By Robert Ruzzo
“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”
William Arthur Ward
Sometimes, reality can get a little daunting if one is not sufficiently careful. Witness two recent presentations touching upon the presentstate of rail transportation, particularly commuter rail, and Transit Oriented Development (“TOD”) development opportunities associated with our commuter rail system.
The first, as reported in Commonwealth magazine, was a gathering of eight experts from around the country and the world that had been convened by Congressman Seth Molson and assembled by the Urban Land Institute to spend an intensive week “gathering information on the North South Rail Link and the region’s transportation infrastructure.” Kudos to the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership for funding this study.
Part of the discussion focused on the state of TOD at commuter rail locations. As reported by Commonwealth, Robert Ravelli, a director at Contemporary Solutions in London, was quoted as saying the panel members saw the “commuter rail system as an untapped resource… a lost opportunity.” He urged close examination of TOD possibilities at all commuter rail stations, many of which, in the words of the Commonwealth article, “are just rudimentary stations with big parking lots next to them.”
On the other hand, one week later at a Regional Real Estate Development Leadership Council meeting of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, a Mass DOT/MBTA presentation noted past successes, current projects and future potential for just the kind of development called for by the ULI Study group. In a candid assessment examining both successes and failures, development projects on publicly owned land were examined in some detail. A number of these developments included the transformation of either commuter rail or end of the line park and ride facilities, including Arbor Point at Woodland station in Newton, the Carruth at Ashmont Station, Forest Hills, Mattapan High Speed Rail, Beverly Depot, and Greenbush station. Those developments run the gamut from completed to proceeding apace to struggling, but still chugging along.
How can both the (relatively) optimistic picture offered by MassDOT and the critique of the ULI study both ring true?
Three factors are worth remembering.
First, the universe is a pretty big place. The MBTA alone has more than 300 rapid transit, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit stations. Within a half-mile radius of these stations, you will find 25% of the region’s housing and 37% of the region’s jobs, all on about 5% of the region’s total land area. Regional transit authorities add further to the number of potential TOD locations. There is plenty of room within that universe for MassDOT to report its hard won successes and for others to clamor for more to be done.
While it is the belief here that within the soulless cracked asphalt of every “park-and-ride” lot, there beats the heart of a “live and ride” community yearning to breathe free, that is not going to happen overnight. But it does have to happen.
Second, every opportunity a developer envisions at a commuter rail stop brings an operational challenge with it. Operational issues, much like an offensive line in football, really only get the attention they truly deserve during periods of failure (real or perceived).
Construction, however, is by nature a disruptive event, and commuting habits are just that, habits. A disruption to the anticipated availability of parking due to construction brings with it the potential to raise the ire (and change the habits) of an (unquestionably) impacted ridership. And unlike, for example, escalator maintenance, construction period impacts have an extremely extended duration. It is therefore not surprising that many of the TOD successes to date have occurred at locations were there was in fact a surplus of parking.
Third, the MBTA is in fact frequently in competition with its neighbors. Typically, though not always, park-and-ride facilities are in a premier location with respect to the transit location; however, adjacent parcels in private hands nonetheless represent advantageous development opportunities, ones that come: (1) without the public procurement obligations and (2) blissfully removed from operational concerns.
And, for good measure, you can add in the customary challenges any development encounters in the entitlement process in Massachusetts. For example, the “friendly Chapter 40B” process that resulted in Arbor Point at Woodland Station came at the end of a ten year development effort.
What would help?
Greater planning resources for both the MBTA and host communities alike would be useful in site prioritization and co-ordination of the interests of competing properties, particularly in exploring potential temporary or “swing space” parking solutions.
While the attributes of our Comprehensive Permit Law (including its robust potential as a redevelopment tool), are routinely applauded in this space, TOD locations would benefit most from a thoughtful planning process and planning-based zoning amendments thereafter, including but not limited to Chapter 40R Overlay Districts.
Despite all of its challenges, interest in TOD continues unabated. In many respects, TOD is riding a third great transit wave. The first wave arrived upon the electrification of previously horse drawn streetcars and the resulting proliferation of streetcar suburbs; the second sizzled during the war years of the 1940s (representing the transportation equivalent of ‘the last days of disco” before the onset of suburban supremacy), and now the third wave continues to build as the combined result of animus against further development of green fields and exasperation with the congested state of the nation’s highways.
TOD’s future? As a Commonwealth, we are in it for the long haul. Let’s adjust the sails and continue forward.
“The Housing Watch” is a regular column from Bob Ruzzo, senior counsel in the Boston office of Holland & Knight LLP. He possesses a wealth of public, quasi-public and private sector experience in affordable housing, transportation, real estate, transit-oriented development, public private partnerships, land use planning and environmental impact analysis. Bob is also a former general counsel of both the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency; he also served as chief real estate officer for the turnpike and as deputy director of MassHousing.” Bob can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.