Matt Wood

Over the past year, developers have applied for permits to build 1,500 apartments and condos within a half-mile of transit stations in Seattle’s Rainier Valley neighborhood. Those stations will serve the 15.6-mile Link light-rail line connecting downtown Seattle with Sea-Tac Airport. The rail line is scheduled to open in July 2009.

This housing represents Rainier Valley’s first nonsubsidized multifamily projects in more than three decades. Nearly half of these housing units will be built by developer Othello Partners, including The Station at Othello Park, an $80 million project with 350 rental units and 20,000 square feet of retail space. “One of the most important factors in our decision to build was the light rail,” says Mike Hlastala, Othello Partners’ COO.

In cities across the U.S., light rail had the biggest increase in riders—8.3 percent—among all modes of public transit in 2008, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Burgeoning municipalities and states see transit-centric development as essential to managing their population growth, which in Seattle’s case is expected to rise by 1.2 million over the next quarter century. Many cities also see a receptive federal government now that President Obama has made infrastructure investment a linchpin in his administration’s long-range economic growth strategy. The U.S. Department of Transportation and HUD recently formed a joint task force to devise ways to put more affordable homes near job centers and transit hubs.

“Transit-oriented development really sets out our future,” Todd Apo, chairman of Honolulu’s City Council, told The Honolulu Advertiser after that city’s mayor in March signed a bill that establishes transit-­oriented development (TOD) zones around its nascent light-rail line.

Since Charlotte, N.C., opened its Lynx system in November 2007, more than 1,000 housing units have been added or approved near its stations, says Dena Belzer, president of Berkeley, Calif.–based Strategic Economics, one of three partners in the Center for Transit-Oriented Development, a national nonprofit focused on promoting TOD research and best practices. And Phoenix-area businessmen who might have squawked about the cost of their market’s $1.4 billion 19-mile light-rail line, which opened in December, now lobby to have future stations built near their stores and offices after the line’s ridership jumped 15 percent in February over January to more than 908,000.

“Transportation facilities can be designed in ways that integrate, support, or trigger economic activity to benefit the community by reorganizing land use, increasing land value and tax revenues by attracting capital and providing jobs, and increasing incomes while also supplying well-located, needed services to the community,” states Moving Communities Forward,” a report analyzing nearly 30 transportation projects published in January 2008 by The American Institute of Architects and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies.

But light rail doesn’t always catalyze transit-oriented residential development. Developers aren’t always enamored of building near transit systems whose attached strings often include density and affordability mandates. Under pressure from developers, Washington state’s legislature in March tabled two bills that would have established rules for development along transportation corridors.

Sacramento, Calif.’s 22-year-old light-rail system, which currently runs 37.4 miles and handles 14.4 million passengers per year, is recognized as a model for California’s new statewide smart-growth regulations. But only recently have TOD projects sprouted along that line, say local transportation analysts and planners. In 2002, city financing helped transform a brownfield with warehouses and a closed lumber mill into a mixed-use TOD near the rail line’s 65th Street station. A spur that will connect downtown Sacramento to its airport will run through a 240-acre brownfield that could hold “all kinds” of TOD possibilities, says one planner for the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon wants to create America’s first carbon-neutral metropolis. This spring the city initiated a study with a goal of integrating proposed transit expansions into its general growth plan. That could lead to zoning changes and possibly more TOD activity, says city planner Carol Johnson. But what makes Phoenix unique is how housing densities outside of its central city—three to four units per acre—“mimic the topography, which is flat,” says Johnson. The challenge is to create “focused clusters,” possibly including some near transit stops, which provide urban living experiences and mesh with the suburban landscape. The study, she says, is a step toward finding out if that’s feasible.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Charlotte, NC.