Towards Transit-Oriented Development

Stopping sprawl in the Bay Area

Urbanist Article May 1, 2001

The Bay Area is projected to grow by about a million people in the coming 20 years (from 6.8 to 7.7 million), propelled by a remarkable economy. If the region persists in “planning as usual,” many of the residents we can expect by 2020 will be located on the outer fringes of the region, or even beyond its traditional boundaries, and for mobility we will continue to rely primarily on the freeway and the auto. Staying on this path would also maintain our dubious and debilitating distinction of having the highest housing costs in the nation, will intensify traffic congestion, and will do nothing to moderate our high energy consumption and other damaging environmental pressures.

The auto-dependent centrifugal sprawl that has prevailed for the last 50 years is an economic anachronism. This is due in part to our region’s unique geographical pattern: where relatively close-in housing is found in other regions, we have a bay; where one central city exists elsewhere, we have several, and over a hundred smaller cities. Yet we do have one geographic advantage: unlike most other regions we have large but generally linear natural corridors and valleys traversing the region, conducive to efficient transit.

A central theme of this newsletter is that the region should address housing, transportation, and environmental needs by increasing the use of an upgraded transit system, achieving this in substantial part by building large amounts of housing within walking distance of major transit stops, while protecting older residential areas. We could generate scores of transit-oriented developments (TODs), made up of multi-unit mixeduse buildings with associated services in carefully and innovatively designed ensembles.

The concepts of “apartment building” or “high-rise” need to be rethought and redesigned, so that an increasing portion of middle-class Bay Area citizens look favorably upon denser settlements of multi-family housing, rather than single family houses. Buyers and renters of housing in transit-oriented developments are already present in the market, and developers, builders and financiers are ready to supply them. But segments of the public and many officials in Bay Area localities resist increases in density, and use local zoning, litigation, EIRs, and ballot initiatives to discourage such increases, even though many of the objections that generate such opposition can be met by excellence in design of the needed TODs.

Changes in the laws, and in the powers of local authorities and the incentives influencing them, would be required to speed the transition to TODs, or any post-sprawl regional pattern of growth. The state of California, perhaps together with other funding organizations, would need to provide the necessary incentives and powers for local Bay Area officials to create and manage transit-oriented development, and the state would also need to help establish the institutional arrangements to secure it.

One possible revision of California law fostering transit-oriented development for the Bay Area, perhaps to be called the Transit-Oriented Center Development Act, could include the following principles:

1. A statutory preface to unequivocally state California’s desire to encourage the integration of housing construction with transit availability, and to advance large-scale TODs as solutions to the Bay Area’s transit, housing and land use impasse.

2. The authorities, incentives and resources of the MTC, as well as BART, Caltrain, and other transit operators, to be mobilized and made fully usable to participate in and cooperate with local land development operations for TOD purposes.

3. A regional entity to be created, either stand-alone or as an adjunct of an existing agency, to advise and expedite TOD planning. It would review and evaluate locally approved plans and might certify those which met its criteria to be eligible for state and federal funding, or to be exempt from potentially applicable state or federal sanctions, such as the withholding of other public funds. It would manage these and other “carrots” and “sticks” vigorously. It would maintain coordination and linkages with (or could be a part of) MTC or ABAG, and would relate to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), and water resource and water quality agencies. It would also act as liaison to all of the region’s counties and cities, transit organizations, county congestion management agencies, state government offices, federal agencies, and applicable redevelopment agencies.

4. TODs would be made an acknowledged public purpose for the exercise of certain redevelopment powers, with limited but strategic use of eminent domain. Similarly, legislative approval would be extended to public policy actions aimed at preventing the displacement of resident populations due to land use change, often called gentrification. A showing of pre-existing blight would no longer be required as a precondition for redevelopment near transit.

5. The needed powers required for coordination, planning, regulation, acquisition, development and finance, which are not now clearly established as valid under current state law, would have be addressed and put in place by the state legislature.


6. The law would provide that once an Environmental Impact Process has been performed for a planned TOD, its findings would also cover individual projects within the plan and within its buildout period, so that in the normal case, environmental review need not be repeated for individual structures.

7. External funding would be needed for localities for comprehensive plan revision, zoning map and text revision, redevelopment study, specific plans, more detailed design work for getting TODs underway, and for land acquisition and construction, including guarantees, for TODs. Construction funds under existing housing and infrastructure programs would be steered to TOD locations, including financial backing for various incentives, such as mortgage support, tax preferments, and direct subsidies, perhaps targeted to special expense items, such as underground parking. Projects upgrading transit or adapting it to TODs would be given access through the state transportation planning process to such funding sources as state appropriations, infrastructure bonds, sales tax revenue, gas taxes, bridge tolls, parking fees, etc.

Other, non-legislative actions would also be essential:

1. To build, mobilize and inform a constituency to monitor progress, citizens’ planning groups similar to SPUR would be needed throughout the region.

2. Existing local residents often have an initial reaction of opposition to planned changes. Therefore, from the earliest stages, an inclusive local public planning process would need to be conducted to develop existing residents’ views on their specific needs, and to inform them fully of the convenience and other benefits to them of creating a TOD in their community. The legislation discussed above would facilitate and fund this essential work by cities. As measures of equity and support for neighborhood stability, present residents, especially renters, would need to know from the outset that they would be protected by strong rent and eviction controls, and that those living in buildings to be torn down or renovated would have access to replacement housing, similar in cost and size, in the TOD.Spur logo

About the Authors: 

SPUR Regional Planning Committee

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