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.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

The ability to develop around transit stations is conditional on land use and mobility context

Photo from AA Roads.

The Greater Washington Partnership released a report on how a bunch of transit stations in Maryland ought to be more developed, which the Washington Post wrote about, "Study: Development around Prince George’s, Anne Arundel rail stations needs a boost."  From the article:

The study focused on the following rail stations in Anne Arundel: Odenton, Glen Burnie and Laurel Race Track. In Prince George’s, it centered on New Carrollton, Greenbelt, Morgan Boulevard and Southern Avenue.

The PG County stations are Metrorail stations, although both New Carrollton and Greenbelt also have commuter railroad service--New Carrollton also has Amtrak service, and the Penn Line operates every day.  Seemingly, Southern Avenue is ripe for development, as it is on the DC Line, but the area is not highly urbanized. Morgan Boulevard is an end of the line station.

Glen Burnie is the end of the line station for the Baltimore Light Rail system and some residents see the station as an attractor for crime("Addicts, crooks, thieves’: the campaign to kill Baltimore's light rail," Guardian) .  

Odenton is on the high frequency MARC Penn Line and Laurel Race Track is on the low frequency MARC Camden Line, which doesn't offer weekend service.

I have a great piece about how the New Carrollton area can be revitalized through repatterning around transit service.  New Carrolton will also be the end point for the forthcoming Purple Line light rail.

-- "Setting the stage for the Purple Line light rail line to be an overwhelming success: Part 4 | Making over New Carrollton as a transit-centric urban center and Prince George's County's "New Downtown"," 2014/2017

Transit oriented development.  This desire is nothing new.  It was a priority for Maryland's Democratic governors, who advocated for a Smart Growth agenda--that is, focusing development on existing places rather than sprawl.  Transit oriented development (TOD) is a land use and transportation  planning approach that intensifies development around transit stations.

It's not particularly pathbreaking in that's how development occurred historically, around train stations and later around streetcar lines ("streetcar suburbs") and subway and other heavy rail lines.

I wrote about this a fair amount in terms of Maryland, because I believe that they didn't really understand that just because there is a railroad or transit station station doesn't mean that it possesses great potential for "more urban" development.   

-- "For TOD to be successful, necessary antecedents are required, there's no magic wand," 2011
-- "What matters isn't "transit oriented development": what really matters is compact development and integrating transportation and land use," 2011
-- "What the State of Maryland still doesn't get about smart growth," 2011
-- "Bad Montgomery County policy/law initiative #1: removing density bonuses for building around MARC train stations," 2012
-- "Planning for intensity of land use: the question is at what scale are we planning?," 2012
-- "Prince George's County still doesn't get "transit oriented development" and walkable communities: Greenbelt edition," 2012
-- "Department of Duh: Apartments not always successful next to transit stations," 2018

General planning documents

-- Trans-Formation: Recreating Transit-Oriented Neighborhood Centers in Washington, DC | A Design Handbook for Neighborhood Residents, DC Office of Planning, 2002
-- Ten Principles for Successful Development Around Transit, Urban Land Institute, 2003
-- Station Area Planning: How To Make Great Transit-Oriented Places, Reconnecting America and Center for Transit-Oriented Development
-- Rails to Real Estate: Development Patterns along Three New Transit Lines, CTOD

WRT Metrorail, the heavy rail (subway) line serving Metropolitan Washington, once the service started in 1976, it took 10-20 years (1986-1996) to see substantive improvement in core served areas, in particular Downtown DC and Arlington County's Wilson Boulevard Corridor, mostly centered around commercial office development, although in Arlington, also high density multiunit residential.  

In DC, it took at least another 10 years after that (2006) to see the benefit of Metrorail access on community revitalization outside of the core.

Today, in the core of the city with 31 stations (out of 42 total) virtually all of the areas are economically healthy, when in 1976, most decidedly were not.

Categorizing transit stations in terms of access (and indirectly, the opportunity for development.  Perhaps the best way to think about the opportunity for "transit oriented development" is to consider  how WMATA categorizes its Metrorail stations, as laid out in the Bicycle and Pedestrian Access Improvements Study (2010), in Appendix D.  There are nine categories, based on land use context, from dense/connected/compact to undense/disconnected.

  • High Density Urban Mixed-Use in a Grid Network (21 stations)
  • Urban/Suburban Residential Center -- (12 stations) [opportunity for multiunit buildings close to the station, even if the area is otherwise single family residential)
  • Urban Residential Area with a Bus/Automobile Orientation (5 stations)
  • Campus and Institutional (3 stations)
  • Mixed use in a "pod" layout (13 stations) [isolated, disconnected locations]
  • Long-Term Potential for High Density Transit Oriented Development (TOD) or Planned Unit Development (PUD) (4 stations)
  • Suburban Residential Area (9 stations)
  • Auto Collector/Suburban Freeway -- (5 stations) 
  • Employment Center/Downtown/Urban Core -- (12 stations)
Using this typology, the seven stations identified by GWP all have serious problems in terms of sparking development, all are pretty much in undense, automobile centric locations, most are pretty distant from Baltimore or DC.   
This illustration from The House Book by Keith DuQuette shows the "transect" of land use context from less dense and more spread out (rural and suburban) to highly concentrated (urban).

One station not included in the list, the West Hyattsville Station in PG County has had a station area TOD plan for 22 years!!!!!!!!! and the area is just now starting to see development.  

Seemingly it's a good location, about 1.3 miles from the DC/Maryland line, and four miles from the Fort Totten Station, with plenty of land able to be redeveloped and a nearby neighborhood commercial district, and access to trails and parks.  

But until better locations (greater demand, greater economic return) are developed first, the site will continue to lie fallow.

In the Metrorail access study, the difference between the stations is whether or not they are (1) in dense places, either urban or suburban; (2) with an urban form/urban design that prioritizes sustainable mobility (walking, biking, transit); (3) versus a built form that is de-concentrated and automobile-centric; (4) located closer in or farther out in the context of the transit system and the core of a metropolitan area; and (5) end of the line stations.

Stations that are located in deconcentrated places and are car dependent don't particularly lend themselves to compact development.  At best they are pods.  If they do attract residents and tenants, the residents still need a car for most trips and it is difficult for the project to spark further development.

There are many examples of failures to fully leverage transit as a development augur, in places that have better conditions for TOD.  

In DC, the Rhode Island Metrorail station was originally an endpoint station, so commuters drove to the station and parked there.  The area was industrial and when the station was created, the city did not in turn re-plan the area for an urban form more typical of the core of the city.  As a result the station hasn't fully realized its opportunity to reshape the landscape.

It is starting to happen.  The parking lot at the station was redeveloped as apartments (not particularly well, but it did occur), and a nearby shopping center is being redeveloped as a mixed use residential and commercial development.   But this is over a 35-55 year time frame from when the station first opened.  Clearly, a more active station area planning process would have significantly improved the velocity of change.

And the city developed the "Home Depot" shopping center across from the station without replatting the land, thereby failing to fully reap the opportunities presented, and develop it in a more urban and mixed use fashion.

Similarly, most of the developments around Fort Totten Station, also in DC, in an area that was and is comparatively suburban, have failed to take the opportunity to re-plan the area around the station in a more dense, more urban way.

There are plenty of books, studies, journal articles, plans, etc. about TOD.  

What surprised me about advocacy around the Purple Line in 2014, was that it seemed like they were more interested in getting lessons from other light rail systems--because it was the same mode--rather than figuring out very carefully the lessons the Baltimore-Washington area already has to offer, both in terms of creating successful transit networks and the economic development opportunities proximate to transit and how to realize them.

I wrote this piece when I worked for Baltimore County.  I wasn't involved in the master planning process, but I wrote this memo for them, at their request.  (Because it was the Baltimore County Master Plan, I didn't discuss extending the light rail to Columbia in Howard County, another essential step to making the light rail a lot more useful.)

I suggested that they organize the transportation element of the master plan around six principles.  By contrast the county's transportation planner had a pretty convoluted section about fostering TOD through the County Executive's Office. 
  1. Optimal mobility. 
  2. Linking land use and transportation planning. 
  3. Complete streets and facilities.
  4. Transportation Demand Management.
  5. Transit Value Capture/Funding Mechanisms.
  6. Phasing the construction of new infrastructure.
Later in the process I developed my "Signature Streets" concept, but the big point was that to be useful and to make it economically viable to build more densely around transit, the transit system needed to be bigger and better.  It needed to be a network, not a couple of lines, and it needed to serve destinations that are in demand.

Note that Baltimore County is a great example in how transit stations don't automatically create complementary development.  They have three MARC stations on two lines, 11 light rail stations, and three subway stations.  None of the stations is a noteworthy example of TOD.  In fact, the Owings Mills station and adjacent development there is a great example of the difficulty in creating successful TOD at end of the line stations.

Most all of the stations--train, subway and light rail--are located in very undense places or don't directly serve town and employment centers.

Back then I was pretty derisive of what the county had been doing.  But at that time, I didn't really understand how difficult the job of the county's sole transportation planner was, in the context of a county that prioritized the automobile and derided public transit as a service for poor people.  One of the County Executive's top transportation priorities was buying cars for poor people.

WRT what I laid out for Baltimore County, the seven stations listed in the GWP study have similar kinds of issues that hinder the ability to push development forward around those stations.  And like the examples of Rhode Island and Fort Totten Stations in DC, they need to do better physical planning in order to reap the opportunities that could exist.

Note also that creating a regional (Baltimore and Washington) transit system that integrates modes and expands access to service throughout DC and Maryland in this case, but also Virginia with connections to Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia, makes development at these stations more possible.

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At 12:05 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

FWIW, the WMATA typology, while complete for their footprint, is incomplete as an overarching typology:

- High Density Urban Mixed-Use in a Grid Network (21 stations)
- Urban/Suburban Residential Center -- (12 stations) [opportunity for multiunit buildings close to the station, even if the area is otherwise single family residential)
- Urban Residential Area with a Bus/Automobile Orientation (5 stations)
- Campus and Institutional (3 stations)
- Mixed use in a "pod" layout (13 stations) [isolated, disconnected locations]
- Long-Term Potential for High Density - Transit Oriented Development (TOD) or Planned Unit Development (PUD) (4 stations)
- Suburban Residential Area (9 stations)
- Auto Collector/Suburban Freeway -- (5 stations)
- Employment Center/Downtown/Urban Core -- (12 stations)

We'd have to add:

- Smaller Town Center (Suburban/Exurban)
- Exurban Residential


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