Cathy Hillenbrand used to joke with her neighbors that the mixed-use housing development at the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station would be opened by the time she turned seventy.
Community engagement around the development project goes back at least to 2009, but discussions about how to eventually build the station up stretch back to the 1990s says Hillenbrand, a longtime neighborhood business owner. On Tuesday, developers finally broke ground on the project, which includes four separate buildings, a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, a bi-weekly farmers’ market and retail space. It’s expected to open its doors to residents about midway through 2020.
Hillenbrand turns seventy next September. So the joke turns out to have been funny, but maybe not in the way she meant it at first.
“Literally it’s been 20 years,” Hillenbrand says. “You have this dream that you’re going to rebuild the heart of your neighborhood, and then the neighborhood gets built up all around it.”
Built on surplus land surrounding the light rail station, the project is being praised as a harbinger of additional equitable transit-oriented development to come in Seattle. It includes 428 apartments, of which 178 will be rented below market-rate. It will have 30,000 square feet of retail space, community event space and a memorial pathway honoring victims of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s. It’s aiming to be certified LEED Platinum.
“It’s a great example of working hard with the community and with the city and with our development partner to see what we could accomplish,” says Brooke Belman, the land use planning and development director for Sound Transit, the region’s transit authority. “It certainly helped inform [the equitable TOD policy adopted in April.]”
The Capitol Hill station itself was approved in 1996 when voters backed a nearly $4 billion transportation plan that included building light rail from the University District to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It opened in 2016. Building the tunnel and the station was complicated enough, but adding a dense housing project into the mix — requiring coordination between the transit agency, developers of both affordable and market-rate housing, and the community — made the whole thing that much more complex. The community engagement component of the development process lasted for about a decade. But it was instructive, says Sound Transit TOD Planning Manager Sarah Lovell.
“I think this project was really instrumental in thinking through what kinds of things need to happen earlier to try to set up development goals with the opening or near-opening of light rail,” Lovell says.
Hillenbrand is now a board member of Capitol Hill Housing, which is building the affordable-housing component of the project. In 2010, she helped form Capitol Hill Champion, a joint effort between the Capitol Hill Community Council and the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, which advocated for community goals to be incorporated into the planned development. All along, community members were focused on making sure that the light rail station wouldn’t be built without a dense housing component alongside it. There was one group that wanted the entire site to be geared toward LGBTQ-supportive housing, which didn’t end up happening. But the project incorporates the AIDS memorial walkway, and Hillenbrand says that conversations about the Capitol Hill project have sparked other housing efforts for LGBTQ seniors.
The project also includes a maximum parking ratio, which is a step toward cutting down on car ownership on the site, though Hillenbrand says the ratio is still too high. And she wishes it had much more affordable housing.
“That piece of land, everybody wanted so much on it,” Hillenbrand says. “And that one piece or pieces can’t solve everything.”
Sixty-eight units will be reduced rate through mandatory inclusionary zoning in the market-rate housing portion of the project. Another 110 other affordable units at the site will include eight priced for families earning up to 30 percent of area median income, ten priced for families earning up to 50 percent of area median income, and 92 will be priced for families earning up to 60 percent — equivalent to $60,200 for a household of four, according to Ashwin Warrior, senior communications manager for Capitol Hill Housing.
Sound Transit’s new equitable transit-oriented development policy requires any surplus property from here on out to be developed with at least 80 percent affordable housing. Belman says the agency is already working on some projects with 100 percent affordable housing.
“I think that [the Capitol Hill project] also set up a model of how we work with communities,” Belman says. “It’s something that we want to emulate, only stronger, going forward, in setting up that partnership with the local community.”
Hillenbrand says that many community members dedicated years of their lives to help bring the project to bear. And even with all the engagement, there were points when the community felt out of the loop about the project. At certain key moments, like when Sound Transit issued a call for developers and negotiated a development agreement with the city, community members weren’t at the table, Hillenbrand says.
“We knew what Sound Transit had in mind, but we didn’t really know what was going to happen,” Hillenbrand says. “The development agreement was challenging because we were outside of that. It was like a cone of silence, and nobody would talk about it.”
In the end, it came together in a way that satisfied a lot of people. But the process was trying for the community, according to Hillenbrand. And in communities where people have fewer resources and less time to dedicate to negotiating projects like this, it would be tough to emulate, she says.
“This is why community people burn out because that community engagement is not resourced,” Hillenbrand says. “It’s not funded … If you really want equitable development, you really have to resource community engagement.”
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.