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July 2014

People-oriented cities: mixed-use development creates social and economic benefits

Luis Zamorano | Eco-Business

For cities to be more sustainable and liveable, urban design must reorient cities around people rather than cars. Mixed land-use development is a good place to start, say transport experts.

NYC pedestrians
Commuters in New York City. Urban planning that places different residential, commercial and recreational spaces close to one another makes it easier for people to get around by walking, cycling and public transport. Image: Andrew F. Kazmierski /


Mumbai, India can be a commuter’s nightmare. Downtown sits a full 10 miles from the residential core, and the two areas are poorly linked by public transport. Mumbaikars have the longest commute of any Indian city resident, averaging more than 47 minutes each way every day. This fragmented urban development has pushed car ownership in the city to rise by an astonishing 3,700 per cent in the past 60 years, clogging roadways and polluting the air.

Travel to New York City and the landscape is much different. A single city block houses a mix of restaurants, office buildings, residences, and shops. This type of development—known as “mixed-use development”—makes it easy to use public transport, walk, or bike, helping to efficiently connect the city’s neighborhoods through sustainable transport. The portion of commuters relying on cars in the city fell from 90 per cent to 59 per centbetween 2010 and 2011.

These two cities showcase an emerging urban design lesson: Sprawling cities decrease quality of life; compact, mixed-use developments yield economic and social benefits.

Sprawling and Segregated: The Cost of Disconnected Cities

The proliferation of zoning at the beginning of the 20th century contributed to sprawling cities around the world. Residential neighborhoods sprouted on the urban periphery and in suburbs, giving rise to car-dependent commuter towns. City centers languished, shopping malls replaced commercial streets, and the urban poor were segregated from the wealthy elite.

These sprawling cities are increasingly common in developing nations. For example, Mexico’s history of dispersioncreated thousands of single-family houses on the outskirts of cities. The sheer distance to everyday destinations means some families spend 25 percent of their income on transport. This type of design increased Mexico City’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to 70 percent and costs USD 2.5 billion (33 billion pesos) each year in lost economic productivity.

Connected Communities Improve Health, Environment, and Economies

Mixed-use development works against these trends to create inclusive, connected communities. In mixed-use areas, you can find housing, restaurants, services, schools, cultural facilities, parks, and more. This connectivity reduces the need for private vehicles, thus increasing the viability of public transport, walking, and bicycling. For example, Mexico City’s longest street, Avenida Insurgentes, is home to a range of services, residences, and businesses, but traffic congestion initially made the street difficult to access. For these reasons, local decision-makers choseInsurgentes as the site for the city’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) system, Metrobús. After the launch of Metrobús in 2005, 100,000 daily car trips were replaced by sustainable transport, easing congestion and reducing the city’s GHG emissions by hundreds of thousands of tons.

Growing Cities and Sustainable, Mixed-Use Development

According to the World Health Organization, cities will hold 70 per cent of the world’s population by 2050. About 96 per cent of this growth will occur in developing countries, demanding quality urban spaces and services.

As current cities expand and new ones crop up, it’s important for local leaders, urban planners, and citizens to examine what works. Compact, car-light cities spur economic growth, social cohesion, and quality of life.

East New York affordable housing may be out of locals’ reach

Julie Strickland | The Real Deal

Homes in East New York
Homes in East New York

A square mile section of Cypress Hills, a northeastern subsection of Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, is set to house the first 15 sites of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $41 billion affordable housing plan. But residents of the area, one of the poorest in the city, likely won’t be able to swing the cost of these “affordable” units.

The median income in the district is around $32,000 per year, and the median rent of the planned affordable units citywide is to be between $1,050 and $1,670, Shai Lauros, director of community development for the Cypress Hills Local Development corporation, told Gothamist. Affordable rents for this community, she said, “typically range from $375-$625, so there is a discrepancy here. This could contribute to displacement.”

As a mayoral candidate, de Blasio made Transit Oriented Development a basis for his community revitalization strategy, pointing to the planned rezoning and development of additional housing to locations with strong transit connections, and called for higher-density development at and around transit hubs. But a report on the Sustainable Communities initiative, published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development a few weeks after de Blasio’s housing plan was announced, found that the so-called sustainable communities have “the potential to spur gentrification and displace residents in low- and moderate-income areas.”

“Recent research confirms that walkable, transit-oriented communities nationwide are becoming increasingly less affordable and have varying benefits depending on the income level of the residents,” the HUD report added.

Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants Political Action Committee, told Gothamist that a better affordable housing approach would be to build more public housing or revive the Mitchell-Lama model, though he called both scenarios highly unlikely.

Downtown Denver’s Meet in the Street event steps toward urban engagement

Caitlin Hendee | Denver Business Journal

Glenn Ross DDP Meet in the Street 19Businesses lining the 16th Street Mall had their hands full Sunday after the mall’s shuttle service was detoured for Meet in the Street, an event that drew an estimated 2,800 people per block per hour.

“What this event is about is bringing the community together into an urban environment … working with partners, having people experience the urban environment in different ways,” said Jenny Starkey, a spokesperson for the Downtown Denver Partnership, which hosted the event.

Regional Transportation District (RTD) free mall-ride buses that typically run the length of the mall were rerouted to 15th and 17th street for the duration of the event, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Downtown Denver Business Improvement worked with the Partnership to create Meet in the Street, which included drum circles, bike decorating stations, live music, a photo booth, games and more.

According to Starkey, the event started as a way to encourage a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, as well as draw people to the 16th Street Mall to engage with businesses and build community.

Events like this, she said, are part of Denver’s “tactical urbanism,” plan, which ultimately will lead to the city’s continued transformation towards new urbanism, transit-oriented development — the movement to create walkable, mixed-used neighborhoods featuring small, compact residential lots and stores, schools and other amenities that can be easily reached by walking, biking and transit rather than driving.

“These kinds of tactical urbanism projects are really just interventions to create projects that improve the urban environment,” Starkey said.

The next Meet in the Street event is set for August 10.

The re-routing of the mall buses also gave the Partnership a convenient opening to install permanent intersection art, a painting by artist Katy Casper Gevargis, onto the intersection of 16th and Curtis Street.

Glenn Ross DDP Meet in the Street 5That installation is part of an initiative the Partnership started last year to reinvigorate the central blocks of the 16th Street Mall, between Welton and Curtis Streets.

“They have been the blocks we’ve struggled with activating as public space,” said Ryan Sotirakis, public realm design specialist at the Partnership. “There’s not a lot of cafés … they’re not like the blocks down by LoDo where’s there’s a lot of energy.”

Sotirakis said the initiative, which will feature art at both Curtis and 16th Streets and soon at Welton and 16th Streets, seeks to address pedestrian safety by “extend[ing] the feeling of the mall across intersections.”

And by putting in art and hosting events like Meet in the Street, Starkey added, it creates a more positive environment for businesses and visitors.

Asked if that was a strategy of the Partnership to address concerns about homelessness and crime — the city recently approved $1.8 million to increase police presence on the Mall— Starkey said activation was the main goal.

“Any kind of activation strategy, whether it’s public art or bringing out our partners … brings positive activity, and that really negates other activity that could happen there,” Starkey said.

West Palm Beach Unveils Plans for New Station

James Ruggia | Travel Pulse

West Palm Beach Unveils Plans for New Station
A new station is coming to West Palm Beach. (Courtesy of All Aboard Florida)

All Aboard Florida, the project that will bring express rail connectivity between Miami and Orlando, when it opens in 2016, unveiled plans for a major component of the project, the West Palm Beach Station. ABF is building three railway stations to serve their trains, in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, with each one designed to be a major component in its host city’s cultural and commercial life. The All Aboard Florida project will exploit an already existing 230-mile long rail corridor that connects Miami to Orlando via Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Yesterday, Palm Beach County Mayor Priscilla Taylor and West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoia joined All Aboard Florida executives unveiled the designs for the station. To be located between the city’s government center and its Performing Arts Center, the 60,000-square-foot station will join several transportation systems including the existing Tri-Rail and Amtrak stations and the neighborhood’s trolley and pedestrian networks.

“We have been working closely with the city staff to develop a station and overall master plan that makes the downtown area even more dynamic,” said P. Michael Reininger, president and chief development officer of All Aboard Florida. “We fully expect this underdeveloped part of the city to see a dramatic change with new development that will be spurred by the transit activity we are leading.”

“That new location will be a nexus for downtown and provide direct and efficient connectivity to the hubs of Orlando and Downtown Miami,” said Bernard Zyscovich, founder and CEO, Zyscovich Architects. “The station will be a catalyst for redevelopment, enhancing the opportunities for additional Transit Oriented Development on the west side of downtown.”

All three of All Aboard Florida’s planned new stations are being designed to serve as transit hubs and important destinations within each city. Economists estimate that All Aboard Florida will add more than $6 billion to Florida’s economy over the next eight years, including $164 million in economic impact for Palm Beach County through 2021. More than 1,200 jobs will be created in Palm Beach County through the construction of the station and the rail line.

The coming of the All Aboard Line should produce a sea change in Floridian tourism. Today the state’s tourism revolves around two hubs: Orlando with its theme parks and Miami and its sophisticated urban experience. The introduction of a comfortable, service-oriented train experience that connects the two via three-hour ride will go a long way towards unifying Florida’s tourism, extending stays and spreading the revenues.

M-1 Rail in Detroit will boost housing, retail development, backers say

John Gallagher | Detroit Free Press

Woodward Avenue heading south towards downtown Detroit will be closed for the start of construction of the M-1 rail starting Monday, July 28th from Adams street to Campus Martius Park.
Woodward Avenue heading south towards downtown Detroit will be closed for the start of construction of the M-1 rail starting Monday, July 28th from Adams street to Campus Martius Park. / Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press

The M-1 Rail streetcar project breaking ground July 28 could spark a new boom in downtown and Midtown development and spur the creation of 10,000 new residential units over 10 years, its backers predicted today.

“This is not just a transit project,” Matt Cullen, CEO of M-1 Rail, told a media briefing.

He said transit-oriented development that will follow M-1’s forecast opening in late 2016 also could see some 5 million square feet of new retail and commercial development and $3 billion in new development overall in the Woodward Corridor over 10 years.

Cullen said projections done by M-1 planners predict that the $140-million investment in the new line will lead to six to eight times that much in spin-off economic development.

M-1 Rail will operate a streetcar line along Woodward from Jefferson Avenue to Grand Boulevard in New Center, a 3.3-mile route.

Also at the briefing, Paul Childs, M-1 Rail’s chief operating officer, described the “massive balancing act” that will take place over the construction project to inconvenience motorists and business owners along the route as little as possible.

Construction will begin later this month with a closure of Woodward to north-south traffic from Campus Martius to Grand Circus Park. Once construction moves farther north, only partial closures of Woodward will be needed at most times because Woodward goes from four lanes in the immediate downtown to nine lanes in Midtown.

The streetcar line is expected to be open for riders in late 2016.

The Atlanta Transit Agency’s Big Plan to Convert Parking Lots into Housing

Eric Jaffe | Atlantic CityLab

MARTA, the transit authority for metro Atlanta, is quietly becoming a player in the real estate world, and it has its excess parking to thank. In the past few months, the agency has pushed forward with plans to develop under-used parking lots at three stations—King Memorial, Avondale, and Edgewood/Candler Park—into mixed-use commercial and residential buildings. And MARTA expects to secure at least two more such deals by early next year.

Tim Adams/Flickr

Talk about a shift from cars to transit.

The moves are part of a broader push by MARTA to capitalize on the transit-oriented development occurring in and around the city. Rather than sit on the sidelines during the resurgence, the agency decided to join the action. MARTA officials expect the new TOD program to pay off twice over: first, by pumping revenue from the projects back into the system’s trains and buses, and second, by enticing residents who move into the buildings onto the trains.

“People have been looking at these parking lots for decades wondering why they were just sitting there,” says Amanda Rhein, senior director of transit-oriented development at MARTA. “It’s clear there’s a significant amount of in-town resurgence, based on the development that’s happening here, and the majority of it is within close proximity of our stations. So this is really just MARTA finally participating in that activity.”

Like many U.S. transit agencies, MARTA has long struggled to secure reliable funding. The agency doesn’t receive money from the state, instead relying on sales tax income from participating counties, making it vulnerable to big economic swings. After the Great Recession, MARTA reduced staff and service while increasing fares, and when an effort to expand the revenue base failed in a 2012 referendum, the agency found itself facing a $33 million deficit.

So MARTA got creative. Keith Parker, who took over the agency in late 2012, implemented a transformation initiative that involved, among other things, a new planning strategy emphasizing TOD. In spring of 2013, Parker announced that MARTA would have five station-area projects underway within two years; to date the agency has identified developers for three projects, targeted several stations for the final two projects, and expects groundbreaking on some of the buildings as early as next year.

As part of its TOD push, MARTA wants to develop mixed-use properties atop its urban stations; above, North Avenue Station. (Courtesy MARTA)

Enabling the projects is MARTA’s recognition that certain stations have devoted too much space to parking—an insight that several transit agencies around the world now share. At King Memorial Station, an urban station that Rhein says doesn’t make sense to reach by car, the agency owned four acres of parking lots adjacent to the station that it didn’t even use. Instead, the space had been subleased to a nearby hospital.

With the new projects, MARTA will lease the land—typically for 99 years—to developers planning mixed-use, transit-oriented buildings. (Walton Communities plans 13,000-square feet of retail and 386 residential units for the four acres at King Memorial.) Rhein says MARTA has chosen to lease rather than sell its land because agency rules stipulate the lease revenue can go toward transit operations, an area of urgent need for MARTA, while sales revenue must go toward capital projects. In the short term, the TOD influx will be reinvested into better service on trains and buses.

“That is the goal,” she says. “To generate money for operations.”

In the long term, MARTA expects such upgrades to result in more riders, which in turn will mean more fare revenue. The big picture outlook also includes nicer public spaces for the city; each project requires a park or a plaza, and 20 percent of all housing must be affordable, says Rhein. MARTA is also looking into air rights development at four downtown stations—Lenox, Arts Center, Midtown, North Avenue—and working with the Urban Land Institute to target TOD opportunities in weaker real estate markets along the system’s south and west lines.

Plenty of challenges remain. The biggest may be a longstanding policy that MARTA must replace any lost parking spaces for transit patrons who drive to a station. While the rule makes sense, says Rhein, it poses problems in terms of financing the spots and incorporating them into the mixed-use project. (“It’s just a little bit at odds with what we’re trying to accomplish,” she says.) Whatever the hurdles, Rhein believes the TOD program is a critical step toward shifting public perceptions of MARTA as wasteful and of Atlanta more broadly as car-reliant.

“I definitely think that will be a byproduct of this initiative,” says Rhein. “We’re going to make the stations themselves and the surrounding areas more pleasant and more easily accessible, and we’ll be providing amenities to our riders and to the surrounding community. So I think people will realize that and give MARTA a chance.”

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