Thursday, November 4, 2010

When Transit Oriented Development Disappoints

Rail~Volution 2010 was great. I'm very thankful to have been able to go to Portland this year. We expect great transit in large cities like Boston (which hosted Rail~Volution last year), but it's more refreshing to see a mid-size metro area that has invested in transit for that last 25 years.

There are so many great lessons to be learned when a thousand transit-oriented development folks gather in one place. What I'd like to focus on is when TOD doesn't work, or when it looks different from what we might expect or prefer.

The highlights of the week for me were the two field trips to TOD sites. The first was east to Gresham, the second west to Beaverton and Hillsboro.

East Side

In 1986, Gresham was a working-class town that became the eastern terminus of Portland's first light rail service, the Blue Line. It's still a working-class town with very little "gentrification" evident. Transit-oriented development appears confined to a few new buildings near stations, and a shopping center.

The TOD does follow the new urbanist principles of mixed use, residential over commercial. In the shopping center, the parking will eventually be located underground or beneath commercial-residential buildings. Otherwise, there's little to distinguish it from other recent developments. Well, perhaps the fact that it's recent development is a distinguishing feature in itself, since very little development has taken place recently.

Most of the eastern Blue Line runs in the middle of a wide boulevard. It wasn't a boulevard until the light rail was built, though - and lots of engineering work had to be done to mitigate the widening and leveling of the original two-lane roadway. The cost of building the line included re-doing hundreds of driveways, lawns, fences, and retaining walls. And though the neighborhoods don't look well-to-do, they certainly don't look run-down or impoverished except in one or two old warehouse districts where the loft/office refurbishing trend hasn't quite taken off.

A couple of things were disappointing. One was the new county office building whose front is turned away from the Gresham Central Transit Center, as if to ignore its presence. Another is the new station at Civic Drive being built within 30 yards of a new mixed-use development, with no architectural connection to it. In many parts of the world, developers and mall owners are eager to attach their space as closely as possible to rail stations. In most Japanese cities and towns, the railway station is the central shopping center, crowded not only with travelers and commuters, but with shoppers. There seems no physical reason why electric rail vehicles can't run through the middle of a shopping center here in the US, too. Federal transit legislation for years has encouraged public-private partnership in the construction of transit stations. So why aren't we doing it? In this case, the answer was, "Hmmm, well, we had this Federal grant to built the station, so we just did it." It has a (very nice) outdoor platform covered with a (very nice) glass roof, but is basically an outdoor space. What a shame the concept of integrating transportation and shopping just isn't part of most planners' thinking here in the US.

So on Portland's east side, light rail appears to provide a foundation to keep property values steady without overly inflating them. TOD has been modestly successful, and there is likely to be more as the economy recovers.

West Side

Beaverton and Hillsboro are in the opposite direction from Gresham on the Blue Line, both geographically and socially. Where Gresham is mainly working class, the west side is predominantly middle class and high-tech. In fact, Beaverton and Hillsboro were small towns up through the 1960s. Change came in the late 1960s when the Sunset Highway became a freeway, built to speed access to downtown Portland across the Tualatin Mountains from the west. Light rail didn't arrive until 1998, because it required a 3.1-mile tunnel bored through the mountains. But both towns have been sites of high-tech industry since the 1960s, starting with instrument-maker Tectronix in Beaverton, followed by Intel, which now operates four large campuses for research, development, and chip fabrication in the Hillsboro area. If there is a place where TOD should work, this is it.

Has it? Yes, and no.

The Beaverton Round is such an exciting project, and such a disappointing failure. Conceived by visionary developers Selwyn Bingham and Sylvia Cleaver, it was to include condos, shopping, and office space built, literally, around the light rail station and a park. What could have gone wrong?

For one thing, construction problems. The site is apparently over a disused sewage treatment plant, with all the remediation and uncertainty such a place can bring. Then there was use of shoddy materials and construction techniques, resulting in multiple law suits and requiring expensive replacement of windows and facing. (The sad details are here if you really want to know.) Continually plagued with financing problems, only part of the planned development has been built, and even less occupied.

Orenco Station's development fared much better. Longer in the planning, it involved more community input and balanced practicality with idealism. No compromise was made in new urbanist principles. The big disappointment to me is the location of the town's center: at a busy intersection, not at the rail station. In fact, it's a good quarter mile through (currently) empty space from station to center. Traffic in the center is heavy, and our group was warned that when the walk-light came on, we must hurry across the road because it was a short light. I hate to see a town center where pedestrians are chivvied and it's too noisy to hold a conversation. But as the developer pointed out, they couldn't have made it work without the traffic passing by to lure customers to the town's businesses.

And centering the town on the highway has worked financially. Businesses have leased most of the available space, and residents have bought most of the available housing. Once away from the highway, the open spaces and built environment are very inviting and peaceful.

This is a well-studied project, and one finding from the developer's study was what most attracted people to this TOD. No, it wasn't the transit (shucks!). Transit was seen as a good amenity, but what really drew people was the architecture and design.

Pac Trust, the developer, went in with little if any experience building residential communities - they had specialized in commercial and industrial. Not knowing what buyers would prefer, they had a number of styles illustrated by photos and drawings, and showed them to people. What folks kept saying "Wow" about was a design based on Boston's classic townhouses, so that's what they built for the town center. Free-standing houses are built in an English cottage style, with lots of quaint detailing. And it sold beautifully (though of course it doesn't hurt to be surrounded by large Intel facilities). What about shopping? Yes, there is a Starbucks on the main corner ;-) and one of the best Indian restaurants in the Portland area (Intel influence again). More important, they attracted New Seasons, Oregon's biggest regional natural foods grocery chain, to anchor the shopping district, along with a number of small, trendy shops. There's still a lot of undeveloped land in the TOD, but what there is has been developed very densely: 9.9 houses per acre, and far more units per acre in the townhouse and rental spaces. Washington County had no zoning that would allow that much density, so planned unit development standards were crafted and implemented for the new urbanist model.

The article cited has lots of discussion on whether there's decreased auto use due to proximity of work and shopping options, and that's clearly a win-win for any development. There has also been support in Todd Litman's blog of the notion that the biggest advantage of TOD is that people walk more. Looks like this is a case in point.

So what to take away? First and foremost, TOD has to be done well, and the financing has to be as solid as any other type of development - even if financing TOD has to be creative. But also, we may have to sacrifice some of our ideals to make it work, at least while the automobile is still in the ascendant. We can't expect TOD to create instant transit riders out of everyone, but if we can get them to walk and ride their bikes for the short trips, we've really done our job.

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