Redmond residents like village by the (bus) bay
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
For the past year, several hundred residents of Redmond have been guinea pigs in an experiment for the gridlocked Puget Sound region.
Their home is the Village at Overlake Station, King County's first combination apartment complex/transit station. Built above a park-and-ride lot and bus bay, the affordable-housing project was designed to put people close to urban centers and public transportation in hopes of encouraging bus use and decreasing dependence on automobiles.
Just past its one-year anniversary, the experiment — loosely labeled "transit-oriented development" — has been judged a qualified success by renters and planners alike. A waiting list has formed for the popular apartments, and the Village boasts just 0.6 cars per household — less than the initial goal of one car per household.
Residents are a five- or 10-minute walk from dozens of groceries, shops, restaurants, cafes, business parks and services. Free bus passes are among the perks of moving in.
But whether the Village at Overlake will emerge as a model for transit-oriented development — a concept still testing its wings around the country — remains to be seen. Even more uncertain is whether the approach provides enough of a benefit to make a dent in the serious transportation dilemma the region faces.
Among the converts is Beverly Bryan, who was used to driving her car and living in single-family homes before she made the move to Overlake six months ago.
"My daughter once said, 'My mother will never take the bus,' " Bryan recalled. "But who wants to drive when you have this convenience?"
Two similar projects have followed in Renton and Northgate, and several more are in the discussion or planning stages around King County, including one in downtown Seattle, two in Kirkland, one in Kenmore and another at Issaquah Highlands.
On the surface, the $40 million Village — a product of private financing, tax-exempt affordable-housing bonds, and local and federal grants and loans — seems to be achieving some major goals of transit-oriented development, said Dick Nelson, principal of Integrated Transport Research, a Seattle-based transportation and land-use consulting firm. It's helping modest-income people get around by bus, reducing household costs, and putting people close to an urban center where they can walk to many things they need.
"But would those same people be using the bus if they lived somewhere else?" said Nelson, who has studied transit-oriented development locally and nationally.
Car usage at the Village is lower than average compared with other Redmond apartments. But neither the project owner, King County Department of Transportation, nor the developer/operator, King County Housing Authority, has compared the data to other affordable housing. There also are no comprehensive counts to see how or whether the apartment has affected bus or car usage.
That's the type of in-depth analysis that hasn't been done in the transit-oriented-development industry, and it's a major reason observers are cautious about touting the potential benefits of the design on a larger scale.
Observers also caution that projects like the Village at Overlake won't make much of a dent in the transportation dilemma Seattle and many other cities face.
"From a global perspective, (it's) a token," said Nelson. "How many more of those have to be built to achieve some form of impact on transportation in the region? It's a very small and probably immeasurable change in terms of car trips and congestion."
Critics warn that while well-done transit-oriented development can have benefits, it also can prevent better transportation solutions from getting funded.
When agencies get wrapped up in costly projects aimed at bringing just a few hundred people closer to transit, they lose the chance to spend money improving the overall transit system to attract many more potential riders, said John Niles, senior technology and transportation fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a public-policy think tank.
Niles is a critic of costly off-road transit systems like Sound Transit's planned light-rail line, which often dangle transit-oriented development as a bone to placate opponents.
But an important aspect of transit-oriented development is improving quality of life, something developers and residents of the Village say is happening, whether or not there are numbers to prove it.
The 308-unit apartment building, painted butter yellow and moss green, is close to Highway 520, department stores and Group Health Cooperative's Eastside Hospital.
Despite its urban location, the place has a surprisingly quiet feel. Tucked back into a wooded spot near 148th Avenue, the building is relatively soundproof and affords some residents sweeping views of the Bellevue and Seattle skylines.
"We're in the middle of the business community, and yet it feels like Bedford Falls," said Rochelle Paderson, the community manager who lives at the Village. "In the summer, people sit outside and talk to each other, barbecue and eat together. I've never seen that in an apartment community."
Benches and pleasant landscaping greet Village visitors. The interior of the apartments are modern and well-designed, with sleek wood cabinetry and shiny, white appliances.
A two-bedroom unit rents for around $880, compared with Redmond's average last October of $954. Each apartment gets one of 540 parking spaces shared with commuters, and leftovers are available to residents after 1 p.m.
Sixty apartments are reserved for residents with disabilities, and renters must earn 60 percent or less of the area's median income per household.
An on-site day-care center makes it easy for parents to drop off their children before taking one of several bus lines to work.
"We had some concerns at first about the noise, but it's not even a factor," said Peter Rogerson, who recently retired and moved to the Village with his wife, Joan. Their adult son, who has a developmental disability, lives in another unit.
The couple has two cars, and neither uses the free bus pass, but they say they plan to in the future. Their son relies entirely on the pass to get to work.
The true potential of transit developments like Overlake is just coming into focus as experiments around the country are studied. The concept, which can pair housing or retail stores with bus, light-rail or subway centers, is being tried in regions such as San Francisco, suburban New Jersey, Atlanta and Dallas.
One of few studies on the idea was done for the Brookings Institution last year by Berkeley-based researchers Dena Belzer and Gerald Autler. They found that many emerging transit-oriented-development projects have so far failed to meet the objectives of the approach, which include reducing environmental impacts of transportation and providing real solutions to congestion.
In short, "the amount of hype around transit-oriented development far exceeds the progress to date," the authors wrote.
Too often, planners and developers who are eager for public and government support slap a housing complex or retail store next to a transit center, park-and-ride lot or bus stop and call it transit-oriented development, Belzer said.
"In that way, developers use transit as the attraction but not the goal," she said. "Just because you have a lot of density, it doesn't mean it's good TOD (transit-oriented development)."
Good transit development is reminiscent of the 1920s streetcar communities, said Belzer. Before the automobile created the far-flung suburbs of the 1950s, development was concentrated in easily accessible pockets along meandering transit lines.
Transit-oriented development, even if done well, can be only a small part of the greater transportation solution for the future, Belzer said.
In other words, developers need to put office space closer to bus stops and put shops in the hearts of neighborhoods if communities are really going to adjust to the increasing demand for road space.
"The way we build now is forcing everyone to have a car," Belzer said. "The real solution is about creating places that have a better balance."
Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org.