Building on transit platforms | St. Louis Public Radio

Building on transit platforms

May 9, 2012

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 9, 2012 - Mass transit advocates love to tout transit-oriented development, the mixed-use development they say will sprout near new transit facilities. “If you build it, they will come,” is their mantra.

But will they really?

Not necessarily, according to a nationally known transit and development expert who spoke on “Let's Build Around Light Rail” at a lunch Tuesday sponsored by Citizens for Modern Transit.

“Let's be clear: If you build it, that doesn't mean they're going to come,” said Katherine Aguilar Perez, co-founder of Estolano LeSar Perez Advisors LLC, which provides consulting services to public agencies, foundations and other stakeholders. Perez is a former director of the Urban Land Institute, Los Angeles District Council and the Transportation and Land Use Collaborative of Southern California.

Developers won't necessarily flock to an area just because a transit station is there, she said. “I've got pictures of L.A. peppered with stations that have had no investment after 20, 25 years of being in the ground,” she said.

But transit-oriented development can be successful -- with a careful planning. “You have to have a strategy -- you have to think about the land use as you're doing transportation infrastructure,” Perez said. “Think about them as two pieces of one organism.”

Transit oriented development has been around since the early 1990s -- long enough that St. Louis can learn from the mistakes other cities, she said. “We've gotten a lot better at TODs, we've gotten a lot better at understanding development.”

Mistakes include building only one housing type, such as lofts that attract mainly young people, Perez said.

Planners also learned from what they missed in transit-oriented development, as studies show they have not served everyone in the same way. Too often transit oriented development focused on high-end luxury units to the exclusion of moderate and low-income housing, Perez said. Failing to build low and moderate income housing was a “missed opportunity” to help residents who rely on mass transit the most, she said.

Perez noted that a study of transit corridors in Denver revealed a surprising finding. “The people who needed the transit most didn't get the transit,” she said.

That points to the importance of engaging the public in planning so the community's needs are addressed, she said.

Transit oriented development can present “catalytic opportunities” for revitalization efforts as well as locations for green development practices and opportunities to redevelop brownfield sites, Perez said.

Each should be unique, building on the area's own “sense of place,” she said.

Perez gave 10 strategies for attracting development near transit:

  • Invest in walkability because corridors around the development matter and how riders get to the stations is important.
  • Increase transit to create value. It's important to link all modes of transportation -- buses, bikes and scooters, pedestrians, automobiles and commuter rail -- so they run smoothly and efficiently, Perez said.
  • Concentrate new development in “nodes,” creating clusters of development to reinforce the activity. “Retail doesn't like to operate independently unless you're Wal-Mart,” she said.
  • Start with downtown-oriented development and leverage it.
  • Use new public facilities such as city buildings, community centers, libraries and parks to spark new development.
  • Manage, organize and control parking by building it for tomorrow using today's parking standards. Parking is the biggest challenge in suburban markets, Perez said.
  • Invest according to your ambitions. Public-private partnerships are a must for large, complicated sites and require time, investment and commitment, Perez said.
  • Work with existing neighborhoods and create cohesion with them. Incorporate existing features in the plan even if it's on a temporary basis.
  • Get the density right. A transit oriented development doesn't mean you need to stack a high-rise there, she said. The best ones have housing that is respectful of the existing community and complements it.
  • Educate the public on transit oriented development, build trust and align expectations with reality. With social networking, traditional public meetings aren't the only way to spread the word, Perez said.

A successful transit oriented development requires the participation of the public sector, the private sector and nonprofit leaders, Perez said.

Public sector leaders work with the community to develop a long-term vision, identify priority development areas, implement entitlements and incentives and regulate design while private sector leaders bring capital to the table, provide expertise to implement the vision, involve the community and make “reasonable profits.”

Nonprofit leaders help by convening the players, initiating planning, educating the community, insisting on good design and providing new ideas, she said.

In answer to a question about whether the public or private sector should take the first step in initiating transit oriented development, Perez said it takes collaboration. But with federal funding dropping off and state and local agencies squeezed, the private sector “needs to step up,” she said. “The public sector has great tools but it doesn't have resources,” she said.

Perez, who said she hadn't been to St. Louis for a while, found a lot to like here.

“There's a transformation undoubtedly underway in your community,” she said. “You can feel it, you can see it, you're right in front of it. The next market -- when it shifts -- you can either take hold of that and control it or you don't.” But, she added, her feeling is that the region will control it.

If Perez is right, St. Louis is on the cusp of emerging with a new image. She compared what she saw on St. Louis streets to what she saw in Austin, Texas, a number of years ago and in her own town of Pasadena, Calif., when “it wasn't so nice,” she said. “I saw the stuff of good bones last night and in getting around the city today.”

Perez was also impressed with downtown St. Louis.

“The downtown energy was remarkable,” she said. “You can't just make that up.”

Good local businesses are crucial to development, she said. “And you've got a lot of them. Retail's not there yet. It will follow.”

She noted that the area has jobs in education, bioscience, finance, the IT sector and in health care which has a “huge, huge potential for growth.”

Perez also cited the region's affordable cost of living and quality of life that makes it a good place for families.

With all the things the region has going for it, it's imperative to develop a plan for managed growth, Perez said.

Perez said she recommends transit corridors for St. Louis to enhance the network as opposed to separate transit oriented developments, “because TODs by themselves can't function well.” Corridors will be much more successful in the long run becausem she said, they “won't compete with each other -- they'll complement each other.”