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Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, California, speaks at a ULI LA event on transit-oriented design.

For the most part, transit-oriented developments, or TODs, remain individualized projects, planned in isolation from their surrounding communities. They tend to focus inward, serving transportation needs, perhaps adding housing and retail, but not leveraging their potential for economic development. But that mind-set is changing, particularly in Los Angeles.

Long the poster child for traffic congestion, Los Angeles is dramatically expanding its regional transit system. More than 100 transit stations are being built in response to a $40 billion commitment to new rail lines approved by voters in 2008. What has not expanded is the region’s approach to developing these stations.

In October 2013, ULI Los Angeles urged the creation of transit-oriented districts, also called mobility corridors, at a conference and report coordinated with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

“The city of L.A. and ULI-LA believe in expanding our planning agenda from individual transit stations to entire transit corridors,” says ULI’s 2013 Transit Corridors Report. “The partnership would move the public dialogue from a simple development agenda to a broader urban-design agenda that provides linkages between stations, improves access to stations, provides walkable streetscapes, and improves the mix of uses along the corridors. This would greatly increase the number of residents who would see personal benefit from the transit planning.”

Nimble Development

“There is an awakening about the need for expanded, better-planned corridors,” says Michael Dieden, founder of Creative Housing Associates, which has built successful transit villages throughout California. “The challenge is that transit agencies don’t see their mission as creating districts. They often have control over a limited amount of land and can’t buy up more acreage. So we are left with scattered remnants to create livable villages around the stations.”

But if development is able to radiate out from the stations, Dieden says, nodes and villages will form at each intersection as one walks away from the station.

“Market research shows that Americans will only walk a quarter mile,” he says, referencing the conventional wisdom on walkability. “But that is an outdated restriction. People in the West especially, where the weather is great to begin with, will walk. Especially if you make the street attractive with landscaping, shade trees, wide sidewalks. Or they will jump on their bikes. Or the new generation will jump on skateboards.”

Tomorrow’s successful corridor developers, says Dieden, will be the nimble ones: those who offer housing, retail, adaptive use, plus a host of community-serving product types. Dieden’s team is working with the city of Inglewood on a four-block-long development that includes a youth-services program, a charter school, and the restoration of a historic theater. It’s a recipe designed to accommodate—as much as possible—the needs of a transit-focused community in this particular setting.

Place Making

“Building community and place making—those values are clearly missing in TODs that do little else but hunch over a station,” says Jonathan Watts, ULI Los Angeles technical assistance panel cochair and principal of Cuningham Group Architecture. “It’s partly the fault of planners and city codes. But in a way it’s everyone’s fault. One party on its own—the transit agency, the developer, the architect, a city department—can’t solve it. It takes a team approach.”

Watts notes the groundswell of support for pop-up plazas during the administration of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan. Quickly created parks, such as those in New York City’s Times Square, give corridors a sense of place and pedestrian connectivity. Watts believes it can happen in Los Angeles, too. “Our new mayor, Eric Garcetti, is a bike rider, and the idea of multimodal connections to stations is essential,” he says. Such district-long connections can include bike lanes, bike-sharing programs, shuttle systems, and trolleys.

Indeed, at the ULI Los Angeles summit, Garcetti unveiled his Great Streets Initiative, focusing on “specific improvements to corridors throughout Los Angeles,” and coordinating a broad range of currently disconnected departments, from the Department of City Planning to the Bureau of Engineering.

One essential ingredient is the transit plaza. Watts and Cuningham Group are teaming up with developer Lowe Enterprises and the city of Culver City on a large TOD for the region’s new Expo Line light rail at Washington and National boulevards.

“It’s about setting the stage for the right mix of uses around a transit plaza,” Watts says. “Our urban plan and architectural design for the project combine hardscape with lawns and performance areas designed to give surrounding cafés and all businesses the right kind of space to be successful.”

Transparency on the Street

Also crucial, say designers, are the buildings themselves. While mixed-use housing and retail help knit together mobility corridors, not every corridor building can be apartments above shops.

John Berry, principal of John Berry Architects, which is designing several transit developments, opposes simple “hunched-over” TODs consisting typically of multifamily housing with ground-floor retail.

“Everyone gets that we want housing near the station,” he says. “But many developers and planners see only one solution: housing stacked on top of retail. These units are often opaque, massive, with no notion of transparency. They are simple monoliths, and we end up with empty storefronts. But we can design other building types in ways that engage the street. We are starting to see structures that provide views inside, drawing people along the street and offering a complete experience as they walk from one transit stop to another, strengthening the corridor.”

Berry’s recently opened Herb Alpert Educational Village lies midway between Santa Monica stations being constructed on the Expo Rail route. Fronting the street is a high school auditorium offering lively glimpses inside—to a theater, to an art gallery, to a stairway lined with books.

“It proves that spaces on the ground level of districts don’t need to be elaborately programmed, they just need to be well designed,” says Berry. “Buildings that engage the pedestrian are as important as street design, planning, and programming.”

Livable Communities

The Los Angeles Business Council’s (LABC) 2013 Livable Communities Report also focuses on station areas. It identifies specific corridors based on their ability to support community development. Its central recommendations aim to leverage “mobility hubs” to increase property values and make new housing—especially workforce housing—more financially feasible.

“Transit districts are greatly underappreciated assets,” says report author Paul Habibi, a professor at the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate. “But the right public sector incentives can transform them into some of the hottest places for workforce housing development. Once a district becomes hot in this sense, other development catches fire around it, uplifting property values and generating jobs.”

And this tends to be the kind of development the region needs: higher density, appealing to people with a mix of incomes, and clustered around transportation, providing places to live that aren’t out on the suburban fringe.

The proposed incentives allow developers to acquire less expensive land slightly farther from stations, while maintaining pedestrian, bicycle, and other alternative transit connections to the central station. They also reduce the parking requirements near transit, where parking-space minimums can stifle development.

“These mobility corridors, smartly developed and linked to each other, can provide a healthy, long-term growth strategy that the region is currently missing,” says Habibi.