Thursday, April 23, 2009

TOD and the Hood

One of the new concepts that is all the rage right now in planning, especially Maryland planning is Transit Oriented Development of for short, TOD. Actually TOD is not really a new concept, many developments in the state and across the nation have tried implementing TOD over the past two decades. And if you want to take it back even further then that, just about all city neighborhoods before the car era were transit oriented development. In the early 1900’s, how else were you going to get to work without living next a train station or trolley stop without having to walk?

Fast forward to today. There has been a push to reverse the trend of auto dependent neighborhoods and reclaim the streets for the pedestrian. But in order to make a more walkable neighborhood, developments and land uses must be clustered together or even stacked together to reduce the number of trips a resident, shopper or worker would have to make by car or transit. Across the country TOD has had tremendous effects on suburban commuter stations and on large redeveloped greyfields and brownfields. These large TOD projects which either built around new transit stops or redeveloped large swaps of acres and parcels have created a sense of place, a sense of community and ultimately a destination.

If TOD can work in the suburbs, it can only be just as successful in cities, where the infrastructure and transit is already place, right? Well…not so much.

Redevelopment of any kind can be…difficult. So difficult and expensive that it can scare developers away. Besides cutting through government red tape and most likely changing zoning laws to accommodate TOD, developers have to seek out and buy out every parcel, deal with community groups, clean up the site and the prove to bankers that this risky inner-city development is just as stable for a loan as a new development in the burbs. Mind you searching out deeds is tedious. I once did a title search for property in Philadelphia that still showed former President William Harrison as the owner. So redevelopment can be very tough but it can be done…if done properly.

Now there are two kinds of TOD projects in inner-cities. Those that succeed and turn a profit and those that fail miserably while blowing hundreds of millions of the tax payers dollars. I’ll first cover the latter because there are a lot of failed TOD’s. In fact some planners will argue that most of the failed TOD projects were not TOD at all. They will tell you that they were really Transit Adjacent Development or Transit Related Development but whatever they were they did not implement all of the criteria needed for a successful TOD. This is all very true. Many critics of TOD (who deride it’s costs) point out the failures of Transit projects that were not really TOD at all.

When planners point out successful models of TOD from across the country, they all employ the same techniques of TOD planning which seeks to create an almost 24-7 living-working transit environment. But what planners often do not point out is that inner-city TOD projects all share one similar trait in common…instant gentrification. As I have stated in posts before, it is really difficult to build for a low income community who by the way are the ones who will use transit the most. This problem is compounded if that same neighborhood is a transitional neighborhood aka “
a neighborhood that doesn’t matter” when trying to plan for the needs of the existing residents. So while a great new half a billion development is going to go up in a low income neighborhood to take advantage of it’s great infrastructure, almost none of the neighborhoods needs will be addressed in the new plan.

With so much funding, borrowed money and reputations on the line, developers are seeking to turn a large profit to offset massive debts. Ad for government officials the opportunity to completely revitalize a struggling community into a thriving commercial hub which will dramatically increase revenue and population is all but a not brainer. The consequences of potentially displacing an inner-city community certainly are not enough to outweigh new construction, jobs and growth.

So what happens to the community? Well it means neighborhoods stores and shops will now be replaced with national chain stores that are found in the suburbs to entice the young middle class to move back into the city. Which means the small grocer will be replaced by a Whole Foods. The coffee and doughnut shop will get replaced by Starbucks. The corner liquor store will get replaced by an upscale liquor store that sells mostly wine. The Chinese Food spot will get replaced by Quizno’s. So even if the existing residents do not get pushed out by rapidly raising property values, they will get priced out of their everyday way of life.

What was layered inner-city community chock full of history will be replaced by bland brick suburban architecture that mimics the suburban TOD. Now something is wrong with this picture when the city mimics the suburbs to entice suburbanites about the joys of city living. But this pattern of development is occurring cities all across the nation. Once again is easier to mass develop a project then to do it incrementally by working with separate land owners. It is far easier for one developer to buy out everything and redevelop everything at once. Now don’t get me wrong, when implemented right, these TOD projects are wildly successful but I have not seen one project yet that was able to keep the existing culture of the neighborhood.

The challenge for planners today is to make TOD work for the inner-city and not only for the new proposed residents. The solution for neighborhood revitalization can no longer be bringing in a new group of higher income to make the neighborhood better. This game of spatial mismatch has to end because there is no more developmental space in our metro areas to push people around anymore. Gentrification in our cities is now pushing out the working class, who depend on transit out of cities into the suburbs while suburbanites are now moving back to downtowns and cities with the choice of they want to use transit.

Lastly developers and planners must realize that people make neighborhoods and not buildings. While it is sad that layers of architectural history get removed for bland architecture that looks the same from Dallas to Boston, the razing of buildings does not mean the razing of the culture of that neighborhood and you develop the land as if it were a clean slate. And simply reclaiming some past vestiges and relics of the neighborhood or renaming new buildings and streets after former residents does not continue the legacy of that neighborhood without the people. While as planners we will always plan for the future to make better neighborhoods, we must always remember to plan for the needs of the people and not to the needs of a concept or theory.

Thanks for reading!

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