Are the The Twin Cities Ready for Transit-Oriented Development (TOD)?

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Transportation-oriented development or TOD is a hot topic these days among urban planners and developers in the Twin Cities region. The success of the Hiawatha LRT line has proved that rail transit in Minnesota has the potential to attract large numbers of people in sufficient numbers to pedestrian-friendly, densely populated communities within the half-mile transit corridors.

In the midst of the celebration of Hiawatha line’s success and the anticipation of future lines such as Northstar and the Central Corridor, there are competing visions of TOD that need to be reconciled. Private developers are planning and building upscale, market-driven developments next to the LRT lines that they consider an “urban amenity”. Affordable housing advocates argue that more money and planning resources need to be allocated to provide housing for a growing number of citizens who are dependent on transit.

A recent conference on TOD presented by The Urban Land Institute, Transit for Livable Communities, and the Center for Transit-Oriented Development highlighted the challenge of rail transit to developers, neighborhoods, and public officials. The conference organizers hoped the two-day meeting would foster a dialogue that could reconcile market forces with the growing need for affordable housing for transit-dependent households.

The transit proponents speaking at the conference agreed that population density is an important ingredient in the success of a rail-transit corridor. Rail transit is expensive to build and operate and usually requires a significant contribution from the federal government. Since ridership statistics are the measure of success for transit projects, the Federal Transit Administration expects the rail projects they approve to be designed to attract as many riders as possible.

Transit is now being promoted by the Federal Transit Administration as an effective tool for building and enhancing livable communities. Besides improved mobility, they recognize that transit has environmental and economic advantages that improve neighborhoods.

Growing demand for transit-oriented communities will require higher density housing in transit zones. A 2005 study by The Center for Transit-Oriented Development suggests that a growing number of people want to live near transit corridors. Empty nesters and young professionals as well as recent immigrants are reversing the postwar decline in urban population. In order to accommodate a growing demand for housing, the FTA is encouraging cities to revisit zoning rules, parking policies, and infrastructure investments to concentrate this growing urban population along dense transit corridors. They are also asking real estate developers and financial institutions to contribute to the economic success of TOD along transit corridors.

To achieve the scale of population density that TOD requires to be successful, public officials will need the tools to clear away existing, low-density, automobile-dependent development. Mayor Gene Winstead of Bloomington expressed concern that bills being proposed by Minnesota legislators that would restrict eminent domain that would prevent cities like Bloomington from assembling parcels of land big enough for TOD.

Another challenge for public officials is to balance the market forces driving up the cost of development along transit corridors such as Hiawatha and the Central Corridor. Affordable housing advocates attending the conference expressed frustration that not enough funding is being allocated to make sure that communities along the corridors in St. Paul and Minneapolis don’ t exclude the low-income households vital to the success of a the transit corridor. Another concern is that commercial nodes that serve the needs of low-income households are not priced out by upscale retail stores.

The Center for Transit-oriented Development is planning to conduct more meetings on TOD in the Twin Cities in the coming months.

For more information on transit and TOD:

The Center for Transit-Oriented Development

Transit for Livable Communities

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