Tag Archives: transit-oriented development

The Charlotte Streetcar: Y’all Got it Wrong.

20 Jul The CityLynx Gold Line's first ride open to the public.

This past Tuesday, I beamed with pride for my City of Charlotte as Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, and our mayor, Dan Clodfelter, cut the ribbon to begin the CityLynx Gold Line streetcar service. I’ve lived and visited where there are streetcar lines, and often longed for an America where tracks  once crissed and crossed our cities. I have always appreciated the past and the lessons it teaches us – I grew up in a neighborhood built around the streetcar, as many of our most loved neighborhoods were. I’ve seen the transforming qualities that streetcars can bring to the built environment in cities like Seattle, Portland, and Tampa. I was beyond excited and on cloud nine. Then in the week following I’ve cringed at the press, the media getting it all wrong, and conversations I’ve overheard making fun of it: it’s too expensive, it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s too slow, it’s a nuisance. There are people who will never support the streetcar, as they oppose most projects that use tax money to build public projects. But I realized there are many people out there who would support it, if they just understood it better.

The CityLynx Gold Line's first ride open to the public.

The CityLynx Gold Line’s first ride open to the public.


It’s easier to understand the streetcar when you look at it as a strategy for economic development instead of an efficient mode of transportation. If you look at it just from a transportation perspective, which is easy since the streetcar is technically a mechanism that will get you from point A to point B, it doesn’t appear to be efficient compared to your car (right now at least. As the City grows, parking and traffic will  become more of a problem.) Yes, the streetcar travels at 16 mph and at this stage only travels 1.5 miles. And while you can still catch a delicious dinner at Carpe Diem before taking the line to a Charlotte Hornets game, the CityLynx Gold Line is really about integrating parts of our city together that have long been divided, and bringing economic development where the market has been dragging for decades.

It has been proven in cities all across America that private investment follows public investment in rail. Whether its light rail or a streetcar, investors know that that route isn’t changing once the tracks are laid. We’ve seen it happen in Charlotte. All of those apartments in the Southend? It’s because of the light rail. Southend has been one of the most vibrant and sought after neighborhoods in Charlotte since the light rail’s announcement in 2000. Since its opening in 2007, it helped the neighborhood brave the recession with continued investment on the corridor. Now, we are seeing the same thing happen in NoDa with the anticipation of the Blue Line Extension opening in 2017. Projects are popping up in the historic arts neighborhood, which hasn’t seen any new construction in years. In the first phase of the streetcar, we saw restaurants and offices open up on Elizabeth Avenue, despite the road in front of it being closed for months – usually a death wish for any business.

At the streetcar opening ceremonies, Secretary Anthony Foxx touched on some of these points, along with a call to action for Charlotte to be a leader in this country – even at the cost of ignoring politics coming out of Raleigh. “You can’t ignore Raleigh, but I can” was met with roaring applause. He’s right – the three intentions of the streetcar as listed below will do so much for our City and is money well spent. A challenging journey lies in front of us, but its benefit is much greater than the political opposition and land mines that lay along the way. In short, here is what Charlotte’s streetcar can achieve:

Anthony Foxx at the GoldLynx Streetcar Opening Ceremony

Anthony Foxx at the GoldLynx Streetcar Opening Ceremony

1.     The Streetcar Creates a Market Where There Isn’t One

The Charlotte streetcar will extend to the West side of Charlotte to Johnson C. Smith University, a historically African-American University, in its next phase due to open in 2019. It will continue through Uptown, traverse under the I-77 Overpass, long acting as a barrier separating black from white since its construction, and through the Historic West End. In a later phase it will continue farther west, all the way to the Rosa Parks Transit Center past I-85. It will also travel east, through Eastway to the old Eastland Mall redevelopment site. Both of these areas of Charlotte haven’t seen investment in decades. Charlotte has grown primarily in the North-South direction. Developments have popped up along the Providence Road corridor and I-485 interchanges to the south, while towns by Lake Norman, Huntersville, Cornelius, and Mooresville, have boomed in the last few decades. Along with this growth has come millions of investment in infrastructure and public services. Little effort has been made to tie together east and west in our City. Because of this, parts of these areas are in a state that paving roads and building sidewalks will never help them climb out of. We need a catalyst – something that will spur an influx of private investment to revitalize and turn our City around. The streetcar is that catalyst that creates an East-West axis that will integrate and celebrate our historically diverse population and their neighborhoods. Even beyond encouraging redevelopment, the streetcar line is doing what is right. It’s bringing us and our City together.

The CityLynx Gold Line at build out showing all phases. (Image Source: www.charmeck.org)

The CityLynx Gold Line at build out showing all phases. (Image Source: http://www.charmeck.org)

2.    The Streetcar Encourages the Type of Development That These Neighborhoods Need

The light rail is more efficient getting people places because it is able to go faster. It goes faster in part, because the stops are farther apart. Light rail has been huge in getting people in and out of downtown. In the Southend especially, we have seen an area (a 1/4 – 1/2 mile radius from the station) that is very walkable with supporting pedestrian infrastructure. People live here and commute on the light rail to Uptown for work or entertainment. Station areas further out are mostly park and ride stations, with less connectivity and block network to support transit-oriented development. The light rail has its place – it alleviates commuter traffic, creates less pollution, and allows us to contribute less of our built environment to car-oriented facilities. And while the light rail works in many Charlotte locations, the streetcar is a catalyst that can create continuous dense and walkable development built around unique  and active public infrastructure. Because it is slower and operates in the street instead of on a separate track, it can stop more often and be better integrated into the pedestrian infrastructure. Despite the media’s portrayal, pedestrians and cyclists can easily and safely mingle with the streetcar. The result is continuous and overlapping nodes of walkability that attract mixed-uses, commercial, entertainment, and residential uses. This is the most appropriate for the east-west streetcar line since the majority of neighborhoods that need revitalization are within a mile or so of Uptown. The West End especially, is an area where its existing historic and walkable areas should be preserved and enhanced. With the streetcar travelling along one of its main neighborhood corridors, it will encourage a huge increase in pedestrian activity, while preserving the unique character.

3.     The Streetcar Maximizes the Infrastructure We Have

It costs $6 million a square mile to build a four-lane road in a suburban environment. (www.artba.org) For the entire cost of the streetcar in Charlotte at $150 million, we could have only built 25 miles of streets. When you look at a development like Ballantyne, it has more than 25 miles of roads that need to be maintained every year. Additionally, new fire stations, more police officers, and other public services are invested in for a huge amount of urban sprawl in Charlotte. Instead, the streetcar route is already supported by existing infrastructure and public services. Private investment along the line will increase the tax base in these areas, better supporting the services that protect them. With fewer roads built, the City will have less of a drain on their resources to maintain a growing amount of infrastructure. Existing roads, utilities, and services, especially in the East and West sides of Charlotte that the streetcar will connect and transform, will easily support the amount of development in Charlotte for decades. And it will do so without needing to further expand our boundaries – and paying a hefty fund to do so. So while people complain about the cost of the streetcar, it is no different from the City pumping millions into sprawling road networks and maintenance to support sprawl. Except that it makes a heck of a lot more sense.

So for all of those who don’t quite get the streetcar, hopefully now you do. I invite you to watch as this streetcar line helps to transform our city – it already connects our bus and light rail systems, healthcare and education facilities, entertainment, and small businesses. I can’t wait to see what the future holds, especially for the parts of our City that have been long forgotten on the other side of the I-77 overpass.

My Dad, and my urban adventure partner in crime

My Dad, a.k.a. my urban adventure partner in crime

The Tale of Two Targets: Design Principles in Achieving TOD.

18 Feb

Density. For planners and urban designers helping to create transit-oriented developments (TODs), density is the crucial factor in achieving a critical mass for ridership and a mixed-use walkable environment that will entice people out of their cars. In many cases if planners can’t reach that threshold of density than transit is the baby that gets thrown out with the bath water.

Density continues to be extremely important to the success of transit, and in looking at the largest cities in the U.S., residential and employment density correlate strongly with the percentage of transit modal share. But increasingly, physical access and the walkable environment of a TOD are getting face time in the transit debate. Reconnecting America, arguably the organization taking the lead in TOD, highlights street design, public space design, and connectivity to transit as must-dos. Even if the density threshold is met, in many cases if these urban design principles aren’t used in land use planning, premium transit won’t acquire its maximum ridership.

In working on a corridor plan in southeast Florida, I, along with my project team, are thinking extensively how to retrofit the land use design along a large arterial, that for the majority of its length traverses a low density suburban context. Through our short-term and long-term land use recommendations, we hope that it will be retrofitted to provide better access to the public transportation it currently has, as well as be able to easily become a transit-oriented corridor (TOC) in the near future. In preparing this corridor for its birth as a TOC, we are employing four design principles that I would argue are most effective in creating an environment supportive of transit-oriented development: connectivity, enhancements to the public realm, site orientation, and ground floor design and use.

Connectivity

Connectivity is the degree of which streets, roads, and pedestrian routes are joined together. The more connected the street network through a site, the more access and circulation options are provided. If an urban fabric has a high degree of connectivity, it provides many ways for users to navigate their environment and, in the process, reduces the extent to which all travelers must rely on one route.

Increasing the number of multimodal routes that connect with transit-oriented corridors will have many benefits, most notably:

  • alleviate automobile congestion by providing more navigational choices to users to reach destinations more efficiently,
  • allow the corridors to maintain their current width or be narrowed through a road diet to accommodate multimodal forms of transportation , and
  • create a physical environment that is conducive to mixed-use development and increase transit ridership.

Public Realm Enhancements

The “public realm” refers to space that is publicly owned, accessible, and maintained. Design enhancements to the public realm along major corridors provide more appropriate facilities for transit, transit-users, and the mixed-uses supportive of transit. Alterations to the public realm along transit-oriented corridors can include improvements to buffers such as landscaping and lighting, enhancement of pedestrian-dedicated space such as sidewalks, and allowance of space for outdoor commercial activities.

Enhancing the public realm along transit-oriented corridors will have many benefits, most notably:

  • encouraging uses to access transit through direct and efficient routes to station facilities,
  • providing space for station facilities and supporting public space required of premium transit,
  • creating a comfortable environment along the corridor for transit users in between transfers, and
  • creating the active public space required for a healthy mixed-use environment

Site Orientation

Site orientation is how buildings are located on a site in relationship to the public realm. In the past few decades, especially along commercial corridors that are designed-oriented for the automobile, parking lots have taken precedence over the building’s relationship to the street. In more urban environments that were developed before mainstream use of the automobile, buildings are located adjacent to the street and parking is accommodated on the street or by more modest lots the rear of the building.

Traditional site orientation along transit-oriented corridors has many benefits, most notably:

  • creating a sense of enclosure along the street that helps contributes to a comfortable environment for pedestrians,
  • achieving a building height-to-street ratio of at least 6:1 to achieve an urban character along the corridor,
  • allowing the overlooking of public space, which is instrumental in creating safe environments for people, and
  • creating an efficiency in travel for transit users and pedestrians between destinations

Ground Floor Design and Use

Instrumental in creating an urban environment that is conducive to transit-oriented development is an active public realm. Regulating the design and use of the ground floor of buildings adjacent to pedestrian space and transit facilities can have an enormous effect or the safety, comfort ability, and commercial success of the corridor.

Active ground floor spaces can have many benefits, most notably:

  • an overlooked a safe environment for pedestrians and transit users
  • creating an appealing space with a strong identity that attracts people and business, ie: “placemaking”

A co-worker  made the observation that many of the sites that host the low density retail product that we were charged with retrofitting along this corridor often shared the same context, plot size, and density. In our research of the design alternatives for traditional big box sites locally we stumbled across two Targets, one in Tampa and one in Orlando, that illustrate the importance of design principles in development along future transit-oriented corridors.

Target - Dale Maybry Highway, Tampa, FL and Target - Orange Avenue, Orlando, FL

Target – Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, FL and Target – Orange Avenue, Orlando, FL

The Target located on Dale Mabry Highway and I-275 in Tampa was welcomed by many when it was built in 2005. By building stores adjacent to a multi-story parking deck, the design included three times the amount of parking and stores located on the same site. A higher density of development was certainly achieved. It was a different alternative to the typical suburban development that had been seen for the past 4 decades. In this case, I believe “different” might have been substituted with “good,” and for lack of a better example, even considered “urban.”

Target - Dale Maybry Highway, Tampa, FL

Target – Dale Maybry Highway, Tampa, FL

  1. Connectivity: The site design does not include any streets through the site and therefore the one access road to the north of the shopping center is congested, contributing to traffic along the corridor
  2. Public Realm Enhancements: There is no public realm dedicated to pedestrians or cyclists at all in the development, which encourages car usage
  3. Site Orientation: Instead of orienting the buildings on the site so that the liner building in front of the parking garage fronted the corridor, a surface parking lot and out parcel buildings were placed along the road. The result is a poor quality pedestrian environment with no clear connections to transit
  4. Ground Floor Design and Use: Solid walls bordering circulation space and inactive uses like a parking garage contribute no activity to the public realm and creates an inhospitable walking environment

The Target located on Orange Avenue in Orlando however, achieved the same program and density (even more actually) while addressing its urban context and properly employing the four design principles. The difference in the quality of place and access to the urban corridor is absolutely staggering.

Target - Orange Avenue, Tampa, FL

Target – Orange Avenue, Tampa, FL

  1. Connectivity: The site design includes two north-south and one east-west through-roads that disperse circulation throughout the site and alleviates congestion on the corridor. This also makes the mixed-uses included in the development more accessible to bordering neighborhoods
  2. Public Realm Enhancements: Sidewalks in the development and adjacent to neighborhoods are comfortable for pedestrians. Proper buffering is provided by vegetation and on-street parking
  3. Site Orientation: Instead of placing suburban outparcels along the corridor, buildings are placed directly fronting the sidewalk. While they do not achieve a density desired on a TOD corridor they do create a more urban and walkable character.
  4. Ground Floor Design and Use: Solid walls are avoided where possible. Facades that face the public realm are majority fenestration and provide active uses adjacent to open space.

These two development examples illustrate how important required design standards are in achieving a land use and pattern required of transit-oriented design. While many design principles could be put in place along designated transit-oriented corridors, requiring connectivity, a well-designed public realm, active ground floor uses, and site orientation will achieve a high-quality level of development. The below picture shows from a site planning perspective how easily the higher quality development in Orlando could be achieved on the same site in Tampa.

Dale Maybry, Tampa, FL

Dale Mabry, Tampa, FL

In fact, we realized that this is the case among many Targets, including the one on our corridor in Hollywood, FL.

Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, FL

Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, FL

And the Target in my home town of Charlotte.

Charlottetowne Avenue, Charlotte, NC

Charlottetowne Avenue, Charlotte, NC

We need to remember that “different” doesn’t always mean better. And while we are making progress in achieving a higher density and more program on a site, we could make even a bigger difference on many of our future transit-oriented corridors if we are just aware of how cities as close as an hour away are integrating the same big box products. While density certainly lays the foundation for a rich TOD, its optimal success is dependent on the quality of place achieved by traditional urban design.

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