Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, April 29, 2011

For TOD to be successful, necessary antecedents are required, there's no magic wand

So while I thought the previously mentioned New Urban News articles about the state of the U.S. housing market are very good, I thought the discussion of the opportunity of transit oriented development was inadequate. Here is my response.

Just because a transit station exists doesn't necessarily make it a great candidate for "transit oriented development" from the standpoint of either sprawl reduction or compact development, except by comparison to what could have been done instead. It's the difference between relative and absolute change.

In DC and Arlington County especially, as well as in Montgomery County, stations have place capital (or the potential for it) because for the most part the stations have been integrated into/located in places where a block and grid street network exists or can be created.

But as importantly, the 5 lines of the WMATA subway system link many activity centers, and high quality neighborhoods. Even so, not every area served by a station is successful.

I argue that at the core of DC, the 29 stations over a 15 square mile area operate "monocentrically" for the city within the broader system, and most of the areas served by those stations have been improving, although it hasn't just been the investment in transit that's brought about changes, necessary zoning changes, having the right developers, and access to incentives have also been key. That being said, it has taken 35 years for transit oriented development to occur at the Rhode Island Station. That's a long time...

So the lessons are (reversed from the order above):

1. The biggest lesson I take comparing the transit system in DC and the transit lines in Baltimore is that you have to have a real transit _network_ in order for location near to transit to become more valuable than land located by roads only. You can't

2. The second lesson is the spatial pattern of the areas served by transit stations. It has to support compact development. All the smart growthers are touting transit stations in PG County and asking why hasn't there been development at those stations, and the New Urban News articles mention the New Carrollton project, but for the most part, none of these stations serve areas where there is "there there", there's no grid, and even if you build the stuff as "TOD" I think its more likely it will function like the BART station in Fruitvale, which is mostly a failure--because putting some retail and a bit of housing at a station mostly serving people who drive there doesn't do much to change either the mobility or the land use paradigm, and contributes very little to compact development. Actually, the development at Fruitvale created a new retail area competing with an extant commercial district.

Not covered above, but the third lesson is that train stations as part of a commuter railroad network (this differentiates train service in the DC region from the NY region, because their train service network functions 7 days a week, and not just during commuter rush periods) probably don't have the kind of TOD potential that smart growthers tout because these stations are outlying by definition, so that development at the stations is still likely to support polycentric growth patterns (sprawl), rather than the intensive, concentrated development within a region that I thought was the definition of smart growth.

4. The fourth lesson, subsumed within the mention of the Rhode Island DC station experience, is that it can take a long long time to being able to begin to realize the place capital value of transit adjacency. (And there are other factors besides. E.g., in DC, you needed a change in political leadership of the city in 1998-1999 before developers began reconsidering investing in the city. This coincided with an increase in demand for urban living.)

The NUN article mentions the street car lines in DC in terms of great opportunity for transit adjacency, because the addition of the planned lines will mean that 1/2 of the city's households will be within 1/2 mile of higher quality transit, but in terms of the ability to add rental-multiunit housing in particular to those corridors, DC isn't a good example, especially compared to places where streetcar lines have already been created such as Pearl District, Portland and South Lake Union, Seattle.

With the exception of some of the area served by the proposed lines in DC, there isn't build out capacity along the routes for the most part (the H St.-Benning Road line and the Anacostia line are exceptions) UNLESS the underlying zoning is changed, allowing for redevelopment of a block or two on either side of the line--just like what Arlington did in the Wilson Blvd. corridor.

HOWEVER, it means the rezoning of what is mostly single family housing, and I don't think residents will ever agree to the change. In any case, assembling blocks for redevelopment would be quite costly, e.g., in my area (upper Georgia Ave.) at current prices the cost would be $16 million to $22 million/block and likely more, because people will want a premium to sell and eminent domain would be too controversial, if you can get all of the homeowners to agree (32 to 72 houses/block depending on if they are single family detached or rowhouses).

With regard to Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, I think the biggest change as it relates to TOD (other than White Flint, not mentioned in the NUN article, and which, along with the redevelopment in Tysons Corner, I think is one of the most significant redevelopment projects in all of the U.S.) is the light rail line (Purple) that will be built, which will connect both legs of the red line with the northern spur of the green line, and the eastern spur of the orange line.

The Purple Line offers to PG County especially the ability to reshape its land use and transportation planning and development paradigm towards smart growth and transit oriented development, and the revaluation of extant areas newly served by higher quality transit, rather than basically greenfield or grayfield development at subway stations that are in shitty locations.

Note that transit stations in suboptimal locations is the biggest problem faced by Baltimore City and Baltimore County and the subway and light rail lines there.

Besides not having a transit network, the light rail line especially was the conversion of an industrial railroad line, so except for the line through the city, most of the suburban stations aren't adequately integrated into potentially urban fabric as for the most part they pass through industrial areas. Because the line isn't part of a robust network, there isn't demand driving conversion of some of these properties to residential or other mixed use. Where some change has occurred, such as at Lutherville, the new properties are only minimally successful.

The proposed Red Line streetcar/light rail there doesn't really change the paradigm much in terms of strengthening and repositioning the lines as a network. (I wrote a bunch about it when I worked for Baltimore County, but the points didn't go anywhere, because what I suggested required money and took vision--the major suggestion was linking the subway and light rail in Downtown Baltimore, and rerouting the light rail from Falls Road station to Lutherville via Towson, the #1 conurbation in Baltimore County.)

I could write more, but you get the picture.

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