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Thoughts On California's Transit-Oriented Development

Paul Shigley on
Jun 1, 2006

I tend to be skeptical about land use policy and development trends in California. Every time I leave the state, I see creative developments and practices that we Californians should be implementing. Instead, we’ve got “smart growth” developments that are nothing more than dense suburbia, and a system of funding government that encourages more of the same.

Can’t we get anything right? I wonder.

A recent trip to the East Coast suggests that, yes, we Californians can get things right.

While attending a program at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I and about two dozen other journalists had the opportunity to tour three transit-oriented development (TOD) sites. What I learned was that California — especially the Bay Area — is way ahead in the TOD game.

The first project we visited, which is in the early stages of development, is a residential-office-retail project in the suburb of Medford, Massachusetts. The second site, in Revere, is only a parking lot, but planners envision a mixed-use project with a linear park. The third project, mostly complete, is part of a larger South Boston waterfront redevelopment. All three sites are accessible via the “T,” the Boston region’s public transit system.

By California standards, the Medford and waterfront projects are nice but ordinary. What struck me is how new they are. The T is the second oldest subway system in the country, and it has about 600,000 riders a day. A similar number of people use various commuter rail, trolley and bus services. These are big transit numbers, due in part to the fact that driving — and parking — in Boston is impractical.

Yet, according to Office for Commonwealth Development, only four TODs, two of which are quite small, have been built. Only now is the trend finally taking hold, as 11 projects are under construction and at least 30 more are in the planning stages.

The Bay Area, in contrast, has been building TODs since the 1980s, mostly adjacent to BART stations. In Southern California, cities are planning TODs in anticipation of getting rail transit. One Pasadena project was completed and occupied years before the Metro Gold Line showed up.

I happen to think it’s a good idea to place residences, offices, shops, civic facilities and colleges in close proximity to public transit. And with gasoline at $3.50 a gallon, I’m betting that a few thousand people living or working in Contra Costa Centre — right next to the Pleasant Hill BART station — are feeling awfully smug right now.

In Revere, Massachusetts, today, an asphalt parking lot covers two acres between a subway station and a popular ocean beach. Think that real estate would still be a parking lot if it were in California?

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