Panelists at the ULI Los Angeles transit-oriented development event held in October agreed that affordable housing has moved to the top of the agenda for local agencies and planners. Traffic and walkability are still priorities, but affordable housing is the Holy Grail in the city.
“Nobody disagrees with transit-oriented development,” said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Associations of Governments. “The problem is transit-oriented development has to go hand in hand with the affordability of the people you want to serve.”
Every community has different standards, but the Los Angeles discussion offered a compelling roadmap for developers and planners around the United States. Local agencies in Los Angeles are developing new priorities and goals, panelists said. To attract support—and funding—a development must offer more than simply new shops and access to a Metro stop, speakers said.
“We’re not looking to fund business-as-usual development next to transit,” said Allison Joe, deputy director of the California Strategic Growth Council (CSGC), which helps coordinate and implement the state’s land use policies. “Development next to transit doesn’t necessarily do what we are intending to do.”
The CSGC allocates state funds for a variety of sustainability, community, and affordable housing initiatives, including California cap-and-trade funds. The group wants to fund initiatives that link the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions with housing and other community priorities—a more “holistic” approach than simple transit-oriented projects, she said.
While there may be agreement on many of those holistic goals, Los Angeles is a microcosm of the issues facing many cities. There is a wide array of stakeholders and agencies involved in most projects. And L.A. is a tapestry of active community groups, each with the ability to quickly skewer a project.
“Public outreach is 100 percent the most important thing when putting together a proposal,” said Tyler Monroe, vice president of development for Thomas Safran & Associates, a developer focused on affordable and mixed-income projects.
Typical community engagement efforts are not enough in Los Angeles these days, panelists agreed. It’s too easy for critics to rally the opposition.
“It’s really important for us to meet people where they are,” said Carla de Paz, community organizer with the East L.A. Community Corporation, a nonprofit community development group. Her organization spent six months actively recruiting people to attend meetings on a recent project. “To get people in the room, we went door to door, we went on buses, we waited on train stops to talk to people,” she said. “Folks who benefit from the proposal, we had to go find them.” The group also organized smaller, very specific focus groups with different segments of the community, including homeowners, street vendors, and local business owners.
Finding solutions that meet community interests is not simple and requires more than a symbolic effort, panelists said. In many neighborhoods, density is often a dirty word. The not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) environment is strong, with traffic and congestion always at the forefront of discussions.
“The challenge for the private developer is to truly understand what is meaningful to the community that lives around the project,” said Neils Cotter, senior vice president of developer Carmel Partners, which is building several projects in Los Angeles.
Like many cities, Los Angeles is hotly debating the issue of gentrification. Many communities feel that new mixed-use projects are simply pricing out the existing residents. The median home price in Los Angeles County, which has been steadily rising in recent years, is hovering around $530,000, according to data firm Corelogic.
“Gentrification is coming up as a bad word,” said Christine Roberts, president of the Roberts Group, a public affairs consultancy. Jobs and preservation of the local culture are key issues, she said.
L.A. planners have taken note. “We want to find ways to protect existing neighborhoods,” said Michael Kodama, executive director of Eco-Rapid Transit, a joint powers authority developing a 40-mile (64 km) high-speed transit corridor through south Los Angeles. “It’s an economic development project with a rail line through it,” he said.
His agency is developing TOD guidelines to create “healthy neighborhoods” around rail stations, he said, with an emphasis on several factors, including connecting people to jobs and training.
Affordable housing is a key part of that equation. Not only does low-cost housing address regional needs, but it also helps the economic goals of the mass transit system. Studies show that lower-income households are more likely to use public transportation, said Ann Sewill, vice president of the California Community Foundation, a philanthropic group. “Income really matters in terms of trip behavior,” she said.
Density doesn’t work without affordable housing, Sewill said. “We should have high density and transit,” she said. “But what tends to happen when you just drive towards high density is you get noncore transit users moving in and core transit users being pushed out.”
Her group is looking to encourage infill and redevelopment projects. “There is plenty of opportunities that are not necessarily virgin opportunities,” she said. The group has created a new fund to buy property and hold it for the right project.
Several speakers urged a longer-range approach to transit developments. From Uber to autonomous cars, the next generation will travel differently, and that means rethinking current guidelines.
“I believe people are building way too much parking right now,” Cotter said. “What is that parking going to look like 20 years from now?”
Transit-oriented development must ultimately address how the city can provide housing affordable and attractive to the next generation, Ikhrata said. “How do we keep them here?” he asked. “Millennials will define how we live in the future.”
Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh and a ULI senior resident fellow, wrapped up the session with something of a pep talk, urging planners to create a more targeted strategy for the region. “The same issues, the same conversation is going on everywhere,” he said. “We are at a moment in time that is a remarkable moment.”
Murphy provided a list of cities that have effectively used transit projects to transform urban centers, including Denver, Minneapolis, and Cincinnati.
“You have a choice,” he told the group. “Reach for the future; that is the choice you have.”