TOD Advocacy Keeps Chugging Along

 

Once a shiny, exciting new concept, transit oriented development is easing into the mainstream like a train approaching a station--in thought, if not yet on the ground. Yesterday's Transit Oriented Development Summit, sponsored by the LA chapter of the Urban Land Institute and held at the University of Southern California, attempted to lay the track for a long, prosperous ride -- rather than a dead-end. 

Yesterday's event was the third annual TOD Summit, and it's interesting to note what has changed since 2010. The inaugural event was a veritable pep rally for the way that many people think California should grow. Back then, ULI leadership made a deliberate -- and perhaps risky -- choice to get behind TOD and to introduce it to many members who were probably still mourning the collapse of the market for single-family homes. That conference implied that TOD would be one of the trends that would yank the development industry out of its malaise. 

Two years later, the industry-wide malaise seems to be so deeply ingrained that it's ceased to be a malaise and instead has become the status quo. The good news, at least for proponents of TOD, is that developers are now having a more sober and, perhaps, more practical discussion about what TOD should be. In part because of the implementation of Senate Bill 375's Sustainable Communities Strategies, California is no longer discussing whether to do TOD but rather how to do TOD. No easy task, apparently. 

Panels addressed crucial minutiae such as financing, design, and compliance with SCS's.  

I had the pleasure of moderating a session on -- what else? -- redevelopment. That conversation has changed too. The panelists -- attorneys Murray Kane and Michael Kiley, as well as RDA veteran Renata Simril of Jones Lang Lasalle -- emphasized that the loss of redevelopment does not necessarily impact TOD's more than it does other kinds of developments. Nevertheless, it's hard not to notice that, in Los Angeles County at least, many current and future TOD sites lie in former RDA project areas. I'm thinking of South LA's Blue Line, East LA's Gold Lind, and the Purple Line subway through downtown. If there's no RDA, then all the TOD's in those places get harder to develop. Yesterday's discussion was a refreshing departure from the hand-wringing and post-game analysis that had occupied many panels earlier in the year and instead focused on the details of dissolution and the future of redevelopment. 

They agreed that litigation would tie up the disposition of assets for 3-4 years and that no one was really sure how or when the plum assets -- including some that might be ripe for TOD -- would get sold off. Maximizing value is not, of course, the same thing as expeditious disposal. Perhaps most pessimistically, Kane in particular emphasized that financing schemes such as infrastructure financing districts and community taxing were unlikely to work at all, much less replace development. (Even though his business is booming, he called dissolution a "disaster" for the state, in part because, he said, revenue recovery that were once estimated at $1.7 billion are plummeting, possibly well below $1 billion.) Ultimately, the panel agreed that cities need to pursue policy solutions (parking came up more than once) in order to invest their windfall tax increments, make development easier, and guide developers who are bold enough to work in former RDA project areas. 

The one session that could rightly be called a cheerleading session was, not surprisingly, the speech by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor seemed relaxed and even feisty in his advocacy for transit in the Los Angeles area and for smart development around transit. It's hard not to recall, though, that this very same mayor was pushing for "elegant density" a full seven years ago. It's a long haul, to say the least. 

The most exciting upcoming TOD in Los Angeles County might that of USC's massive mixed-use district on the north side of its campus. Within a ten-minutes walk of the Expo Line, it's still not clear whether a revitalized area geared towards the USC community will really have much to do with the surrounding South LA neighborhood, which remains depressed after all these decades. Ironically, the least stirring aspect of the conference was the presentation of "visions" for Los Angeles' Union Station. Recently, LA Metro held a conceptual design competition yielding some lovely renderings--none of which, Metro later revealed, are likely to come to fruition.

But big ideas and big projects are not necessarily what drive TOD.

The final session, a plenary talk by Pasadena-based architect and New Urbanist eminence Stefanos Polyzoides presented a compelling vision of just how functional and attractive TOD can be -- if it's planned and designed properly. Polyzoides issued what amounted to a call to arms for planners: TOD, he said, is not one building or one project. It's an entire urban region radiating out from a transit station. Ideally, he said, that region needs to be planned as a whole (he, of course, recommended form-based code) and then developed according to the plan. In that sense, his own Del Mar station in Pasadena and other iconic early examples of TOD -- like Oakland's Fruitvale Station and even the award-winning Contra Costa Centre -- do not yet realize what TOD ought to be.  

That's a big ought. It's tantalizing to think that, if the financing, the regulation, the planning, and the architecture all come together that LA County (and others around the state) could end up with dozens of gleaming transit-oriented districts to complement what are becoming extensive bus and rail systems. The conference certainly implied that this--and not suburban tract-home development--woudl be the wave of the future. How many more TOD Summits will pass before that happens--and how much of the enthusiasm will remain--is anyone's guess.