Revisiting State-Level TOD Planning

Last month I wrote about Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy’s ambitious plans to create a state-wide Transit-Oriented Development corporation, essentially making the case that Nutmeggers and planners alike should give the idea a chance. In short, I wrote (and believe) that the state needs some control over station areas to maximize the relatively significant investments it has been making in transit and combat rent-seeking by suburban NIMBYs. That being said, I think the discussion is worth revisiting and sharpening, since this legislation is potentially a really big deal both for Connecticut and the planning world.

The Connecticut proposal brings up two related issues: the question of regional governance and the question of whether state government is any more trustworthy than local government when it comes to progressive principles of planning and development. Let’s tackle these individually.

Regional Governance–Does it Matter?

Angie Schmitt posted a summary of my piece on Streetsblog.net, and it provoked a number of responses, mainly along the lines of “but state governments suck too!” Fair enough–we’ll talk about that below. One commenter wrote that

I have a feeling that Streetsblog is very, extremely casuistic when discussing the “whose level of government should do what”, without any consistency on the arguments, only some specific situation where it will support whatever arrangement works for a single case, damned be unintended consequences.

To which I say: so be it! If I have one feeling about forms and structures of governance, it’s that we don’t matter nearly as much as we think. I’ve been taking a course on regional governance this semester, and while it is perhaps the bias of my professor, the overwhelming takeaway has been that the exact structure of governance and government matters less than accountability, good stewardship, and the intentions of elected officials. This point gets hammered home over and over again in one of the primary books for the course, David K. Hamilton’s comprehensive 2014 Governing Metropolitan Areas: Growth and Change in a Networked Age.  As LetsGoLA wrote in one of my favorite-ever urbanist blog posts,

None of this really matters, though, if the people running the agencies are acting in bad faith…In fact, in the context of discrimination, regional consolidation can make things worse, even if it makes technical sense. For years, urbanists bemoaned the lack of a regional transit agency in Detroit. The feds finally forced the issue, and in late 2012, the state created such an agency. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) was charged with administration during the transition, and promptly used its power to reduce Detroit’s transit funding by 22%. When the problem is a desire to avoid treating some people fairly, technical solutions are helpless.There are no apolitical technical policies.

So yeah, let’s embrace casuistic governance. Whatever works, we can do. After all, casuistic policymaking is as old as the Western tradition; Hammurabi’s Code is largely written in a casuistic mode, as are many biblical legal passages. I don’t really care who runs things, as long as stuff gets done. And conversely, no structure of governance should be afforded less skepticism or held less accountable than any other.

Can (and should) we trust Connecticut state government to be better at TOD than cities?

Anstress Farwell of the New Haven Urban Design League was kind of enough to have coffee with me last time I was in New Haven, and we took the opportunity to chat about the governor’s TOD plans. Anstress, who is inarguably New Haven’s top urbanist scold and city purist, is appropriately suspicious of the ability of any level of government to implement progressive planning principals. It’s an entirely understandable attitude in New Haven, the city that probably did more per capita (it took more federal dollars than any other city per capita) than any other to destroy itself through “progressive” urban renewal.

And it’s completely reasonable to be suspicious of the intentions of state government, considering that it’s pushing giant new garages next to the train stations in both Stamford and New Haven. And yet, in other places, state government has pushed TOD against the NIMBYish intentions of suburban towns, and the state could hardly make existing conditions worse in many places, and seems likely to force some reluctant municipalities into compliance. It’s also worth noting that local government has been on board with the new garages in both Stamford and New Haven, while New Haven is making only halting strides towards tackling its downtown parking addiction.

So can urbanists and progressive planners trust Connecticut state government to implement good policy, should it gain power over station-area land use? There certainly seems to be reason for skepticism. But it also seems unlikely that the state government could do any worse than municipalities are currently doing, and centralizing planning might at least streamline some processes. So I guess the answer is a resounding maybe.

If we can’t trust anybody, what should we do?

One of the ideas that Anstress and I threw around when we chatted was the idea that instead of TOD power resting with any particular level of government, it should instead reside in the area of policy. That is to say, the state should establish a strict set of benchmarks for land use around stations, and give local governments a certain amount of time to meet them. Should municipalities prove unable to meet those benchmarks, the state would then be authorized to seize the land through eminent domain (which it of course already legally is) and add it to the inventory of a statewide TOD authority. This way, it would be the TOD benchmarks–rather than the state authority–that would become the center of the policy. It would be clear that the intention is to achieve good land use, rather than just to concentrate power in the hands of state government at the expense of municipal government. And the targets for municipalities to  meet would be clear and public, meaning the reason for a state takeover would be clear if that should in fact happen.

Obviously, suburban municipalities in Connecticut are going to resist any initiative that threatens to bring them dense development. And city governments clearly need some work as well There is, therefore, an obvious role for state government to play; but what should it look like? In my ideal world, the state would be foregrounding good policy rather than centralization of power in its messaging and actions on the topic, which would likely help them sell the TOD authority as well. Cynical political bartering will most likely win out, but I can dream, can I not?

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Why Connecticut’s TOD “Power Grab” is a Big Deal

CT News Junkie reports that the Connecticut legislature is considering a pair of bills that would to some extent transform the paths of governance in the state. Writer Suzanne Bates frames the bills as a centralization of power in the hands of the state, which is a conclusion that’s hard to argue with, though I imagine many of my readers will not consider that a bad thing as she clearly does. The first bill concerns a couple of changes to the way the state administers taxes, but it’s the second one that we’re more concerned with here:

The second bill — House Bill 6851 — is also a power grab by state government. It would give a quasi-public state agency — called the Transit Corridor Development Authority (TCDA) — control over housing and commercial development around transit stops….

The bill has changed significantly since it was first introduced — for the better. Initially, the TCDA would have had the power to use eminent domain to condemn property around planned or current transit sites. As amended, the bill keeps eminent domain authority with municipal and state lawmakers.

The bill also no longer has the language that municipal governments “will” comply with the TCDA. Now local authorities would delineate the land designated for transit-oriented development, then enter into an agreement with the TCDA to turn that property over.

Bates considers the bill a threat to local communities and Connecticut’s tradition of home rule. I want to offer a different perspective that might explain why Governor Malloy and his supporters in the Legislature might be willing to consider what seems to be a drastic step.

Transit-oriented development, or TOD, is a central pillar in Governor Malloy’s statewide transportation plan. And there have certainly been successes; the new CTFastrak busway, connecting Hartford and New Britain, has spurred redevelopment along its route, and the governor’s office has made funds available to further TOD efforts in that corridor and along the soon-to-open New Haven-Hartford-Springfield (NHHS) rail line. Malloy has not just pushed the state’s significant (and expensive) transit projects, but has put considerable capital, both political and fiscal, behind the state’s efforts to build TOD around the new or revamped stations.

The problem is that Connecticut’s municipalities have not always been amenable to the state’s TOD strategy. A 2013 Regional Plan Association Report entitled “Halfway There” revealed that of the stations along the Metro-North New Haven Line, the state’s busiest transit corridor, only around half had (realized or envisioned) plans for mixed-use walkable development in the station area.

From RPA report "Halfway There," http://library.rpa.org/pdf/RPA-Halfway-There.pdf

From RPA report “Halfway There,” http://library.rpa.org/pdf/RPA-Halfway-There.pdf

Last year I wrote about how Meriden, whose Amtrak station will be upgraded for the NHHS service, is wasting the potential for true TOD in its downtown, planning to use a huge lot across the street from the station for a park rather than dense development. Newington, along the CTFastrak corridor, has (over the objections of its well-meaning economic development chief) considered implementing a moratorium on high-density development. Taken together, these developments–or really, lack thereof–reveal an ongoing threat to Governor Malloy’s transit- and TOD-centered agenda: the ability of individual municipalities to sabotage the state’s efforts through uncooperativeness or obstinacy.

Quite simply, the ability of Connecticut’s municipalities to prevent TOD not only undermines principals of progressive development but threatens the the viability of the state’s expensive transit investments themselves. It’s a pattern that has played out repeatedly across the country: some higher level of government, be it federal, state, or regional, invests significant money and energy in building a new transit system, only to see the municipalities along the line reserve the benefits of the investment for existing residents of the area. The rhetoric may be about local control and “the character of the area,” but the realities of the movement are all too often more cynical. Pocketing the benefits of state investments in mobility while denying them to other people who may wish to relocate to the area and refusing to allow growth that will enhance the state’s investment is not only regressive; it is the kind of rent-seeking that has handicapped transit planning all across the country for years. Connecticut must do better, or its aggressive transportation investment program will largely go to waste.

A CTFastrak bus demonstrates the state-municipality disconnect as it approaches the not-yet-complete station at Asylum Street and Union Place in Hartford, 3/29/15. The buses and busway are a state investment; the not-ready-for-opening-day downtown stations are the responsibility of the City of Hartford.

A CTFastrak bus demonstrates the state-municipality disconnect as it approaches the not-yet-complete station at Asylum Street and Union Place in Hartford, 3/29/15. The buses and busway are a state investment; the not-ready-for-opening-day downtown stations are the responsibility of the City of Hartford.

Is the bill that the Malloy administration is currently pushing the right way to correct this imbalance? In truth, the bill, especially in its watered-down form, won’t make the state’s powers that much greater, since it already holds power of eminent domain. The bill would seem to exempt state-owned properties from local zoning–a major step–and would centralize parking rates in the station area in state hands, which is a no-brainer. It would also create a central administration for station areas, which could be good or bad, depending on the leadership and competence of that authority. I wonder, though, if there is a middle way forward where municipalities that are willing to voluntarily follow the principles of TOD could maintain local control so long as they meet a checklist of requirements that would allow the state to maximize its investment. I’m sure many of the larger cities would be thrilled to work with the state on that approach. It’s also worth noting that state priorities aren’t always the most progressive; the state has recently agreed to fund a second massive parking garage for New Haven’s Union Station.

In the meantime, though, the Malloy-backed idea of centralizing land-use authority in station areas might represent a way forward for numerous transit systems across the country. Imagine if instead of building transit and just hoping the local municipality will do the right thing, states and authorities could go about their infrastructure business secure in the knowledge that land use will support, not sabotage, ridership potential. Stephen Smith made the argument on Friday in New York YIMBY that “Community Control is Destroying America’s Cities,” and while he may overstate the case to some extent, similar dynamics have too often played out around new transit investments. Let’s give Dannel Malloy’s efforts at state-driven TOD a shot. After all, it may be a power grab, but it’s not about abusing authority; it’s about protecting an investment from those who would waste it. That’s a principle citizens of any ideological stripe can get behind.

 

The Windsor Gardens Experiment

In the Boston suburb of Norwood, MA, there is a commuter rail stop called Windsor Gardens. It’s a pretty unassuming place, a single low platform on a single-track segment of the Franklin Line that sees 13 inbound trains per day.

There is one thing that’s unusual about the Windsor Gardens station amidst the MBTA’s constellation of park-and-ride oriented suburban stations: it has no parking. Instead, Windsor Gardens is intended to serve the residents of its namesake apartment community, The Berkshires at Windsor Gardens, a relatively upscale 1960s-era development with prices in the $1,000-$2,000 range.  Though I haven’t been able to get an answer from the administrative office about how many people live in Windsor Gardens, the Norwood town history site notes that when opened it had “approximately one thousand units,” and the relevant census block, which includes a few additional houses, listed a population of 2,004 people in 2010.

Windsor Gardens at center.

Windsor Gardens at center.

The MBTA commuter rail system has some stunningly low-ridership stops, and one might expect that a station serving a single development, with no parking available for people who don’t live in that development, would be among them. Instead, according to the 2014 MBTA Blue Book (2013 data) Windsor Gardens ridership–inbound only, the way MBTA measures it–was 624 riders per day.

624 isn’t a huge number–the top-performing stations in the MBTA commuter rail system see around 2,000-2,500 inbound boardings per day–but it IS a big number in the context of a station that essentially serves one development and provides no parking for commuters. For the record, there appears to be no (legal, at least) pedestrian access to Windsor Gardens station from the east side of the tracks, and while it’s possible some commuters walk into the station from the subdivisions across Route 1A, that number seems unlikely to be large, and a private apartment community seems unlikely to welcome strangers tromping through it every day.

Windsor Gardens’ ridership numbers haven’t always been quite this robust; the Blue Book’s chart of ridership censuses over the last five years demonstrates:

April 13 Nov. ‘12 Nov. ‘11 Nov. ‘10 Feb. ‘09 Feb. ‘08 Jun. ‘07
 624   464  423  414   313  454   309

Ridership does appear to be recovering with the economy, and in 2013 it was twice what it was in June of 2007. Even then, a ridership figure of 300 inbound riders per day would have represented approximately 15% of the total number of people who can be assumed to live in Windsor Gardens. If ridership now stands at 624 per day, that would be around 30% of the residents of Windsor Gardens who ride the commuter rail every day–a truly astonishing percentage. And remember, those are numbers of residents, not numbers of workers; the percentage of workers riding transit would be even higher.

The typical “rate of return”–how many residents actually ride transit to commute–on transit-oriented development is hard to calculate, but best guesses are that they average around 25%, with TOD around rapid transit skewing much higher, and around commuter rail much lower. With between 15-30% of residents riding transit every day, Windsor Gardens would appear to be an exceptional success by the standards of commuter-rail oriented TOD. It would also appear to be a demonstration of the power of proper land use near transit stations to generate transit ridership–and of the idea that TOD can be built, and still generate significant ridership, without massive amounts of parking.

Windsor Gardens as an apartment community isn’t what we’d think of as “true” TOD today; it’s a single-use residential community set in an area that’s not walkable and highly auto-oriented. I assume that virtually everyone who lives there owns at least one car per household, just to get to the grocery store and school. But even a development approaching 50 years old can demonstrate that if you make it convenient enough, you can house suburbanites in a transit-oriented way.

Paying Lip Service and No More to Multimodal Transportation in Maryland

Earlier tonight, Alon Levy, Daniel Kay Hertz, Dennis Griffith, and I got into a Twitter discussion about the worst placements of commuter rail and rapid-transit stations in pedestrian-hostile environments:

During that discussion, I brought up the example of the Baltimore-Washington International Airport Rail Station. The placement of the station itself is whatever; it’s not intended to serve local development, there are relatively frequent shuttles to the airport itself, and as Alon has argued, mainline rail connections are the most important kind of airport connector (of course, BWI is also served by the Baltimore light rail system). What’s more remarkable about BWI Station is that, if one zooms in far enough on Google imagery, one can see a little walkway, the kind that parks put in over wetlands, leading away from the station to the west. The walkway connects the station to two office complexes just about a half-mile away.

Walking directions from BWI Station to the Maryland Department of Transportation

Walking directions from BWI Station to the Maryland Department of Transportation

I don’t know what entity occupies the northern building, but here’s the truly ridiculous, depressing thing: the southern building is the headquarters of none other than the Maryland Department of Transportation. I suppose that, just barely, the MDOT headquarters is within a half-mile of a station with active transit service…but come on. This isn’t TOD. Does anyone think that passes for a transit-accessible, or even walkable, location? Does someone maintain that walkway in winter? MARC service isn’t exactly frequent, and that location can’t be well-served by other modes. Is there a better illustration of a state “transportation” department paying lip service to a commitment to multimodal transportation, while really serving its roots as a highway department?

PS: We’re looking for a good hashtag to describe the situation where a transit agency places a station in a location entirely hostile to pedestrians, or where the surrounding developments cut themselves off from an adjacent station. Suggestions welcome.

UPDATE: See the comment from noted transit activist Ben Ross below–the MDOT building was there first, and the walkway was added later in an attempt to compensate for the location.

Worrying About Commitment to TOD on the NHHS Corridor

I’m a big fan of the NHHS rail project, which promises to connect New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield with (more) frequent commuter rail service beginning in 2016. The project’s promotional materials have heavily promoted the corridor’s transit-oriented development (TOD) potential, promising to concentrate development in areas around stations all along the line. That’s a promising tack in Connecticut, which suffers from sprawl and has significant available urban land for development (with the possible exception of New Haven), but now I’m wondering about the commitment of project managers and state and local governments to true TOD.

This morning, the @NHHSRail account tweeted out the following:

Just so that we’re clear, the tweet juxtaposes the hashtag #TOD with a promise to build a parking lot—a parking lot!—immediately adjacent to the to-be-rebuilt Meriden station. Let’s just be very clear—under no circumstances does placing a parking lot next to the rail station qualify as transit-oriented development. The original article, from the local newspaper, explains that the building currently standing on the site is vacant and was acquired by the state by eminent domain for the sum of $675,000, which does seem excessive for a single-story empty building in a far-from-vital ex-industrial city…but I digress.

As you can see from the pictures accompanying the article, the existing building is no prize, and its demolition is probably nothing to mourn; but seriously, we can’t use a lot immediately adjacent to the station for something other than parking? Maybe folks don’t want to live right next to the tracks, but hey, I’m from Chicago, where watching trains 20 feet away from your window is a pop culture reference. The renderings for the station area give a pretty good idea of how the area will look (the lot in question is at the lower right hand corner):

Meriden station rendering

The lot is certainly big enough for a good-size development, and it’s no closer to the tracks than many of the other buildings in the area. Also, there’s certainly no lack of parking in the immediate area:

Meriden parking

And remember: this is Meriden, which people from New Haven (where I grew up) think of as a sad sack. There’s not exactly much demand for all that surface and street parking. So why, exactly, is the state going to the expense of building a whole new lot, at the expense of mis-using a prime TOD site?

My concern with Meriden’s TOD plans doesn’t, however, end there. For one thing, the new parking lot and station will mean the closing of the Brooks Avenue grade crossing at the northern end of the station site, which can be seen above. Grade-crossing elimination is a good thing, but disconnecting elements of the grid is usually a bad one.

And then there’s the giant hole in the urban fabric across State Street from the station. Reeking of urban renewal, it is indeed a product of that damaging period in Connecticut history; it was once home to the failed Meriden Hub mall. A sequence of aerial photographs from NETR Online tells the story:

1934:

Meriden 1934

1966:

meriden 1966

And of course, you can see contemporary imagery above. The site, of course, did not sit empty for the last 50 years; for most of the intervening time, it looked something like this:

meriden hub mall

And today? Well, the city of Meriden has a grand plan to turn the empty lot into a park. A very pretty park, to be sure, and plans including daylighting the covered-up creek that’s visible in the 1966 photos, but…come on. You have a giant piece of empty land, across the street from a train station, in an area with serious highway congestion and demand for transit access. Meriden is an easy commuter to New Haven, Hartford, or Springfield, and a several-days-a-week commute to New York City is totally feasible. Sure, the downtown has a long way to come, but every unit we don’t build in transit-adjacent areas gets built in sprawling ones. And this is a lot with potential to house hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

A comprehensive, corridor-wide TOD approach recognizes this reality and stresses the crucial nature of using land near transit facilities efficiently. Building consensus among all levels of government so that city governments don’t go off-message like this is a necessity. Meriden has extensive plans for other downtown TOD, but you can’t just throw away your biggest lot like this. Once it’s a park, it’s never going back. And that’s a shame, because actions like the ones showcased here, seemingly innocent decisions made to solve apparently obvious problems, have the potential to totally undermine the entire corridor’s–really the entire state’s–TOD approach.