The latest example proving the nexus between transportation and land use…

Crossrail Line 1. Source: David Arthur

…Comes to us from London, my brief one-time home. Courtesy of Crossrail, the major commuter rail project linking East and West London together more seamlessly with dramatic expected time savings. While Crossrail is not scheduled to open until 2018, the benefits that the Crossrail project is promising to deliver have already impacted the local real estate market.

Goldman’s employees would be able to reach Heathrow Airport from Farringdon in about 30 minutes on Crossrail, compared with more than an hour on the London Underground. Travel to east London’s Canary Wharf financial district will take 9 minutes, from about 25 minutes today. The City Thameslink system already takes passengers to Gatwick Airport to the south and Luton Airport north of the City.

“That’s what makes this the crossroads of central London,” Rees, the City’s top planner, said in an interview.

Crossrail will build 9 new stations in Central London, provide up to 24 trains per hour (1 train every two and a half minutes!) carrying 1,500 riders each. It will increase the rail network capacity while simultaneously reducing travel times by up to 50%. Transit-oriented development is already taking place, capitalizing on new areas of Central London becoming more accessible. More than 3 million square feet of residential and retail development are anticipated to take place, just over the stations sites.

This is the benefit that transportation infrastructure can bear on a place. It is smart development – taking advantage of the high-capacity, incredibly expensive infrastructure by also providing high density land uses to leverage that infrastructure investment.

See video.

 

Transit Mode and Development Opportunities

I have not mentioned this before, but my favorite planning book  in the last year has to be Human Transit. Authored by Jarrett Walker, the book is based on much of what he has been saying on his blog by the same name. Reading his interview with the Urban Land Institute on how developers need to think like transit planners has resonated with me in my own practice.

A significant aspect of my job involves transit-oriented development. My role is to represent my agency as the planning stakeholder. TOD has been the rage in many suburbs in Chicago, particularly the ones with commuter rail. I have a good feeling when I go into a town for a TOD plan which one will succeed and which one will fail. As Walker states:

Even if your development is at a rail station, the bus system is almost always a key part of how a transit-oriented, low-car style actually becomes viable. That’s why it’s important for developers to think about what makes transit useful, which is often very different from what makes it superficially appealing. Only the useful is an enduring value.

I see too many towns that believe that by building development near their train stations that they can breed success. Of course, many of these places do not have bus service of any meaningful kind to provide a modal connection between the commuter rail and the rest of the surrounding area, nor are they willing to drop the parking minimums in the TOD area. Thus, it’s not really transit-oriented but rather transit-adjacent development that is planned. And by not taking into account frequency of service and multimodal connections between bus and rail, many TODs are simply not viable and are instead designed to support the car rather than stand independent of it.

 

 

Cars vs. Transit

I’ve been mulling over Josh Barro’s contention that cars should not be blamed for the failures of mass transit and his conclusion that planning and zoning is to blame. His basic contention is thus:

…the real culprit keeping Americans away from mass transit and inside cars isn’t subsidies; it’s planning and zoning. Cities impose barriers to density that limit the number of housing units and offices that can be located near buses and trains, which reduces mass-transit usage. These barriers also drive up property prices in areas near mass transit, penalizing transit-oriented living and encouraging people to live farther from urban cores, in areas where they have to drive. Meanwhile, cities often require builders to include a minimum number of parking spaces in new developments, depressing the market price of parking and further rewarding drivers.

A better approach would take advantage of the fact that proximity to transit increases property values. Cities should allow dense development, collect the property taxes that are generated, and use them to finance transit. Increased development also means more transit users and more fare revenues. But locals tend to oppose greater housing density; they also often demand parking minimums, since they don’t want to face too much competition for free on-street parking. An ironic result is that the very urban liberals who like to complain about suburban sprawl can end up encouraging it.

I concur with the larger argument about minimum parking requirements and value capture but I believe the argument falls short. While, I see how decisions made in land use policy at the local level distort the market equilibrium of supply and demand when it comes to parking, it is not as simple as to just blame the planner and the zoning code. The fact is, sprawl is baked into the cake of modern urban (and suburban) development. This makes the failure (or at least, under utilization) of mass transit easier and more likely. Here’s why:

Housing

Suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve been basically building one type of housing for the past 60 years: single family homes with attached garages, driveways and subdivisions modeled on the Plan for Riverside. When we’re not building single family homes, we’re building townhouses and apartment complexes with a similar auto-centric design. The fact is, despite the population growth in cities over the past 10 years and outside of new urbanism and rebuilding in existing neighborhoods, we have not really built any new greenfield communities that resembles any pre-depression urban form.

Finance

Even if we were to start building communities in greenfield locations with high densities that could support transit, like residential development that was built-in the streetcar era, we still likely could not build these communities without adding significant amounts of parking or by limiting density. This is in large part because of the financial institutions that provide funding for these developments do not properly know how to value these assets. Banks like to finance products in which they know and know well. The suburban form of development is one that banks have been financing for 60 years.

Other Government Agencies

November the 15th Street - also known as Flowe...

This kind of development is illegal under most zoning codes throughout the U.S. However, there are a variety of other factors at play. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s say that we can get the financing to build an urban development along new urbanism guidelines, for example. Let’s say we’ve got the zoning in place and the transit worked out. We still might not be able to build the dense, transit-oriented community we want due to the policies of other government agencies. For example, fire departments have been opposed to new urbanism developments due to the narrow streets within these developments. It turns out that the fire trucks have become too big to fit down these streets or the perception is such that it would be too much of an obstacle to navigate.

It may come as a surprise that transit agencies might also be unfriendly to transit-oriented development, particularly if the predominant mode of access to their stations is via car. The transit agency would want to make sure its commuter parking is located as close to the station as possible. This is a common tension when building transit-oriented development.

Commerce

Strip center in the 1900 block of N Clybourn Ave

Development like this, in the transit rich, dense, urban neighborhood of Lincoln Park in Chicago. Even in dense cities, retailers insist on providing enough parking to “access” their stores. (Photo credit: YoChicago via flickr)

Retailers, particularly of the big box and other large format varieties, often won’t build in town without sufficient parking. When I was in grad school, the adjunct professor for my land use planning course told us that when Chicago was first redeveloping the North/Clybourn corridor from industrial uses to retail, the city wanted far less parking than is currently there. However, the developers balked, insisting that they needed the parking so that customers could access their stores. Of course, there was already 3 bus lines and the CTA Red Line station right there.

As a transportation planner, I appreciate that Barro is trying to explain the nexus between transportation and land use. Land uses drive transportation decisions of whether to take mass transit or cars. But so do a lot of factors beyond just the zoning code and minimum parking requirements.

Transport Nexus in the Polish Triangle

Looking southwest from the Polish Triangle

Of great interest to this site is the connection, or nexus, between transportation and land use.  One prominent example of this failure of this nexus is at the southwest corner of Ashland Ave., Division St. and Milwaukee Ave., historically known as the Polish Triangle. Now part of the East (Ukrainian) Village neighborhood, this site is commonly known as the “Pizza Hut” site.

Needless to say, it is an abomination that this site was designed (allowed) in such a way as to maximize the use of the automobile when you have the following conditions present:

  • Access to the CTA Blue Line at Division St.
  • The #70 Division bus (running east-west) stop literally next to the property
  • The #56 Milwaukee bus (running NW-SE) and #8 Halsted bus (running north-south) stops across the street.
  • Designated, striped bike lanes on Division St. and Milwaukee Avenue.
  • Rare pedestrian space in the plaza like setting of the Polish Triangle.
Thankfully, this egregious market failure will be rectified.
It seems that after years of waiting, East Village residents will get what they have always wanted: 
In early 2007, immediately after the Pizza Hut was shuttered, a coalition of community organizations lead by the East Village Association set forth four policies for redevelopment of the property. They called for a significant building that was mixed-use, high density and transit oriented.

 

This is, of course, despite the fact that the site faced significant development pressure for a Walgreens and various drive-thru bank facilities. Instead, the community got this:

11 story mixed use building.

The building is an 11-story mixed use facility with ground level retail, second floor office and  apartments above. Reportedly, a coffee shop and bank are among the tenants thus far. 117 apartment units are provided with 35 parking spaces provided, 15 on site. One concession: a drive-thru for the bank using an existing curb cut. Interestingly enough, the 20 off-site parking spaces are in a parking lot adjacent to the property, home to an auto-oriented Wendy’s. The parking will not be available to residents, only for visitors, customers, and car sharing. This seems right.

What I find most interesting is that the developers acknowledge that the apartments are primarily for people who do not own cars. It is a tacit admission that not everyone needs a car, that the site will take advantage of its nexus to so many other transportation options that a car can be just one option among many, rather than catered to and coddled into the site. When you have this many transportation options and an urban environment designed for pedestrians, this concept had to fit within and respect those parameters.  Kudos to the East Village community and developers Rob Buono and Paul Utigard. If more people thought like this we would have more Strong Towns. 

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The Third Rail of Planning Politics

Nothing fires up a local Village Board like eminent domain.

Eminent Domain Gate And Wall

Eminent Domain Gate And Wall (Photo credit: Steve Soblick)

One of my duties as a transportation planner for Metra is to participate in transit-oriented development studies in communities that apply for the grants to fund these studies through the RTA. Tonight we presented a TOD plan in front of the Village Board of a wealthy suburb for discussion. We hoped this discussion would lead to a recommendation for the Board to adopt the study. Alas, we were wrong.

It seems that the third rail of local politics was mentioned, not in the plan, but in discussions of possible tools that the Village could use to implement their plan, should it be adopted. It was noted and explored in the steering committee driving the plan that one possible tool was the use of eminent domain. Eminent domain refers to the action of the state in expropriating property or the rights thereof from a private citizen with monetary compensation but without consent of the owner. This property is taken for public use and in some cases, economic development, as granted by right in Kelo v. City of New London (2005). Because of the Kelo decision and general anti-government sentiment there has been a backlash against government taking private property in general and specifically for use in economic development across the country. This is no different in the Chicago region.

The problem with eminent domain in the planning context is that it politicizes the planning process with issues that have little to do with the actual plan. I have never seen a plan that has actually recommended using eminent domain as an implementation tool in a plan because the political, legal and procedural hurdles are usually so great that it is not worth pursuing. The vast, vast majority of plans are not trying to develop 3,1oo jobs and $1.2m in annual revenues like the New London, CT was. Because of this politicization (“take your government hands off my property!”), the Village Board was unable to weigh the merits of what was actually in the plan.

A good plan is a set of guidelines for decision makers to use in implementing a vision for their community. It is a tool.  It says, if we build a parking structure, how much would it cost the government? It identifies how a Village could update their zoning code to fit with today’s market realities. It identifies short range and long range opportunities for implementation. A good plan does NOT tell developers what to build. A good plan does NOT advocate eminent domain. A good plan does NOT ignore property owners which are impacted by the plan.