Transit-oriented development catches on as cities need to boost ridership and housing supply

By Smart Cities Dive

Cities are opting to build mixed-use developments near public transportation, but experts in Seattle, Atlanta and elsewhere say getting it right is a big challenge.

Transit-oriented development. Photo credit: Sound Transit
Transit-oriented development. Photo credit: Sound Transit

When metro Seattle’s transit agency builds a station, it aims to be as efficient with the space as possible. Land is valuable. So after Sound Transit built Angle Lake station in 2016, the parking garage had an extra 33,500 square feet left over.

That space is being used for more than landscaping. Sound Transit is selling the land in South King County below market value to a nonprofit that will build affordable housing and ground-floor commercial or office space.

"We’ve really been thoughtful about how we design our stations so that land that we might need for, say, construction staging, we use afterward for transit-oriented development," explained Thatcher Imboden, director of land use planning and development at Sound Transit.

As transit ridership has declined across the country and housing costs increase, cities have looked to mixed-use projects near bus and rail stations known as transit-oriented developments (TOD).

Angle Lake station is just one example of a TOD. Cities including Los Angeles, Orlando and Chicago also have TODs in operation or progress. The Federal Transit Administration is awarding $11 million to 20 projects in 12 states through a pilot program, which will see a funding increase from last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law.

City leaders hope TODs can provide more housing and retail while making it easier for people to take trips on public transportation instead of by car. Meanwhile, cities and transit agencies must ensure that TODs benefit existing residents.

How Seattle uses its extra space at transit stations

Sound Transit has embarked on such projects all around the Seattle metro area. The agency has 2,500 units, primarily rentals, 795 of which are completed and open. About 64% of the housing units are affordable, Imboden said.

To reach that outcome, Sound Transit has focused on forming partnerships with developers, in addition to local jurisdictions and public and private funders.

"The Pacific Northwest and the Seattle region, in general, has very high land prices," Imboden said. "So even if we donate our land, the cost of constructing affordable housing is just so much that you need other resources to realize it."

At Angle Lake station, Mercy Housing Northwest will develop the TOD and build at least 85 affordable housing units. The nonprofit will pay a discounted land purchase price between $300,000 and $400,000. Deed restrictions will ensure that the housing remains affordable for 50 years.

Meanwhile, a developer will purchase a separate parcel of land at Angle Lake for $1.95 million. There, it will construct at least 230 units, 20% of which will be affordable and the rest mostly market rate.

When selecting a developer and concept for land it is selling below market value, Sound Transit awards money along with the property. Imboden said it’s a great way to ensure public entities, such as the city and county, align behind the same goals. It reduces risk and speeds up delivery while also helping developers navigate the various public entities involved in a project.

"Us aligning a lot of those resources on the front end has helped to reduce what could be a spin cycle of trying to figure out how to make your project go forward," he said.

Cities and agencies must also be mindful that these developments don’t heighten gentrification.

Scholars have expressed concern that TODs could replace more affordable housing units with luxury ones where residents don’t use transit, said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a distinguished professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles’ school of public affairs.

While co-writing a 2019 book on the effects of TODs on communities, Loukaitou-Sideris studied whether gentrification happened around new transit stations. The team looked at the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles and found that neighborhoods with a transit station tended to gentrify more than neighborhoods without.

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