As communities increasingly seek to strengthen the viability of their traditional downtowns, a new awareness of the value of commuter rail service stations and major bus terminals have emerged. Formerly viewed as the sole responsibility of the operating entities, many towns have begun to view their commuter rail assets and transit facilities as downtown redevelopment engines.
Over the last decade, this new awareness termed -- Transit Oriented Development (TOD) by the New Urbanism Movement has been used to describe a number of related activities-- principally designed to encourage residential and commercial development near transit facilities.
More recently, planners have realized that not every station area redevelopment project fits completely under the TOD designation. A new operational project category inversely termed-- Development Oriented Transit (DOT) takes a more direct approach to achieving the same objective-- beneficial development spurred by fixed rail-transit assets.
In both cases, whether TOD or DOT, community vision is essential. This includes a clear understanding of local values regarding community character, aesthetics and of course, business attraction and retention. Consistent with the "Transit Village" principles of the New Urbanism, both approaches emphasize improved public safety, pedestrian and bike access, and shopping opportunities for commuters.
The difference lies in the project role taken by a sponsoring community. In a TOD effort, it is the developers who refocus a renewed interest or “orientation” towards transit as a previously overlooked or less than lucrative business opportunity. Aware of the market potential of these sites, developers typically provide the financial impetus, the development pressure and the investment appeals to the public agencies. Hence, a typical TOD projects requires a local community to act as a facilitator between related interests such as the rail operator, landowners, commuters, merchants, and developers. With an eye towards beneficial improvement-- an overarching goal for both the public and private sectors, the community’s primary objective is to assist, motivate, and support activities that enhance the attractiveness of its transit assets. In this model, initial public sector investment centered on the immediate station area is critical, but from that point onward to implementation, the principal drivers of redevelopment come from the private sector.
With some exceptions, this TOD pattern most often occurs in turn-of-the-century suburbs (Oak Park, Tinley Park) and large satellite towns (Aurora, Joliet) with traditional historic town centers or established industrial service sites along existing commuter rail lines. We call these traditional TOD type cases "rail stations in search of a community".
Conversely, with DOT type projects, the communities are primarily-- project protagonists. We call these DOT types "communities in search of a rail station"--because of their ability to spur development. Most often driven by Baby Boom Auto Oriented Suburbs and Super Towns or Edge Cities (Naperville, Orland, Schaumburg), they are also attractive strategies for economically depressed communities. Nonetheless, most often associated with greenfield expansion or new rail lines-- DOTs require substantial public sector investment of local, state and federal funds.
There are several examples in the region. The proposed southeast commuter rail line along the Illinois Indiana border is one example, where the transit improvement is oriented towards complimentary development. Some of the communities have already begun initial land acquisition in preparation for a major new rail line. In Manhattan, the village board recently passed an ordinance to borrow $6.5 million for new water and sewer projects in addition to ongoing infrastructure improvements--in anticipation of expected community development concurrent with Metra's Southwest Service Expansion. The funds would be recaptured by the village as developers pay fees.
In many areas, TOD neighborhoods are older communities in need of redevelopment. TOD tools can be especially effective in urban redevelopment. And in general, these areas do not redevelop easily on their own - governmental leadership and incentives are required.
Through its Regional Technical Assistance Program (RTAP), the Northeastern Illinois Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) has been a leader in TOD, typically providing 50% of the funding for the TOD study, with local government providing the balance. The program encourages communities to undertake a balanced, coordinated and integrated approach to community and transportation planning. This is accomplished, in part, through technical and financial assistance provided by the RTA to the various levels of local governments.
A hallmark of the program is its emphasis on providing communities with the tools to identify their vision and a plan to attain it. The TOD Planning process itself is similar to traditional downtown redevelopment planning efforts. The process includes the assessment of the existing situation, extensive citizen participation, and an analysis of how much increased density is acceptable and desirable. An aggressive implementation effort follows the completion of the TOD study, with property acquisition, demolition, and redevelopment.
Projects in the program fall into four general categories; Station Area Planning Studies, County Transit Plans, Corridor Studies, and Technology Initiatives.
Station Area Planning projects have been designed to address local conditions and meet varying community objectives. For example, the Olympia Fields and University Park station areas are located in Greenfield sites, and accordingly, the studies produced plans to guide new development in their station areas. Morton Grove and Hazel Crest, alternatively, developed plans to promote and direct redevelopment of their station areas. Regardless of the location, the basic tenets of transit supportive development, mixed uses, higher densities, and pedestrian friendly environments are encouraged, often resulting in complimentary improvements and enhancements to the community’s transit facilities.
A typical successful RTA funded TOD effort was undertaken by the Village of Tinley Park. The Village hired the Chicago-based planning and design firm of Camiros, Ltd. to lead a community planning process that resulted in recommendations to enhance the appearance and viability of the "Old Town" area along Oak Park Avenue, adjacent to the Metra station, and for the new METRA station two miles from the Oak Park Station.
The older downtown area of Tinley Park had deteriorated as new commercial areas developed on main State highways away from the historic business district. This deterioration caused considerable concern among residents and local officials. Mayor Zabrocki noted that "this historic Oak Park Avenue area is the soul of the community." The early history and self image of the community was tied to the historic area. Trustee Pat Rea said, "don't rebuild it the way it was, rebuild it the way it should have been built."
The new station area was a clear canvas, with little development close to the new station. The Village zoned and approved a commercial center adjacent to the station. The Village constructed bike paths to the station. The Village also acquired a large parcel of land next to the station, and envisions an aggressive improvement effort to construct buildings that will support and enhance transit access. The Village is constructing a new public library adjacent to the new station.
Higher density is usually desirable in TOD development or redevelopment. Higher densities increase transit ridership that helps to justify frequent service. It also can create active street life and commercial activities, such as convenience stores, restaurants and coffee shops, within convenient walking distance of homes and worksites.
TOD also includes many other improvements, including enhanced landscaping, lighting, facade improvements, and parking enhancements. The development of small parks and plazas, fountains, sculpture, and attractive focal points are an attractive amenity for TOD. The removal of unsightly old industrial uses, and the redevelopment of this land into transit oriented uses is also a fundamental part of the process.
A synergistic use that has developed in Tinley Park are restaurants. Five new restaurants have opened or expanded since the initial TOD plan was developed, in part because of the improvements and "sizzle" engendered by the TOD improvements. Minimal new parking for these restaurants is needed, since they peak in the evening after the commuters have returned home. So the large parking lots around the train station are not wasted in the evenings but have a second use.
Like all planning efforts, implementation is the key. A colorful plan that is not implemented is simply attractive wall paper. A key to successful implementation is the involvement of the decision makers. The Village government and local businessmen have to be convinced to make the investments necessary to implement the plan.
Transit Oriented Development can be an effective tool to rebuild an older transit community while increasing the use of transit.
John De Laurentis http://www.rtachicago.com/