Metro Resilience and Transit-oriented Development

3.01.2012| The city of San Diego is taking sustainable development seriously in its $2 billion mixed-used project, Civita. The development will blend in with an existing middle-class neighborhood in fast-growing San Diego and will focus on walkable, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods anchored by mass transit. All commendable. But will it inadvertently create a “shock” to the existing neighborhood and will they be resilient to the shock should it occur?

“Civita serves as a perfect model for the future growth of the region,” Brian Schoenfisch, a senior planner for the city, told the New York Times.

As the Times reports, Civitas is one part of the larger San Diego General Plan that is reimagining development as a string of “little villages,” all walkable, all compact, which will ultimately promote attractive, comparatively dense communities in a traditionally low-density city.

And, “Concentrating homes and commercial space near rail stations has the added benefit of taking some pressure off San Diego’s overtaxed freeways. City officials expect the adjacency of housing to transit stations to build ridership for the underused trolley line.”

All of this is highly commendable. But as Rolf Pendall and colleagues write in “Bringing Equity to Transit-Oriented Development,” their chapter in a new book by BRR researchers, an often unintended consequence of transit-oriented development is gentrification and rising home prices to follow.

As Pendal and coauthors note about transit-oriented development more generally, “Sitting tenants (whether residents or small businesses) may enjoy improvements in their transit service, but they may also face higher rents, overcrowding, and involuntary displacement. Property owners…may feel compelled ot sell prematurely if their property taxes rise…”

Although not directly applicable to the neighborhood surrounding Civitas, in many cases when new transit comes to town, the lowest income families are squeezed out first. Low-income renters are particularly vulnerable. Therefore, as Pendall argues, “the concern is not just about building new affordable housing, but also about preserving options that low-income and minority housheolds already enjoy.”

His chapter draws on case studies from four cities that recently built light rail lines–granted,  a much broader transportation project than the streetcar stations envisioned in the San Diego project. In three of the four case studies–Charlotte, Denver, and Boston–affordability was built into the planning. In each case, it was incorporated because affordable housing was on the agenda of city planners already, and was an explicit goal for many. In the case of San Diego’s Civitas, they are giving a nod to affordable housing, with 150 affordable housing units and 175 units for senior citizens. But the 150 affordable housing units are less than 1% of the 4,780 planned units.

Civitas should be applauded for its goals of sustainability, using infill in urban areas, and in building more densely. But equity in housing access should be a part of any planned development, not only for lower-income families but also those with disabilities, seniors, single parents, and others who find living in denser metro areas near transiti more convenient and supportive.  The Center for Transit-Oriented Development as well as PolicyLink both offer solutions to addressing affordability and sustainability.

Ultimately, transit-oriented development, including light rail, can be a shock to a neighborhood or metro area. It can be disruptive to a metro area by encouraging gentrification, or more broadly, by shifting funding away from buses to rail, for example. In BRR work, we study how areas prepare for and rebound from these kinds of shock–what we term resilience. Pendall’s case studies offer more insight into how four metro areas dealt with the potential shocks that their light rail projects introduced. He shows what it took to build the capacity for resilience in these four metro areas–some successfully, some not. He ends on a note of both optimism and caution. Transit-oriented development (and sustainability projects more generally), he and his coauthors argue, offer a unique opportunity to construct a more sustainable region, where equity, environmental quality, and economic development coalesce. But it will not come naturally or easily.

Photo by Christopher MacKechnie, for About.com

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