Land use practices for Transit Oriented Development

Successful TOD depends on the cooperation of numerous private and public partners, and among them are those who set the requirements for the city’s master plan and enforce the zoning purposes. In order to achieve the desired results with the TOD, the land must first be zoned for such use.

Standard Euclidian zoning may not be appropriate for TOD areas. There is going to be a separation of land uses, however the existing zoning has more than likely places undesirable elements such as heavy industrial facilities or nuisances far away from places where people like to live, work, and play (assuming of course that they do not work at these facilities). A first step to analyze land use once potential TOD locations have been identified is a auditing of the land within a mile radius. For most Rust Belt cities, it is going to be very likely that Euclidean zoning and a high separation of land uses have deemed the areas there a TOD is being considered to be some variant on “commercial” zoning (White, 1999). This zoning in itself as currently written is detrimental to TOD development.

The biggest surface issue with Euclidean zoning is that while the land uses are separate to keep problematic parcels away from the people, it does not permit mixed-use structures. Zoning practice increased along with American suburbs, whose residents were concerned that the dirty cities that they were fleeing would follow them, and zoning helped to protect them (Tyler &Ward, 2011).

In Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit Oriented Development, Dittmar and Ohland outline a six-pronged skeletal approach for successful TOD Zoning. They are:

  • Create customized zoning for projects integrating transit facilities.
  • Minimize customized planning and discretionary review for standardized TOD projects.
  • Provide an explicit foundation in policy and politics.
  • Engage transit organization policy leadership.
  • Meet Multiple Objectives.
  • Anticipate a lengthy timeline for customized projects.

These points are to compliment their “ABCs of TOD”: Active, walkable streets; building density and intensity; and careful integration of transit (Dittmar & Ohland, 2004).

These six points are extremely important for Rust Belt cities in order for them to be able to execute TOD plans. Particularly, the customized zoning and the multiple objectives are to be paid special attention to. While all points are important, these are going to require a great attention.

TOD projects are likely to occur outside of a master planning process and the zoning may need to be customized for each TOD site. The same way that there are numerous designations for zoning commercial, residential, agricultural, and industrial (such as R1 (multifamily), R2 (single family), etc.), it is reasonable to think that a city which wants to launch 4 TOD sites may have T1, T2, T3, and T4, which each site being zoned separately. This will help to maximize the number of uses that a piece of land can be suited for, allowing for more freedom and market based controls over what will work in the TOD. This organic approach opens up the market to decide weather or not small boutiques will survive, or if miniature Wal-Mart locations are better for the community. There may also be specialty regulations at the state level, such as mandating that all casinos be based along a waterway that may need to be addressed if the TOD is also waterfront property.

Kaid Benfield, director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, feels that the a strong aspect of TOD zoning is moving away from Euclidean zoning and more towards a system of form-based codes (Benfield, 2012). The idea behind a form-based code is that instead of focusing purely on land use, it looks at the different ways that you can design a place and move to improve the aesthetics, character, how buildings relate to each other. A form based code is more for the visual learner, as it relies heavily on pictures and diagrams for the “this is what we want this place to look like” instead of detailed written instructions on how buildings are supposed to be. Benfield goes on to say that:

“Form‐based codes are the indispensable tool for seeding the alternative to mega projects: incrementally assembled ensembles of smaller buildings and the human scaled places between them. This method of coding offers predictability by establishing the building, open space, landscape, and right of way standards that deliver an orderly urban form, by many development interests, over time.”

This fosters the idea that while TODs should support higher density, they also should not be overpowering. This is what is meant by “human-scaled places”, places that still have that feeling of humanity even as density increases the closer you get to the transit stop. It also supports an unknown change in the future, and developing a transit stop for the needs of today’s community may be different than the needs of the community 20 years from now. If that is the case, it should create less government red tape in the future and there should be fewer documents, if any, which would need to be amended in order to accommodate the new uses.

These form-based codes will also help in the design and construction of the transit stop within the TOD, allowing for a cohesive feel to the place. This is opposed to the idea that you can create a place, and then simply build an adjacent transit stop and expect cohesion. After the (alleged) TOD was put into place in Atlanta at the Lindbergh Metro Station, resident Peggy Whitaker had some less than warm remarks for what happened, exclaiming that “They…put together something they called TOD when it’s just a BellSouth office park with a transit station stuck onto it.” (Halbur, 2007). This is a case where a promised TOD was instead a TAD – a Transit Adjacent Development. Unfortunately, this is not limited to Atlanta’s MARTA system or any others around the country, and in moving forward Rust Belt city administrators and planners must look at the past mistakes of poorly developed TADs that focus only on buildings and transit and use that as an example of why form based codes, and a livable environment are important for the success of a development. Simply installing a train station in a corporate office park is not a TOD; it is a cop-out.

The biggest strength of form-based codes is going to be how they deal with the overall quality of life of the people who will be utilizing the area. In particular, transit riders who are going to be pedestrians the second they step off the train or bus (and may soon become cyclists). There is no way that you can have a successful TOD without it being a friendly place from the ground up, and complete streets should be a part of it.

Complete streets is the notion that a road should be set up to serve users of all modes of transportation, not only those who use the automobile. Many Rust Belt cities are slowly adding in options for complete streets proposals, usually with the addition of a bike lane. While this is a step in the right direction, it is necessary for creating a successful TOD. While the rest of the city may be slow to make progress on the conversion of old streets, the ones that should be triaged for redevelopment first are those in and around the proposed development. Changing over a half century of auto-oriented development is never easy.

Wide sidewalks, bike lanes, traffic calming measures, and a virtual abolition of setbacks for buildings are all part of what makes for a pedestrian friendly environment. Other pedestrian geared amenities are not to be overlooked either, and can go along way in altering the overall attitude of pedestrians within the TOD. Drinking fountains and public benches should be viewed not as additional comforts, but as mandatory items needed to keep the overall quality of life at a level, which meets or exceeds expectations. Even public toilets, which since their inception have never been considered places anyone wants to visit, seem to have found a recipe for success in Portland, Oregon. Looking to learn from the mistakes of failed public toilets like those in San Francisco and Seattle, Portland innovated and created a public toilet that has been met with success and even has sold them to other municipalities. Using the recipe of no running water, no mirrors, bars at the top and bottom, graffiti proof coating, and heavy-duty stainless steel (Metcalfe, 2012). While expensive, such items would be a welcome addition to public life and a option for long term TOD planning, even if they are unable to be used in the initial development.

In part of the additional zoning and form based code options to make things pleasant for pedestrians, options for property and business owners should be explored as well. If TODs are to have their own zoning designation (or at least zoning tailored to potentially apply to TODs), it may be a possibility to create incentives for these areas if it becomes difficult to attract business to the TOD. This is to be expected, as many TODs in the past have not reached the levels of success that were anticipated and as a result, businesses have not always seen the return on investment they hoped for. Using tax incentives to attract businesses into the TOD may be a necessary. These zones, sometimes called “enterprise zones” or “renaissance zones” make use of temporary tax relief so that businesses will come in under the premise that they may have drastically reduced or eliminated property taxes over a period of time. This may be a set time limit where for example there would be no property taxes for 10 years and if the provisions of the zone are not altered the property would be taxed at full market rate once the 10 years has ended. A graduated scale may also apply, for example in the first year property taxes may be 0% of what they would be without the abatement, then 10% after the first year, 20% after the 2nd year, and so fourth until the properties are all paying 100% their standard taxes. Decisions such as this are going to depend on a large number of variables for each city, including how eager businesses are to sign up to become part of the TOD, the economic outlook of the city in question, etc.

Another taxation tool that has potential to keep and improve the quality of TOD areas is the use of a Tax Increment Financing District, or TIF district. By turning TODs into TIF districts, local taxations can be applied in order to increase the number of public amenities in the TOD area. There is still much debate about whether or not TIF districts grow faster or slower than the rest of the municipality (Dye and Merriman, 2006), the growth at a TOD is going to depend on the transit system and ridership more so than localized taxation efforts.

In the case of a TIF working within a TOD, the businesses would be required to pay into a tax pool administered by a TIF district authority (TIFa) that would add additional improvements and help keep the character of the area intact. The public toilets in Portland are expensive and it may be difficult for such things to get the attention of the city when fighting for tight budget dollars. However a TIFa would be more sympathetic to these needs. Business owners have a vested interest in keeping the streets looking nice, providing public amenities such as toilets (so potential patrons are not disrupted by people who are simply looking to use the business’ restroom) will help to keep their customers happy and their businesses free of transients.

Working to keep and strengthen the character of existing neighborhoods should also be taken into consideration when looking to put together a TOD. Neighborhoods that are ethnic enclaves, contain local historical context, or otherwise contain some sort of uniqueness to them should have that uniqueness kept intact. These assets are inherent strengths of a community, and the idea of installing a TOD to bring out the welcome mat for a Starbucks and McDonalds could meet heavy resistance from the community. Existing strengths should be built off of and expanded on, not exploited or abused.

While gentrification may be the end result of newer developments and higher property values, planners should make every effort to make sure what makes neighborhoods special does not become extinct. Many times, government officials will not take notice of a change in a neighborhood until citizens voice concerns. The problem is that such concerns may not be vocalized, and the gentrification of a neighborhood may simply be accepted as an inevitability of changing times. In the case of Boston’s Italian west end neighborhood, citizens talked about how people used to be friendlier and were closer to each other personally. Even though they mourned the loss of their neighborhood cohesion, they did not seek to change it going forward (Gans, 1962). It is up to the city to keep eyes on the street, through pedestrian police officers or attending neighborhood meetings in order to make sure that the social cohesion and special character of the TOD areas are not destroyed by the new development.