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Transit-oriented development, the lagging MTA, and the AY example

Maybe the issue is regional, and the outsize scale of the Atlantic Yards project relates partly because of the failure to develop housing at sufficient density and affordability in the car-dependent suburbs.

Indeed, there’s a lot of transit-oriented development (TOD) taking place—in New Jersey, at least. “New York State is more than 15 years behind New Jersey in its smart growth and TOD policies,” declared Ellyn Shannon, a transportation planner for the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee (PCAC) to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

She spoke at a symposium Wednesday on Transit Oriented Development in the New York Metropolitan Region. The PCAC two weeks ago released a report, Where is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Transit Oriented Development, calling on the MTA and its operating agencies to work in partnership with State and local governments, community organizations, and private developers to encourage TOD, which it defines as "a pedestrian-friendly, compact, mixed-use development pattern that lies within walking distance of a transit station and contains or adjoins a core commercial area."

For New York, the issue is the suburbs more than the city--after all, as one panelist pointed out, most development in the city could be considered TOD. Or, perhaps not. Though the symposium conspicuously avoided controversial developments like Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards, Jon Orcutt, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign
offered a caution in the Q&A period. “There’s a lot of bad car development going on,” he said, citing big box stores on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx or in Red Hook.

Even projects near transportation hubs, he added, citing Atlantic Yards, show “it’s possible to do design that isn’t the best transit-oriented development.” TSTC has issued some tough criticism of the transit plan for Atlantic Yards and contributed to the criticisms voiced by BrooklynSpeaks.

Recommendations

Larry Gould of NYC Transit said some posit TOD as “strong medicine. The fact is, TOD creates wonderful places to live.” Still, he lamented that in many suburban communities the zoning code doesn’t allow mixed-use facilities.

Indeed, the PCAC recommends "coordinating State policy and providing State resources to assist local governments in planning for transit-friendly development, linking land use and transportation in the regional transportation planning process," seeking increased resources for TOD, and working closely with local governments.

Community must be heard

But how get there? "It is a community engagement process,” said Vivian Baker of NJ Transit, which has been planning developments at land and parking lots near train stations statewide.

Long Island, reported Eric Alexander of Vision Long Island, progressive planners are fighting a legacy of single-use zoning for single-family residences that have left isolated car-dependent neighborhoods. There are numerous TOD projects in the works, including on around Nassau Coliseum.

“We need 50,000 units of affordable housing,” he said. One small but important change: a willingness to embrace something common in the city, apartments above stores. In the village of Farmingdale will move from one-story retail to two-story retail-plus-housing. “We don’t have to freak people out with seven-, eight-, ten-, 15-story plans,” he said.

What a difference a suburb makes. In Brooklyn, of course, Forest City Ratner offered fictional 15-story buildings at Atlantic Yards to distract people from the real heights.

“We have to engage the citizenry,” Alexander added. “It’s sometimes ornery, difficult, challenging, [but] they have to own these and say, ‘Hey, this is my plan.’”

To move forward, he said, planners must “educate the community on density,” must have incentives for development (such as credits to clean up brownfields), and must engage the community.

The recommendations sounded more like an endorsement of ULURP, the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, rather than the fast-track process used by the Empire State Development Corporation for Atlantic Yards.

Schematics necessary

Robert Lane of the Regional Plan Association advised that, besides town hall meetings, charettes, and other public meetings, planners must offer photo simulations of projects so the public can evaluate what’s on the table. It was a reminder to me that most press outlets have ignored simulations of the scale of Atlantic Yards, such as this from the Environmental Simulation Center for the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods.

He encouraged planners to find the intersection of transit-agency priorities, community-based goals and objectives, and technical constraints. (For AY, add to that political influences, such as the desire for a sports team, or a developer's history in the borough.) “If you’re honest with people, they will help you get there.”

“Only time is the true indicator” of whether TOD works, said Joseph Chan of the MTA.

Queens coming?

Elisa Picca of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) observed that LIRR access to Grand Central, by 2013, could have an enormous influence, cutting commuter time to the East Side of Manhattan and also leading to further development along the line. (Does that boost Sunnyside Yards as an option for the Nets?)

NYC Transit's Gould had no slideshow--he gestured out the window at the SoHo neighborhood. “You’re looking at a landscape that’s TOD,” he said, citing contiguous neighborhoods, narrow streets to slow traffic, high transit use, and a walkable design with “zero setback on buildings” away from the sidewalk.

He cited some promising TODs in New York: the Arverne development in Far Rockaway; the new Stillwell Avenue terminal, “designed in part to jump-start redevelopment in Coney Island”--a location, of course, that some have pushed for a Brooklyn arena--and the extension of the 7 subway line, “which makes it possible to develop the West Side.”

The assumption, Gould said, is “that you must provide capacity.” That raises questions in the Atlantic Yards context, as experts examining the issue for the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods have challenged the state's assumption that there is sufficient capacity for the planning project.

“We should keep an eye on each development and try to bring it to the highest quality of transit-oriented standards,” Gould concluded. And that’s what stimulated Orcutt’s comment about Atlantic Yards.

Gould responded that the MTA had the technical chops to analyze the use of platforms and stairs, and to run trains to deal with crowd surges. In the larger picture, he acknowledged, “virtually all these developments go through the policy and political structure. We technicians participate in that structure.”

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