InTransition Magazine
Article URL:
InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

Archive Edition

Archived editions: 

What Cities Can Do

Experts Say Thorough Planning and Zoning Efforts Leads to Best Projects

By Josh Stephens and Karl Vilacoba

Related Stories

Related Links

As lenders and developers come around to transit-oriented development (TOD), the last great hurdle may lie in planning. Just as light rail lines do not build themselves absent government intervention, neither do TODs come about without public support.

Cities are notoriously slow to update their general and local plans, and many TOD advocates fear that a rush to build TOD in advance of smart planning will amount to a monumental squandering of the opportunity that the new and upcoming wave of transit stations present. Developers insist, however, that a concerted effort on the part of cities will ensure that developers and capital remain focused on transit areas.

“Local governments are understanding that while they’re not going to be building the TODs, they have a facilitating role and an interest in having those TODs get built,” said Reconnecting America President Geoff Anderson.

Developers and planners have a long wish list of public interventions—some free, some costly—that create ideal conditions for TOD. They include improvements to the pedestrian realm, connections between transit stops and streetscape, inclusionary zoning or other incentives to create mixed-income residential areas.

“TOD is not just a building plopped down next to a transit stop,” said Michael Leccese, of ULI-Colorado. “It’s a nice, complete urban environment that has…density and public spaces and street trees. It’s a whole package.” 

Leccesse noted that many sites ripe for TOD are currently parking lots or even vacant lots. These places need significant improvements to the public realm, through landscaping, pedestrian paths, street lighting, parks, and other public amenities that would be found in mature neighborhoods. Without them, even high-quality developments might fail to attract tenants.

N.J. Transit Villages

Despite its reputation as one enormous suburb, the state of New Jersey is one jurisdiction that is aggressively pursuing TOD. The New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) has included 26 municipalities to date
as part of its Transit Village Initiative. The program provides guidance and technical assistance to communities that have demonstrated a commitment to revitalizing and redeveloping the area around their transit facilities into TODs.
“We’re the most densely populated state in the nation,” said Joe Dee, spokesperson for the NJDOT. “If we can encourage the use of public transportation, we’re benefitting everyone.”

Belmar, N.J. development

The Seacoast Commons project in Belmar, N.J.

Dee added that TOD does not necessarily come naturally in New Jersey, but planners can be persuaded with certain nudges, such as model zoning codes to turn vacant malls into residential TODs.

“Sometimes that’s not always the first impulse of a town,” said Dee. “But when we talk to them about that, when they learn about transit villages, we’re seeing many towns embracing this idea.”

Belmar, a Transit Village Initiative town located on the Jersey Shore, adopted a Seaport Redevelopment Plan in 2003 to guide the revitalization of its downtown and a marina next to its train station. The largest project to date, a mixed-use development one block from the station called Seacoast Commons, was completed this summer. The building replaced an abandoned car dealership lot that disrupted the continuity of the Main Street shopping district even when it was in business.

The project did face its share of setbacks due to the recession. A major national builder abandoned the project shortly after the housing crash, leaving behind an eyesore of a vacant lot. However, Barry DePeppe, a local developer who completed a similar but smaller project a block away, took control of the project and started building in 2011.

Three-quarters of the units were leased after a grand opening event held Labor Day weekend, he said. DePeppe’s sense was that the station’s proximity wasn’t the primary draw for tenants-—the town is too far south from New York City for many commuters’ taste—but it was a key selling point, along with the lure of living near the beach and in a neighborhood where many needs are within walking distance.

“There’s definitely a strong demand to be in Belmar and for downtown living,” he said. “Folks are intrigued when they can come home from work on a Thursday night and never see the car again all weekend.”

Plan Balanced Districts, Not Projects

Many transit friendly zoning and planning efforts are designed, in part, to lessen developers’ risk, which is considerable with large projects. Indeed, the myth of the rich, greedy developer does not always apply to infill development.

Often, amenities are expected to come in the form of shops, restaurants, and offices that are part of mixed-use developments. Megan Gibb, transit-oriented development program manager for Portland’s Metro, said that TOD should not, however, be synonymous with mixed-use if the market cannot actually support the commercial spaces that planners envision.

“We have over-zoned for mixed-use here in a lot of locations,” she said. “You raise the expectations of the property owners for their land values, and then they don’t sell and then nothing happens.” Gibb recommends that planners conduct a thorough market study before enshrining mixed-use into a development agreement or zoning code.

The other major change that many developers want to see is that of more flexible parking requirements. When vestigial parking minimums, such as one parking space per bedroom, are applied to TODs, they defeat the purpose for many developers. If developers have to supply parking even for residents who are going to rely on transit, then development costs go up, thus obviating the incentive to create TOD in the first place.

“You’re creating tremendous private value with those hundreds of millions of dollars in rail lines, and you’ve got to recapture some of that,” said Anderson. “You can do that in ways where you still end up with the private side gaining value and making money there.”

Meanwhile, developers need to advocate for themselves by becoming savvy about the public planning process. Aaron Golub of Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability suggested that developers of TOD need to hire planners who are well-versed in public outreach in order to convince both community stakeholders and public officials of the wisdom of a given project.

With so many new TOD sites coming on-line, some cities face now-or-never opportunities to optimize their TOD locations, lest they become permanently saddled with development that is neither attractive nor well integrated with transit.

Stefanos Polyzoides, who has designed award-winning TODs and co-founded the Congress for the New Urbanism, insists that cities resist the temptation to plan TODs project-by-project. He envisions TOD not as developments but as entire districts. Polyzoides recommends that city planners think about TOD in terms of “pedestrian sheds” of between 120 and 150 acres, fanning out from transit stops. Anything less, he says, undermines the whole point of TOD.

“If you do a project at a time and you don’t think of pedestrian, shed-based planning where you start plan-ning an entire place and understand what it is,” said Polyzoides, “then you have a danger of building very few bad buildings and getting people to misunderstand what TOD is and walking away from it.” 

Return to this Issue