This is part two of a two-part series on the importance of “transit oriented development” in building economically vibrant places for people. Part 1 is here.
Despite ongoing problems, the D.C. region is often getting it right — or at least better than much of the United States — when it comes to transit-oriented development (TOD).
Long-term success stories range in origin from Arlington, Virginia to Silver Spring, Maryland. The recent Transit-oriented Development Forum: Catalyzing Development at Metropolitan Washington’s Metro Stations featured experts detailing numerous places that are following up on past success stories, striving to learn the lessons and bring the benefits of TOD to their communities.
One key is the importance of balancing best practices with the characteristics of specific places. It is crucial to customize each site. David Levy, Rockville, Md.’s long-range planning and redevelopment chief, discussed this in more depth in a panel on best practices and policies.
“There are many different tools,” Levy told me afterwards, “but each of these TOD sites has its own reality.” Rockville Metro Station, for instance, is in a relatively dense, semi-urban area (although with a patchwork of land uses around it). By contrast, Twinbrook Station, one stop to the south, is largely a “big, open parking lot,” exclaimed Levy, which does, however, allow flexibility in redevelopment. Across the region, land around some stations is owned by the Metro authority, around others by government, and around still others by private companies and individuals. Each has its own history and character and “is customized, not only to the land situation but to regulation and markets,” Levy said.
Innovative projects are ongoing across the D.C. region. Across the Potomac from Rockville, four Metro stations have recently opened in Tysons, Virginia — previously a car-packed version of hell, at least from the perspective of a TOD advocate. These new stations, though, just provide the basis for TOD, explained Donna Shafer, managing director at Cityline Partners, and the area is in the midst of reinventing itself – for instance, putting in a street grid that provides multiple routes for vehicles. To provide a good pedestrian experience, a prime new walkable area will be Scotts Run. The results will incorporate an urban landscape nestling alongside a new park, Arbor Row Stream Valley Park, complete with greenery and flowing water. Tysons went so far as to dig up an urban stream previously hidden beneath layers of concrete, comparable to D.C.’s famous Rock Creek Park.
In D.C. itself, one dynamic success story is the Columbia Heights renovation, which built dense businesses around Metro while maintaining the area’s traditional rowhouse character. Anchor tenants include Best Buy, Target, Giant, and the redeveloped Tivoli Theater, explained Nina Albert, WMATA’s real estate and parking director. Wrapping and masking the parking garage allows the area to maintain its walkability and historic feel.
The next wave of TOD should be coming to Prince George’s County in Maryland, said Derick Berlage, the countywide planning chief. “If I’m not mistaken, it will be a very big wave,” he added. The county has 15 Metro stations, many of them underutilized, leaving tremendous room for growth. And best practices keep getting better, enhancing the capacity for success. As older TOD efforts come to seem less edgy, new ones incorporate innovative design features and lessons learned. Prince George’s County is even in the midst of rewriting its zoning code specifically for TOD, so future economic and livability prospects look bright.
Back to the bus
Along with the development part of TOD, planners cannot forget the “T” part – transit. More must be done to improve Metrorail’s problematic service or the entire system will be crippled. Yet, we are living in financially constrained times, and building new Metrorail – like building new roads – is expensive and difficult. Part of the answer is applying creative techniques, and incorporating new technology, to the modest old bus.
“The next 20 years of transit planning in this region will be about the bus,” said Shyam Kannan, WMATA managing director of planning. It is “really the only movable chess piece in play.”Building new subway systems is simply too expensive. Kannan pointed to a bus transfer station tucked discretely beneath a Los Angeles intersection as the kind of creative improvisation that others should emulate. He was discussing standard city buses, but opportunities for improvements such as signal priority, accessible stations, low-floor buses for the handicapped, and exclusive lanes, all the way up to full “bus rapid transit,” provide a multitude of possibilities. Better buses, combined with thoughtful planning and development, are key to a successful transit future.
Governance is also key
For development to happen, government has to set the right conditions, or at least avoid causing problems. Fortunately, we are in a time when many developers recognize the advantages of TOD. Yet such government regulations as height and density restrictions can block crucial development, Levy noted. Government also needs to be aware that building near a transit station means less driving, reducing the need, for instance, for parking-space requirements. Even something like regulations that require a certain number of trees “for environmental purposes can inadvertently reduce the land for building,” Levy said, lowering “density where you want it.” Laws intended to help the environment can instead push development outward, causing sprawl. Right now, the challenge is “getting out of the way to let market demand express itself,” with regard to TOD, Levy said.
Despite its insight regarding the advantages of TOD, one aspect of the forum did seem a little odd. There was virtually no discussion of TOD’s environmental benefits – everything from air quality to avoiding fragmentation and run-off. TOD also reduces greenhouse gas emissions in a time when the planet faces unprecedented environmental dangers. Yet discussion of the multiple ways TOD offsets these was strangely absent from the forum.
Panelists strongly agreed with me when I asked specifically about this. Yet the default is to laud TOD’s economic benefits. While TOD will never move forward without economic viability, it also seems important to point out, often and enthusiastically, that TOD is a win-win situation with tremendous environmental advantages. If such a stance is taken at public forums, it will then likely filter into multiple government discussions and communications with citizens.
Facing the future through the past
In planning for TOD, change will never happen overnight. It is most important to think long-term, to be patient, to stay the course. Bob Duffy, Arlington County planning director, explained that Arlington, perhaps the grandfather of TOD across the country (before it was even called TOD) was a 50-year effort, with thoughtful, persistent leadership.
“By 2000, Arlington had seen more than a 100 percent increase in individual development,” Shafer said, and, although the area had “planned for an 80 percent increase in traffic,” the actual rise was only 16 percent.Today, 12 percent of Arlington residents do not own a vehicle, while 40 percent own just one car, Duffy noted. This is possible because more than a third live in one the county’s seven mixed-use, walkable centers along two corridors. Duffy said it took “longevity and commitment, but also understanding that course corrections are necessary.”
Persistence and innovation must work together to keep TOD growing and thriving.