On a sunny Monday morning in Long Beach, a woman boards a streetcar for a 35-minute ride to downtown Los Angeles, where she’ll visit the Jewelry District to pick up some parts for her husband’s business and return in time to join him for lunch.
The year is 1946. It is a time when Southern California is enamored not so much with the car, but with inexpensive and convenient public transit.
During that postwar period, ridership on the famous red and yellow cars of the Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railways reached an all-time high, when residents could traverse the region on the world’s most extensive electric-powered rail transit system. Operating from the late 1800s to 1961, at its peak 2,800 scheduled trains traversed more than 1,000 miles of railway lines connecting cities in the counties of Los Angeles and Orange as well as an infant Inland Empire.
Although conspiracy theorists lay the blame of this transit system’s demise at the feet of a front company called National City Lines that was formed by General Motors, Standard Oil, and others — which reportedly bought up the streetcar lines only to shut them down and replace them with slower-moving buses — it was really a combination of competing car traffic on at-grade crossings, rising real estate values, and the high cost of maintaining such a huge fleet that led to the end of the red car era.
When the public began to demand massive infrastructure improvements in the form of freeways in the early 1950s, Southern California led the way for a postwar baby boom that also gave birth to the type of suburban development that could only be accessed conveniently by private cars.
While a CBIA survey a couple of years ago found that nearly two-thirds of Californians would rather drive an hour or more to work in order to live in a single-family home than live in an urban area near a mass-transit line, that still means that more than one-third of the population is looking for just that kind of housing opportunity. And a growing number of builders are responding to that pent-up demand.
The return of transit-oriented housing
Several years ago, when homebuilder Taylor Woodrow announced it was changing its focus from luxury single-family homes to attached infill projects, a definite stir was created in the development industry.
After all, the nascent housing boom would undoubtedly reward those companies catering to move-up buyers in search of large, single-family homes. Yet, according to Mike Forsum, western regional president for Taylor Woodrow, the decision was born more from long-term stratagem than short-term opportunities, and to him, the equation was quite simple: “Less driving, more living.”
With the belief that even the ideal home can never overcome a punishing commute, Taylor Woodrow’s mandate was to find infill opportunities that were also located next to transit stops, which have become known as Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and sometimes Transit Adjacent Development (TAD).
“Infill is terrific, but not if it’s so isolated that you’re getting similar negatives to commuting,” Forsum explains. The firm’s new Creekside townhomes in San Jose, in proximity to a future BART station, schools, a new library and a 134-acre regional park, provide a combination of key amenities that has helped make it the top-selling project in the county.
Since successfully finding and hitting such a target requires a set of skills and expertise new to most builders, most TODs are the creations of public-private partnerships that include local cities and transit agencies. Los Angeles County’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), for example, has seen developers invest more than $3 billion so far in more than 30 separate projects around Metro stations countywide.
According to Roger Moliere, MTA’s executive officer for real property management and development, no matter the project’s complexity or location, the process at the MTA is the same. It starts with identifying Metro-owned land for development opportunities, then involving various stakeholders and elected officials to scope out the opportunity, and finally finding the right development partner with whom to enter an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement.
“A TOD has more moving parts, (meaning) you’ve got to incorporate the transportation elements, so design is more challenging,” he says. “But it also creates excitement and economic activity.”
For Katherine Aguilar Perez, vice president of development for Forest City Residential in Los Angeles, one of the greatest challenges of TOD is attempting to please multiple masters. In contrast to traditional urban infill developments, the bar is set much higher when a transportation element is added as the pivotal layer.
“TODs are, by their very nature, a public-private partnership,” she says. “If I’m thinking (of developing) where transit is being reintroduced into pre-existing communities, there are cultural differences, historic dimensions, and traditions of place. All of these pieces have been there, and as these systems are re-engaged, the public-private partnership has to beget a partnership with the community.”
Fortunately, most California cities today are beginning to incorporate multiple-choice mobility when revising their general plans and housing elements.
In Anaheim, for example, which has been at the forefront of rethinking higher-density living around its stadium- and arena-based entertainment district, planning director Sherri Vander Dussen reports a change in attitudes toward transit.
“Now it’s ‘how do we’ instead of ‘should we’,” she says. “Some cities have (even) taken the initiative to change their general plan to accommodate it.”
To maximize its proximity to San Diego, Los Angeles, and the Inland Empire, the city is now planning the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (ARTIC), which will offer a variety of proposed transit options, including commuter rail (Metrolink), inter-regional rail (California High-Speed Rail, California-Nevada Super Speed Train, and Amtrak), rapid bus lines, carpool lane interchanges that direct traffic onto feeder streets, and walking/biking paths along the Santa Ana River.
Similarly, in Ontario, transportation is being seen as playing an increasingly important role in the city’s economic health and development. With its location between coastal cities and Las Vegas, the growing popularity of the Ontario International Airport, the 1.7 million-square-foot Ontario Mills Mall, a future 11,000-square-foot arena, existing rail lines connecting ports on the coast to markets throughout the country (and more passenger service to come), and the intersection of several regional interstate highways — mobility is an integral part of this blossoming inland city.
“We’re looking at the entire city and its general plan update, and the city has a very urban vision for the future,” explains Brian Judd, vice president of community planning and design for The Planning Center in Costa Mesa, which is redesigning Ontario’s general plan. “They want to make it (the city) the economic center for the Inland Empire and, as part of that vision, realize the connection between transportation and land use.”
Builders, cities working together
Beyond the traditional primary benefits associated with TODs, such as reducing traffic and seeking to improve quality of life for both residents and visitors, cities can also leverage these new developments to breathe new life into long-dormant communities while respecting long-held ethnic traditions. In Anaheim, Kaiser Permanente is building a new hospital located near a train station for patients and employees.
In East Los Angeles, MTA’s Moliere reports a renewed interest in redevelopment that’s directly related to the MTA’s success in other areas.
“For 40 years you couldn’t put a nickel into East L.A., now there are five (developments) in process… For First & Boyle (a key intersection) I got nine proposals from a bunch of national guys, big builders, and small guys. And financial institutions are finally getting it, too,” he says.
Forest City’s Perez goes even further, arguing that the vast array of public monies available for the right type of TOD is impossible to ignore.
“The carrots are so big when you layer in the government monies that the carrots become sticks (due to the potential lost opportunity to make money),” she says. “You’d be crazy as a developer with the required skill set not to do it.”
Yet because the transit infrastructure is ultimately funded by taxpayers, it’s primarily the public interest that community groups, transit agencies, and elected officials want to see leveraged.
“There’s a higher stake in TOD; those systems are permanent investments made in those communities that can’t be moved,” Perez explains. “Development is much more attracted to something which is permanent.”
The Koreatown neighborhood of L.A., located less than three miles west of the downtown core and straddling the major arterial Wilshire Boulevard, is expected to benefit in a number of ways from two different MTA stops that will offer transit options on two subway lines and several rapid bus routes.
At Wilshire and Vermont — partially funded with Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) funds and where 20 percent of the units will be considered affordable — the first apartment project implores potential residents to “live on the line,” where they’ll soon be joined by up to 1,000 new residential units, more retail space and, in a first for Southern California, a “vertical middle school” in which a soccer field is wedged between the school and the Metro plaza.
Across Vermont Avenue to the west, an entire city mega-block is planned by the CRA and the South Korean government to house a Korean Trade and Cultural Center designed to promote trade with the U.S. and include consular offices, a cultural center, and a Korean-American museum. More projects are planned for other blocks surrounding the Wilshire/Vermont Metro station, including several mixed-use, high-rise condos with street-level retail.
Several blocks away at Wilshire and Western, the existing Metro subway station is quickly becoming a “vertical transit station,” starting with a 22-story high-rise building called the Solair Wilshire, offering 186 condos, ground floor retail, and a 12-bus layover zone. On the opposite corner, Forest City Residential is converting The Getty Building — a circa-1962, 23-story office building — into the aptly named “Mercury Rising,” offering nearly 250 for-sale units accompanied by ground-floor retail and an extensive rooftop recreation area.
Such rapid economic development, occurring in an area in which the median income is half the countywide average, manages to uniquely leverage the public goodwill associated with a transit stop. It also brings in much-needed investments from both local and international investors (such as South Korean) and, rather than displace or destroy the community fabric, endorses and boldly celebrates it.
“The holy grail of our industry is how we address the different ethnicities and ask, ‘What do they really want?’” explains Taylor Woodrow’s Forsum, adding that while Hispanic families may desire flexible spaces to host large family celebrations, Asian buyers might prefer more privacy and, therefore, more defined rooms in a home.
For older buyers, he says, two-story plans should include downstairs master suites, offer dumbwaiter systems for moving groceries, and avoid tandem parking.
However, according to P. Vaughn Davies, an urban designer and architect for the global design firm EDAW in Irvine, focusing on just the buildings themselves can miss the point when it’s the end experience that truly matters.
“Our competition is the automobile,” Davies says. “Getting (people) to ride public transit and not feel like a third-class citizen is a challenge.”
Although TODs by their very nature involve transit, focusing too much on the station itself can deprive riders of a deeper and more pleasurable experience.
“You don’t want to focus on transit; it should be seamless,” says Davies. “It should be treated like a proper part or infrastructure of a city.”
The dos and don’ts of transit projects
Like an award-winning film, it’s not so much the individual performances of its artisans (or, in this case, planners and architects) as it is the final assembling of those pieces that creates a timeless classic. There are a number of elements that make up a successful TOD.
The transit station
Above and beyond the individual pieces of a transit station, each station itself is part of a larger network, and developers must understand their place in the hierarchy.
“There are places that are intended to be hubs, there are gateway centers — which are entrees into communities — and there are neighborhood-scale centers. Not every developer is up for all of these,” says Forest City’s Perez.
Indeed, one potential stumbling block for cities and developers alike is the idea that successful transit stations are by definition utilitarian in both architecture and traffic flow.
Not so, according to EDAW’s Davies.
“Sometimes you see projects side by side such as a bus station that looks like the worst bus station ever and next door is a light rail which glides over a fountain,” he says. “(The transit station) doesn’t always have to be roofed over, and can be part of a mixed-use, open-air community.”
In Anaheim, the focus is on bus rapid transit rather than light rail in some proposed TODs.
“They won’t be as large or as dense as what we’ll see near the transit center, but riders will still have close proximity so they don’t have to use a car,” says planning director Vander Dussen.
Walkable design and mix of uses
Since a TOD won’t be accessible unless it’s built at a pedestrian-friendly scale, a thoughtful, walkable design is crucial.
“The whole pedestrian experience is key: nice sidewalks, easy sightlines so you can see when a bus or train is coming, and it should feel like a safe place to wait and be seen because the more intimate it is, the more likely it will be used,” says EDAW’s Davies. For late-running and harried commuters, a solid mix of convenient uses can lead to benefits far beyond leaving the car behind.
“If you miss your bus or train, there should be something right there to do, maybe drop your laundry off in the morning, or stop in a café and have a cup of coffee,” he says.
In Anaheim, Vander Dussen has noticed a definite trend toward more luxurious common areas.
“If you’re creating a place that feels like a resort, there’s a real benefit to living there because of amenities that might be difficult to find somewhere else. Not only can you take the train to work, but you don’t need your car on the weekends, either,” she says.
Taylor Woodrow’s Forsum agrees.
“You can’t just do a token pool or spa in the back corner,” he says. “In most cases, suburban communities are ‘inward-looking-out,’ whereas high-density, infill TODs are an oasis so you’re creating ‘outside-looking-in’ areas where people have left the hustle and bustle and come into our own oasis of calm, peace, and home.”
Beyond the obvious need for transit connections, well-designed TODs also need to connect externally with the world around it.
“TOD is stale and has hit a plateau; we’ve already mixed in the uses, so let’s go the next level of technology. ‘Wifi’ the buildings and introduce systems that really make our lives simpler,” says Perez.
Moreover, the transit-centric nature can help potential first-time buyers, she says.
“You can introduce affordable product on the residential side because now you don’t have to own a car to make a living, so it provides a threshold for a person’s first leg up.”
TOD can extend its influence for several blocks in all directions with pedestrian- and bike-friendly access points, a thoughtful mix of retail stores, and public spaces that invite neighborhood participation.
“Once you can sell the story well then people can embrace it since you’re selling the right problem rather than just coming up with solutions. It can really be a way to bring things together when you wouldn’t have another opportunity to do so,” says EDAW’s Davies.
Maintaining local authenticity
Given that most TODs are introduced into existing communities, experience has shown that achieving true acceptance requires constant respect for authenticity.
For example, as Ontario builds out its own transit stations, city officials have promised to remain open-minded.
“Ontario doesn’t want to be overly prescriptive, and wants to hear the creative ideas from the developers,” says The Planning Center’s Judd.
This could mean anything from indoctrinating the history of the area to a technology-influenced design that coincides with the evolution of the Inland Empire to a full-grown metropolis no longer living in the shadow of Los Angeles and Orange County.
Yet even with the most modern of technology and design methods, social traditions also demand a seat at the table.
“We strive for authenticity, and not something contrived — all the way from the product itself through the sales experience. If you fake, it people may not know why, but it still feels short of the market. Exactness is the vernacular,” Forsum says.
Patrick S. Duffy is a managing director of consulting at Hanley Wood Market Intelligence with offices throughout California. With more than 18 years of experience in the building industry, he can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 1-888-82-DEVELOP (888-823-3835).