Sound Transit weighs options on First Hill property amid calls for new affordable housing

(Image: Sound Transit)

The First Hill properties are part of Sound Transit’s “transit oriented development” surplus holdings. (Image: Sound Transit)

First Hill won’t have a stop on the University Link Light Rail extension when it starts running in 2016, but it could still get a housing + retail + community space “transit oriented development” project like the one planned for Capitol Hill — albeit one that’s significantly smaller.

The First Hill Streetcar is one of the most well known outcomes of the Central Link Locally Preferred Alternative — the plan that would’ve put a light rail stop on First Hill. The streetcar was drawn up as a compromise to serve the neighborhood with rapid transit after the light rail stop was deemed unfeasible.

A lesser known component of the plan includes two surplus properties Sound Transit owns on First Hill, purchased in 2001 in anticipation of building a station near Madison and Boylston.

A new development will likely rise behind the Whole Foods project (shown in brown) on E Madison (Image by Tiscareno Associates)

A new development will someday rise at the Sound Transit properties behind the future Whole Foods project (shown in brown) on E Madison. (Image by Tiscareno Associates)

Today, Sound Transit leases 1400 Madison to a Moneytree payday loans store and 1014 Boylston as medical office space. The future of the properties remains up in air, but City officials are calling on the transit agency to commit to using the site for affordable housing.

Sound Transit is known for being conservative when it comes to purchasing, developing, and selling its properties. Turning a profit on First Hill shouldn’t be difficult. Developers planning a Whole Foods and 16-story apartment tower on the same block paid $21 million for the site in 2008, according to King County property records. According to Sound Transit, its 21,000 square foot site is zoned for a 160 foot tall building, either mixed use or office or residential. Several residential towers planned on nearby blocks will range from 275 to 300 units each. (Interestingly, Wells Fargo purchased the Moneytree property in 1999 for just $444,000 and sold it to Sound Transit two years later for $2.2 million).

That would appear to give Sound Transit a prime real estate opportunity. It also presents a prime opportunity to turn the centrally located, highly accessible site into affordable housing. Plymouth Housing Group and the City of Seattle are particularly interested in developing the property if it can purchase it at a favorable price.

Last November, the Mayor and all nine City Council members signed a letter to Sound Transit urging the organization to consider selling the property to Plymouth for a project to include affordable senior housing, senior services, and a park. In their letter, the Council asked Sound Transit to “provide us the opportunity to work with you on an appropriate surplus property process before opening the property for sale to the public.”

“It makes sense to get folks with greater medical needs closer to medical providers and transit,” said Plymouth’s deputy director Betsy Hunter.

In a response letter, Sound Transit said they have been meeting with Plymouth, but need more time to asses the property. Sound Transit is currently awaiting the results of a fresh market analysis and existing conditions report for the land to determine its full potential. “That’s the early work that will inform broader discussions with the Board and City early next year about how to move forward,” said Sound Transit spokesperson Bruce Gray.

Sound Transit has shown a strong interest in creating affordable housing through its substantial landholdings around the city, as evidenced by the Capitol Hill Station development. The project will include 418 apartments with 38% of units to rent for below market rate for 12 years and 86 units designated for “permanent affordable housing.”

There’s also pressure from the City, which is looking for ways to meet Mayor Ed Murray’s call to build thousands of affordable housing units over the next decade. He recently unveiled details of the “grand bargain” struck by his Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda committee, which calls for developers to create 6,000 affordable units through a a pay-or-play system. Still, that’s well short of the mayor’s target of 20,000 affordable units created over the next decade.

Green space is notoriously hard to find on First Hill, and a publicly owned parcel in the heart of the neighborhood could prove to be a good target for some new open space. The block is already poised for major change as a Whole Foods grocery store and 16-story apartment tower line up to replace a 1928-built, three-story masonry medical building currently at the site.

The last of the payday loan lenders left Capitol Hill in April after Money Mart closed on E Olive Way.

Subscribe and support CHS Contributors -- $1/$5/$10 per month

4 thoughts on “Sound Transit weighs options on First Hill property amid calls for new affordable housing

  1. Better yet, sell the property to a developer that agrees to rent X% of its unit below market rates. That way, it’s a win/win! We get more TOD at market rate, and get more affordable housing.