The words of the day at ULI’s Sept 23 California High-Speed Rail TOD Marketplace at Anaheim Convention Center were “huge,” “mega” and “transformative.”

If the U.S. – California specifically – can remove development and funding speed bumps, the placemaking mojo of high-speed rail (HSR) stations will be “unlike anything in the American rail transportation experience,” said Gideon Berger, AICP, Fellowship Director, Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use Urban Land Institute.

“Nearly a quarter-mile long (about the size of the Empire State Building turned on its side), they will attract the number and kind of travelers more similar to airports than to existing rail system hubs, and consequentially attract uses that we might find near airports today.”

But what if local communities don’t want “huge” and “transformative?” Already, officials in the City of Palo Alto have expressed intense opposition to its proposed HSR station, citing concerns about increased traffic and parking requirements. Even nearby Stanford University, which might ordinarily support such progress, is opposed. Leading a panel on Placemaking and Community Outreach, Rachel MacCleery, Managing Director, ULI Infrastructure Initiative, suggested that NIMBY-ish cities might be won over by touting HSR’s economic development potential and the new amenities it can bring to a community… in the same way that well-designed transit-oriented developments (TODs) can, only more so.

Marilee Utter, President, Cityventure Associates, advised that HSR advocates target a constituency sometimes overlooked by community-relations programs: developers and the business community.

“Let’s talk to the business community in their own language. New high-speed rail stations in California represent about $45 billion in investment, or about $1.7 billion of economic development per station area. The successful completion of all major projects in the U.S. is due more than ever to the business community making the case. The government has the money, but business has the power.”

As for convincing landowners to part with their property for station development, Utter advised not targeting them at public meetings: “Instead, talk to them one-on-one. Bring just one or two people from the public sector. Ask them about the history of the property. There may be a family connection to the land that is important to them. Listen to each situation. After that, you will have a better idea of who is willing to play.”

Commenting on the NIMBY issue, Ron Altoon, incoming Chair of ULI Los Angeles, and principal at Altoon + Porter Architects, stressed that certain infrastructure elements are entirely necessary for the health of the entire community, no matter what smaller communities or individuals may say.

“The only thing that can destroy a free democracy is a free democracy,” he said. “If the greater good is sacrificed at the altar of individual rights, we’re all the worst for it at some level. We have to understand that there are far more people in California now than before, and that encouraging mobility is crucial to our economic and cultural future. If we don’t solve the public transit system, we will strangle our children’s future.”