If the 2008 recession taught us anything, it’s that the benefits of connectivity and accessibility—quantifiable or not—should be the ultimate goal of urban development. By valuing only space and size, the overexerted suburban status quo of past generations proved itself unsustainable when the housing market nosedived. The development market has articulated a corrective, though, capitalizing on renewed preferences for convenience and community by targeting strategic mixed-use and transit-oriented projects, which bolster existing urban infrastructure while also reifying our progressive new lifestyle ideals. A look at the transit-oriented development (TOD) along America’s West Coast is especially revealing of the trend.
Though much of the vertical and horizontal infrastructure along the West Coast is old (at least, in an American sense), it’s still younger than its Midwest and East Coast forebears and thus more politically and socially amenable to developmental growth. And this growth, especially in a post-recession context, is just as much a public endeavor as it is a private responsibility, as evidenced by the TOD work of West Coast-based Mack Urban, an investment, planning, development, and management firm focusing on sustainable urban-infill projects—from residential to mixed-use to adaptive-reuse to land-development.
Formerly known as Urban Partners, Mack Urban constructed California’s first LEED-certified building in 2001 and designed the first project constructed under Seattle’s LEED Gold for Homes program. The firm’s principals have been extensively involved in TOD in LA, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.
“When we look for a project, sites that have easy access to public transportation is one of the main boxes we check off,” says Jim Atkins, Mack Urban’s Pacific Northwest managing director. “Streetcars, for example, expand your neighborhoods. Parking ratios are far less today than they were previously because people are driving less. These kinds of projects work not only by having a TOD element but also by being in an active neighborhood.”
Atkins, a registered civil engineer and a veteran who served with the US Army Corps of Engineers, has been working on TOD since the late 1990s, focusing specifically on development in the Pacific Northwest, including Portland’s Pearl District, which was the impetus for the creation of the Portland streetcar system. Through involvement in this and other large-scale TOD projects—including the seeds of what would eventually be Mack Urban’s interest in Portland TOD projects—Atkins developed a well-informed background and a network of connections that bolstered Mack Urban’s TOD work, which kicked into high gear as the industry gathered steam in recent years.
In the early 2000s, Mack Urban (then still operating as Urban Partners) had already been working on TOD projects in Southern California: Del Mar Station in Pasadena as well as the Wilshire Vermont Station and University Gateway projects in Los Angeles, which connect to light rail and subway systems. Hoping to create more of these types of projects along the West Coast in gateway cities, Mack Urban CEO Paul Keller established an office in Seattle in 2004 and connected with Atkins in 2010. The connection afforded Mack Urban a strategic advantage in the upper coastal regions, and the relationship was solidified when the firm acquired local developer Harbor Properties. “I had a history in TOD, my partners at Mack Urban had been doing TOD projects, and Harbor, as an entity, was always developing projects that had transportation as a consideration, so we all came from the same background,” Atkins says.
Mack Urban’s choice to work with TOD and green construction is driven by the firm’s environmental ethos and two primary target audiences. “There is obviously the residents, who are renting or buying our homes, and the investment partners whom we work with,” Atkins says. “Sustainability is something that both of these groups are interested in and concerned about. It really goes hand-in-glove with what we’re developing, and the community appreciates the sustainable elements that go into the buildings.”
“In Portland and Seattle especially, the planning isn’t just one-dimensional. When you’re doing an individual building in one of these markets, it’s going to be connected. It all needs to work together.”
Pacific Northwest Managing Director
Urban-infill development, by its very nature, is sustainable development, and with it comes a significant amount of partnership. Growth of alternative transit options can’t be had without neighborhoods needing connection, and neighborhoods can’t easily organize for greater connection without viable transit options. Mack Urban works to form both private partnerships, including with ZipCar and similar car-sharing programs, and public partnerships. “When we need to have a project entitled, you’re going to the city and trying to work within the confines of whatever the global community plan is,” Atkins says. “In Portland and Seattle especially, the planning isn’t just one-dimensional. When you’re doing an individual building in one of these markets, it’s going to be connected. It all needs to work together.”
What ultimately allows TOD projects to work so well with existing transit options and urban infrastructure is the market itself. As attitudes about urban lifestyles continue to change, elevating the importance of connectivity and “live + work + play” communities, TOD will become more valuable. “It’s about thinking of the kind of lifestyle your customer wants to live and then being able to go develop in those neighborhoods,” Atkins says. “You’re selling a lifestyle opportunity.”
Upon its completion in September 2012, Greenhouse became the first market-rate housing development built in Seattle’s Columbia City community in more than 40 years. Named partly for its proximity to a new light-rail station in the district and partly for its designation as the first project constructed under Seattle’s LEED Gold for Homes program, the 120,592-square-foot residential development—with more than 7,000 square feet of rooftop gardens and private courtyards—brought new life to Columbia City without drastically altering the neighborhood’s vibrant commercial character.
Developed jointly by Mack Urban (formerly Harbor Urban) and CIGNA Realty Investors, Alto, standing at 17 stories and comprising 112,337 square feet, is Mack Urban’s tallest TOD project. Its position along 3rd Avenue puts it close to one of Seattle’s main connector streets, with immediate bus and streetcar access. It earned LEED-NC Silver certification for its transit options and its construction strategies, and it’s presently fully leased with a waiting list.