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Well-intentioned or Phony … Plans for Developing Transit Oriented Communities Need Some Sorting Out

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PLATKIN ON PLANNING-What are TODs …TADs ... and TOCs? New city planning acronyms appear even faster than the inflated claims of real estate speculators that if zoning and environmental laws were only lifted, they could solve serious socio-economic problems, like housing affordability. 

One of their favorite proposals to do this is Transit Oriented Development, usually called TOD. TOD is typically based on the upzoning of private parcels near transit stations, and in some cases even bus stops or transit corridors. 

Its underlying rationale is that upzoning and related incentives encourage private investors to build new apartment houses in neighborhoods served by transit. Then, once built, the buildings’ new tenants will abandon their cars to take public transit. Since these newcomers will drive less, Transit Oriented Developments also feature reduced on-site parking requirements, another sweetener to help likely investors boost returns. 

But, to critics of Transit Oriented Development, especially in LA, it is just a profit-driven end run around zoning and environmental requirements. These critics argue that proximity to transit is not sufficient to change the transportation habits of most new residents. While the critics concede that eliminating zoning and environmental laws can attract real estate investment to sites near subways and bus stops, the resulting projects are, nevertheless, not transit oriented. 

The rent structures for these new projects are so high -- for example $2000 for a one-bedroom apartment in the Miracle Mile -- that nearly all existing transit riders are priced out of the new apartments. The poor, elderly, handicapped, and young – those who make up the bulk of transit dependent passengers in Los Angeles -- cannot afford to rent apartments in what the critics say are really Transit Adjacent Development (TAD).  Instead, the new tenants will be financially well off, and, therefore, the least likely group to switch from cars to buses and rail. 

This, then, ushers in a qualitatively different acronym, Transit Oriented Communities (TOCs). In the words of METRO, LA’s regional transit agency: 

Metro’s vision goes beyond TOD to focus on the creation of “transit oriented communities” (TOC). TOCs represent an approach to development focused on compact, walkable places in a community context (rather than focusing on a single development parcel), integrated with transit. 

Of course the devil is in the details of implementation, and METRO’s TOC program does not yet match its inspiring vision since it maintains the very same TOD real estate orientation it is purported to replace: 

Joint Development Program:  Metro’s Joint Development Program makes Metro-owned properties at or near Metro’s bus and rail stations available for development. 

TOD Planning Grant Program: Metro’s TOD Planning Grant program provides funding to municipalities seeking to adopt land use plans that remove barriers to TOD.   

TOD Toolkit: As part of this work, Metro is developing a TOD Toolkit, to provide municipalities with the best practices and policies for sustainable and transit-supportive land uses across a variety of neighborhood typologies. 

Missing, unfortunately, is funding to construct METRO’s Transit Oriented Communities. To be done correctly, as explained in METRO’s well-intentioned statement, TOC grants should fund improved sidewalks, tree canopies, pedestrian safety, better street lighting, bicycle infrastructure, and upgraded public services, such as parks and schools. 

Furthermore, transit stations need fine-grained planning linking the station areas to the surrounding neighborhood. This would allow pedestrians, bus passengers, and automobile drivers and passengers to easily access mass transit through Park ’n Ride and Kiss ‘n Ride facilities. 

Without this type of planning and without funding for essential local amenities, Transit Oriented Communities will remain a lofty planning approach paired with disconnected grants to establish local zoning incentives to attract real estate investors. 

A possible breakthrough, however, might be found through the City of Los Angeles’ Transit Neighborhood Plans.  These station area plans consist of a Specific Plan linked to a Streetscape Plan. While the concept is impressive, the execution is not much better than METRO’s Transit Oriented Communities. This is because the Specific Plans regulate land use, and the Streetscape Plans are non-enforceable guidelines for public improvements designed, built, or approved by City departments with authority over the public right-of-way. 

The Specific Plans do, however, offer real estate developers incentives in exchange for specific off-site public improvements, so time will tell if the local amenities required for these plans to succeed will be funded and built. 

What is so far missing from both METRO’s Transit Oriented Communities and the City’s Transit Neighborhood Plans is a reliable funding mechanism for public improvements. New Yorkers, after all, don’t simply have a different attitude; they have a totally different built environment. In their case, high density residential is paired with a dense transit system, wide sidewalks, tree canopies, and an exciting mix of restaurants, retail, and services within walking distance of each station area. Furthermore, public amenities, such as parks, schools, and libraries are also located close by. (Photo: Metro stop at Vermont and Wilshsire.) 

Once METRO and the City of Los Angeles commit to funding comparable improvements in Los Angeles, their grand visions for transit oriented communities and transit neighborhood plans can become reality. Until then, though, we have three litmus tests to determine if their proposals are likely to work or are just giveaways to developers. 

1) Do the advocates of up-zoning to incentivize apartment house construction also propose a proportionate increase in funds for public services and public infrastructure to serve new residents? 

2) Do the new zones include requirements for substantial inclusionary housing and related mechanisms to produce affordable housing? 

3) Must the owners of new apartments constructed near bus stops and rail stations monitor their tenants’ transportation patterns? If the tenants continue to drive cars, are there serious repercussions for the investors and owners? 

Until such time that Los Angeles has genuine Transit Oriented Communities and Transit Neighborhood Plans, these simple tests allow us to sort out well-intentioned proposals from the not-so-obviously phony ones.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who writes on planning issues for CityWatch. He serves on the Board of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association. He welcomes questions and comments at [email protected].)

 

-cw

  

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 72

Pub: Sep 4, 2015

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