

    Projects such as Link Light Rail and the Seattle Monorail Project, working integrally with the city, can help achieve city and neighborhood goals for developing pedestrian-friendly communities.

    It's this kind of public-private partnership that provides the most interesting and compelling redevelopment opportunities with new mass transit systems. Not only will the Green Line spark increased commercial development in downtown Seattle, but the new monorail is expected to promote mixed-use development and positively impact property values in all the neighborhoods along the line.

    In 2002, the Seattle Monorail Project conducted a cost-benefit study of property value trends in other western cities with fixed rail transit systems. The new development cities such as Vancouver, San Francisco and Portland have enjoyed include single- and multi-family housing, along with increased office and retail uses. Based on study findings, the Seattle Monorail Project predicts that property located within one-half mile of stations would increase by as much as $1.3 billion.

    The study found that the increased property values should result in additional tax revenue for local communities as well as the state. Over the next 30 years, governments could expect to see up to $121 million in additional tax revenues. New development supporting the transit line will create jobs, new community gathering places and additional tax revenues.

    But the study also indicates that good design will be key to the monorail's success in spurring new development. Monorail line and station design must provide easy and safe access for riders in addition to working within the context of the neighborhoods in which it is located.

    According to Bert Gregory, president of Mithun, “The monorail will enhance the quality of life in Seattle by helping residents and visitors alike enjoy the city's amenities while it also reduces CO2 generated by vehicles. As with any large, complex infrastructure project, the success of the monorail depends on a productive collaboration between public and private interests in developing a design approach that improves the livability of the city.

    “The monorail can help implement the city's long-range goals and promote great transit-oriented living places in all the communities it serves.”

    Anne Haerle is the marketing manager at Mithun, a local architecture, landscape architecture, interior design and urban planning services firm.

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