Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Transit-Oriented Development: Quality Over Quantity

Dateline: 3:08 pm November 20, 2014 Filed under:

A colleague of mine (from a more urban city) recently visited. When he arrived, I offered to show him around and he wanted to see transit-oriented development (TOD). Hmm…. I wanted to impress him, but I was stumped. Despite all our attention as a city and region to TODs, I don’t believe we have any great transit villages right off the platform where we could go that would really resonate with him. There’s Nicollet Mall and Target Field Station, but I wanted him to say, “wow, this is great!,” but I didn’t feel those would produce that response. Maybe I have impossibly high standards (maybe I’m just getting old and codgery), or maybe the Twin Cities is lagging a bit in the TOD quality department. So I took him for a drive along the West River Parkway and to West River Commons, which impressed him. This begs the question what is TOD and how can we do it better?

The City of Minneapolis defines it as “walkable, moderate to high density development served by frequent transit with a mix of housing, retail, and employment choices designed to allow people to live and work with less or no dependence on a personal car.” Hennepin County’s take is similar, and the first criteria they list when prioritizing dollars that support TOD is development that enhances transit usage and increases walkability through good physical design (I like this!). The Met Council’s TOD program is defined almost exactly as Minneapolis’s (not sure who copied the others’ website…). Interestingly, the Center for Transit-Oriented Development (CTOD) goes farther with their mission statement, which says they are “…dedicated to uncovering and deploying the best solutions for integrating community development with transit investments, resulting in an improved quality of life for all….”

Local, county and metro government agencies obviously want TOD. For example, the Met Council quite bluntly wants to “maximize TOD.” This is all well and good, since automobile dependency costs households a lot of money, so therefore TOD is good policy. So it is fairly easy to define, and is essentially a mix of uses near transit, thus easy to quantify. Development and planning professionals tout the thousands of housing units already built near Blue Line transit stations in Minneapolis and Bloomington, and now along the Green Line in St. Paul. Already development has occurred along the Green Line southwest extension, and planning for development along the Blue Line Bottineau extension has begun.

There is no doubt the numbers are substantial. Although development near transit is difficult, it is happening and will continue to do so. I doubt we’ll ever zone or approve enough housing and employment near planned Blue Line and Green Line stations, but that is another matter. The definition of TOD I’d like to add has to do with quality in addition to quantity. Is the development good enough so that people riding the train want to get off at that station and have a look around? Do people who work near the train enjoy getting some fresh air at lunch because the walk is interesting? Do people who live near the train find their walk home a great way to decompress? Can people actually pick up groceries or other shopping on the way to and from the train? It is important that not only development exists near transit as good public policy but that we members of the public actually like spending time in these places. In other words, “an improved quality of life for all,” as CTOD states.

I was drawn to live near light rail the day it opened in 2004, and I’ve been advocating for better quality urban fabric ever since. The results are mixed; some good, some work left to do, and I believe our TOD policies need to demand a little more quality. It’s too bad we are fighting over the alignment of the Southwest corridor route rather than focusing on creating high quality development near those stations. Did you know that St. Louis Park is creating a form-based code to do just that? You should. As part of that process, the visual preference survey is pretty interesting and shows that I’m not the only one who cares about quality. I’ve written previously about how a form-based code improved the design of a TOD in the Bay Area, and I think St. Louis Park is on the right track. Earlier this week Hennepin County approved funding to purchase a six-acre site at the Lake Street Station of the Blue Line for the development of a family services center, 500 housing units and location for the Midtown Farmers Market. As I’ve recently posted, there is room for improvement in the quality of design there. Oaks Station Place can become a national model for TOD if only they could land a restaurant that will make people want to be on that plaza, something that is proving tricky. While the Green Line has proven to be successful among riders and popular for developers, some place-related issues persist, although progress has been made on some of these.

I’ve used the following image in many posts, and I’m using it again because I believe it sets such an excellent example of what a strong transit-oriented development policy focused on quality can achieve. It also reminds me of how much work we have to do here. The bottom line is the quantity of TOD we are producing in the Twin Cities is significant. And while the quality is getting better (we’re on the right “track”), we still have a long way to go, and must stay awake and focused on demanding better places. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball and demand high quality transit-oriented development – places where we want to spend time. You see, that elusive perfect TOD actually does exist, just not in the Twin Cities…yet.

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