County asks: What should housing look like near light rail?

Snohomish County wants public input on housing types in the areas around light rail stations.

Imagine 20-story buildings lining I-5 along the coming light rail tracks between Lynnwood and Everett.

Or they could stay well below the horizon as modest single-family homes.

Maybe new housing will be some kind of patchwork of those extremes and everything in between.

It’s in your hands, to a point.

Snohomish County’s planning and development services department is gathering public input about housing around light rail stations as part of the Everett Link extension north of Lynnwood. An online workshop through Sept. 25 is replacing the originally envisioned in-person gatherings because of COVID-19 and crowd size restrictions.

“We haven’t made all the decisions out here,” county planner David Killingstad said. “In fact, there are more questions about these areas than we have answers.”

Sure, light rail is at least 16 years away. But long-range planning means crafting documents about how those neighborhoods and the surrounding areas could and should be developed for housing, parks and transportation.

Earlier this year the Snohomish County Council picked its preferred locations for the two stations in its jurisdiction, one along 164th Street Southwest and one near 128th Street Southwest, south of Everett. The station sites solely and ultimately are up to the Sound Transit board, which has considered local input in past projects.

But everything around those stations can be determined by the county.

For now, Snohomish County’s planners hope people weigh in on what housing types they want in the subarea, a planning zone polygon roughly encompassing land from planned Sound Transit stations at 164th Street Southwest to 128th Street Southwest, plus an unfunded station at Airport Road and Highway 99.

Existing rules around the planned stations’ areas permits development of buildings 10 stories and higher. The ones in place are closer to five or six stories, however.

“The market hasn’t responded to that,” Killingstad said.

Late in August, the county launched its survey and online workshop, which includes an interactive map for people to click and pin housing types. So far, high-density, tall buildings between six and 20-plus stories dominate the map’s responses.

But those results are probably from 20 or 30 people, county spokesperson Jacob Lambert said. The software allows each user to pin a housing type several times over multiple sessions, so county planning staff will review the data once the workshop closes later this month.

Housing is needed now and will be in the years ahead.

“Population pressure is going to continue to challenge this region for a long time,” Killingstad said.

The Snohomish County Housing Affordability Regional Task Force, made up of elected officials, local government staffers, nonprofit leaders and housing experts, wrote a report earlier this year that warned of housing affordability problems. One example is that a two-bedroom apartment’s median rent is $1,889 per month, which nearly half the county can’t afford without spending more than one-third of income on housing and utilities. That cost requires an annual income of $76,000, or three minimum-wage jobs.

Population projections from the state Office of Financial Management show that Snohomish County likely grows by 420,000 people by 2050. That’s the equivalent of adding almost four Everetts.

All of the new residents will need to live somewhere, and cities expect to accommodate a lot of them.

But putting them close to bus rapid transit, called rail on wheels, and light rail creates an incentive to use public transit and take cars off the roads to ease the strain on traffic that’s sure to be caused when another few thousand people move next door. It’s also required by the Puget Sound Regional Council, which determined 75% of that additional population should live near light rail.

“By giving people greater choices, maybe they think about their needs from a transportation standpoint,” Killingstad said.

The workshop takes about 20 minutes if you’re perusing through each section and thoughtfully selecting housing types to pin to the map. But it’s worthwhile as a primer for the project, housing types and zoning, all of which are loaded with jargon for people unfamiliar with those fields.

A printable version of the map is available online at tinyurl.com/yxqslcoy, with instructions to analog mail or email it to the county’s planning department.

In the coming years, when construction starts along I-5 between Everett and Lynnwood, don’t say you couldn’t have known it was coming.

Have a question? Email streetsmarts@heraldnet.com. Please include your first and last name and city of residence.

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