Yes, we admit it: the car is still king in California. But from LA to San Francisco an impressive list of new transit projects are beginning to change this. LA, known as the archetypal freeway city, has built or is planning more than ten new rail lines and extensions—largely spurred by 2008 ballot measure R, a sales tax hike providing billions to transit projects. In the Bay Area, recently-completed initiatives like San Francisco’s Third Street Light Rail and the San Francisco Airport extension, as well as future extensions into Silicon Valley and the East Bay, are helping connect a sprawling collection of cities. Meanwhile, California has become a test ground for High Speed Rail, with the stage set for lines running the entire length of the state in coming years.
Images Courtesy METRO or BART Unless Otherwise Noted
Thanks to changes in both attitude and development patterns, the growth in transit is bringing with it a lengthy list of Transit Oriented Developments (TODs), projects catering to a combination of mass transit, denser neighborhoods, and mixed-use and pedestrian scale development. And the leaders in TOD are none other than local transit agencies themselves, taking matters into their own hands by making huge investments, often in coordination with the field’s other players: developers, non-profits, and redevelopment agencies. In addition to several transit authorities along the path of California’s high speed rail, the leading agencies are LA County Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). “The public sector creates infrastructure, the private sector creates development. That creates harmony,” sums up Ronald Altoon, a partner at architecture firm Altoon + Porter and incoming Executive Director at the Urban Land Institute’s LA Chapter.
TOD projects have proven successful in increasing ridership for Metro and BART, containing sprawl, and earning millions of dollars in income for the agencies. Some have won awards for architecture and urban design. But of course, as with any public endeavor, they’ve got their issues. Many complain that their uses are too limited and that their connections to their communities are weak. Others complain that the focus is on the wrong D-word: Development, not Design. As developers, not architects, become TOD point people, originality and innovation often takes a back seat to the profit and practical concerns of developers and bureaucrats. Given this, combined with the high cost of TOD development and the lower incomes in many transit-oriented districts, it’s impressive when thoughtful designs emerge.
Agencies On Board
Metro’s Joint Development TOD program, founded about five years ago, has completed eight projects and is working on close to 30 more. Most are mixed-use projects dominated by multi-family residential buildings either near transit or containing their own transit stations (about a quarter of the units are affordable). Roger Moliere, Metro’s Chief of Real Property and Economic Development, calls Metro’s TOD program the biggest of any transit agency in the country. In the first five years of its existence it has brought in about $14 to $15 million a year for the agency, said Moliere.
“People want to live in cities,” said Moliere, who insists that the best way to add density in cities is with mixed-use development near transit. “I would not want to be a single family homebuilder right now.”
[ 01 ] Del Mar Transit Village
Architect: Moule & Polyzoides
Perhaps the most recognized of the completed projects is Hollywood and Vine, a mixed-use complex that contains the W Hotel as well as condos by HKS architects with elements by Daly Genik and Sussman Prejza and a glassy subway entrance by Rios Clementi Hale. Another is Wilshire/Vermont, by Arquitectonica, a mixed-use building lined with retail on its ground floor with a giant mural by artist April Greiman. Other standouts include Michael Maltzan’s One Santa Fe, a sinuous project near SCI-Arc and the Metro Red Line that will include over 400 apartments and over 750,000 square feet of ground floor commercial space, as well as Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists’ Del Mar station on the Gold Line, a New Urbanist-style mixed-use compilation of buildings around a central plaza.
The projects are generally located on land that Metro already owns, often adjacent to existing right of ways or on Metro surface parking lots, which are being converted into parking structures. Projects generally wait until rail lines are completed to begin, and Metro prefers leasing land to selling it, so it can collaborate closely on the types of buildings planned, maintain the character of development over the long haul, and ensure a steady stream of funds.
BART, meanwhile, is involved with 18 TOD projects at its stations, representing over $2.7 billion in private investment. Five have been completed and 13 are either approved or in negotiation. The agency adopted its TOD policy in 2005, hoping to increase ridership and make money. Other benefits, according to BART, include connecting with communities, creating tax revenues for cities, and increasing mixed-use and infill development instead of single use sprawl.
[ 04 ] NoHo Art Wave
Architect: A.C. Martin
According to Jeff Ordway, Manager of Real Estate and Property Development at BART, TOD’s were part of the agency’s original mandate in the 1960s, but that idea fell apart when land use patterns couldn’t keep up. Starting with a modest project in Castro Valley in the late ‘90s, the agency finally got its program underway.
As opposed to Metro’s joint development, BART has no pre-determined model. “Each community is unique,” said Ordway, who points to projects that are direct leases to developers, direct sales, land swaps with jurisdictions, and joint-powers authorities for land that is split between the county and the agency. One of the more complicated land deals came about when BART and the city of Berkeley swapped air and land rights to clear the way for Leddy Maytum Stacy’s Ed Roberts Campus, a dynamic facility for non-profits that includes spiraling internal ramps, large skylights, and a memorable glass facade. Ed Roberts got the ground, BART got the air (and subsequent station and parking areas) and the development was on its way.
Ordway also notes that the agency tries to promote transit “villages,” such as the MacArthur Transit Village, a mixed-use collection of buildings located at the MacArthur stop of the Pittsburgh/ Bay Point line. “We’re trying to create something that’s sustainable, not just a building,” he said, noting that the agency will try to phase in projects with local cities and landowners, which can be a financing and zoning headache. But to Ordway, “It’s a superior product.”
[ 07 ] Hollywood & Vine
Pros and Cons
While there’s no arguing with agencies’ success at creating new TODs and their subsequent spikes in ridership and profits, some questions have arisen, like how these developments fit into their communities and whether their designs are up to par.
“TODs are not focusing enough on putting employment directly on top of transit stations,” said Egon Terplan, Regional Planning Director for San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR), who argues that the focus on residential and retail should spread to office buildings and other employment centers. A good example, he notes, is San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal’s 1,200 foot office tower. “You want offices because that’s where transit riders are going to,” he said.
“Where are the real jobs? Not just the retail jobs but the jobs that can employ the people that live in the area?” agreed Will Wright, AIA/LA Director of Government and Public Affairs. AIA/LA is trying to promote passage of the Community Plan Implementation Overview (CPIO), a local ordinance that would force new developments like TODs to “start to thinking about their integration into the community” by coordinating more closely with city planning. Wright is critical of Metro’s existing TODs, noting “almost every one has been compromised extensively because Metro wasn’t looking at the bigger picture.” He points to Wilshire/Vermont and Wilshire/Beverly on the Red Line, both with gas stations on opposite corners, which he notes are not exactly pedestrian or mass transit friendly establishments.
[ 01 ] Armstrong Place
Architect: David Baker
Meanwhile unlike the fairly consistent praise thrown at high-profile, mega-budget high speed rail hubs, local TODs’ architectural quality, according to some, is improving but still not where it needs to be. ULI’s Altoon, who praised Metro’s Moliere for turning around that agency’s TOD efforts, says that TODs have taken huge steps from their early days when designs were very “utilitarian.” But he added that design still suffers, often as a result of the high cost of developing TODs, due to many infrastructure-related burdens, lower income neighborhoods, and density. He recommends more interaction with the community for feedback as well as new financing methods to provide more design funding, like lowering rents, increasing entitlements, providing more tax incentives, or setting up business improvement districts.
[ 02 ] Walnut Creek
Architect: MVE & Partners
Metro has shown an ability to add more uses than residential and retail with upcoming projects like A.C. Martin’s NOHO Art Wave in North Hollywood, which combines a city’s worth of uses (the project is still up in the air, however), and Mariachi Plaza in East LA, which is anticipated to include not only apartments and retail but also community and office space.
Meanwhile the agency has design standards for each of its projects, said Moliere, and chooses architects through an RFQ/RFP process and a panel of four or five experts, one of those being an architect/planner. The results“are not cookie cutter by any means. We make sure they work in the context of the neighborhood,” said Moliere.
[ 03 ] MacArthur Transit Village
Architect: MVE & Partners and Van Meter Williams Pollack
But is design dominant? When asked for the names of the architects on their TOD projects the agency replied, “Architects are a subcontractor to the developer and we do not have that information.” One would hope these names would be at Metro’s fingertips if they had control over their developers’ designs.
After the ULI’s recent TOD summit in Hollywood, LA community activist Stephen Box complained that TODs, often built at a formidable scale, ignore the human experience. “The unique and personal perspective of the individual must never be lost in the awesomeness and hugeness of TOD. Unfortunately, losing that human touch is the norm, not the exception.”
[ 04 ] Ed Roberts Campus
Architect: Leddy Maytum Stacy
When asked where design fell in the mix at BART, Ordway admitted it wasn’t the top priority on the list. “We look at capability, experience, concept. An understanding of what the local jurisdiction is doing.” But he said that both design and practicalities have to be right. “It’s got to work physically. It has to relate to the street. It has to relate to the transit function. But it also has to work financially, so it’s a mixture.” Sometimes, like in Pleasant Hill, BART invited the community in for a charette.
Many of BART’s TODs are being designed by the same firm, McLaren Vasquez Emsiek & Partners, which belies a lack of architectural variety. And some in the Bay Area have criticized the agency’s TODs for not being on the cutting edge design-wise. Still the agency has pulled off some triumphs, like Leddy Maytum Stacy’s Ed Roberts Campus, and has created some livable new places, especially with its transit villages. Metro’s ability (with their developers) to draw top architectural talent like Maltzan, Arquitectonica, A.C. Martin and others has been a good step on their path from “utilitarian” structures to top notch architecture and urbanism.
Bill Leddy, a principal at Leddy Maytum Stacy, admitted to the challenges of working with BART, from meeting the agency’s many bureaucratic criteria to “making sure the right people were at the table.” The process took ten years. But in the end it was “made manageable by the key folks, like Ordway, who wanted to see this project succeed.”
High Speed Rail Joins The Party
The newest player in the TOD game is high speed rail. Because it’s still early, the only developments that have been fleshed out are a few hub stations, produced through public private partnerships— the ARTIC (Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center) Station in Anaheim and the Transbay Center in San Francisco.
Transbay, led by a team that includes Pelli Clarke Pelli and developer Hines along with the Transbay Joint Powers Authority—a collaboration of several Bay Area government and transportation agencies— is a multi modal hub that will include facilities for Cal Train, high speed rail, bus ramps, and a major office building. The station itself includes an undulating glass facade, a glassy atrium full of public art, and a 5.4-acre working park on the roof.
Courtesy Transbay Joint Powers Authority
Architect: Pelli Clarke Pelli
Artic, produced by HOK, the city of Anaheim, and the Orange County Transportation Authority, consists of a multi-modal link of high speed rail, commuter lines, Amtrak, and local and regional bus lines. The new station’s vaulted steel design will be inset with a pillow-like ETFE membrane. A lofty, wide-open hall—with a ceiling measuring over 150 feet high—will be surrounded by shops and ticket booths and bordered on its southern end by train platforms and tracks.
The areas around both developments are zoned for Transit Oriented Development. For instance Artic will contain retail space inside and out while the zoning around it calls for commercial, residential office, and institutional uses. Meanwhile the Transbay Redevelopment Plan will facilitate the development of nearly 2,600 residential units, 3 million square feet of new office and commercial space, and 100,000 square feet of retail.