In July 2012, the ten-county metro Atlanta region is scheduled to vote on a ballot initiative that would fund a rapid expansion of the region’s transit system and other transportation improvements. To discuss the referendum and explore effective ways to approach transit and transit-oriented development (TOD) in today’s era of austerity and global competition, ULI hosted a forum in Atlanta on December 6 and 7.

Titled “Retooling Places and Leveraging Transit: Overcoming Funding and Coordination Challenges to Build a Better Region,” the forum was the second of two events hosted by ULI exploring infrastructure issues for compact development in suburban locations. Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the forum focused on how regions can encourage the development of denser, more sustainable communities around transit stations and along transit corridors—and how they can fund such development.

In addition to participating in an interactive exercise in which they were challenged to think through and articulate arguments in support of and opposition to the metro Atlanta ballot initiative, attendees heard speakers describe projects in the Atlanta, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas and share lessons learned from transit ballot initiatives in other parts of the country. The importance of a long-term vision, collaboration, and innovation was a key theme that echoed throughout the forum.

John Robert Smith, president and CEO of Reconnecting America, kicked off the forum with an overview of the demographic and economic realities currently facing the United States. “Our built environment was structured around the needs of the past,” he noted, and “cities of all sizes find themselves struggling to provide the housing choices and the transportation options that our 21st-century society must have. Now is the very moment for changing the development patterns of the past, in order to provide people with truly affordable options. Just as Americans have always done in times of transition, we can—and we must—develop a new vision for the future.”

Metro Atlanta Today

The forum’s opening panel brought together a group of Atlanta-area development and transportation experts to discuss how their thinking is evolving in the face of recent economic troubles. The panelists agreed that metro Atlanta must face up to—and deal with—existing realities while also setting the stage for future growth and development. There is pent-up demand for TOD, they said, which smart developers and municipalities will begin addressing once the economy improves.

Scott Condra, senior vice president with Jacoby Development, Inc., noted that as early as the late 1980s, Atlanta was seeing the development of walkable mixed-use communities like Atlantic Station. That development “has slowed almost to a stop,” he noted. The original projects, he added, “were created as islands unto themselves. But transit connections—getting from node to node to node—are still missing.” The connections, he stressed, present an opportunity for Atlanta as it emerges from the recession—and need to be completed.

Heather Alhadeff, senior transportation planner with Perkins + Will, commented that “this economic downturn has offered the opportunity for us as a region to calm down, think about what we’ve been doing, and reassess.” And Dave Stockert, president and CEO of Post Properties, Inc., noted, “We have to acknowledge that the world has changed. We ought to be planning for a resource-scarce environment, at least for some period of time. In that context, we have to be advocates for smart transit.”

Brian Leary, president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., provided an update on the BeltLine, one the nation’s most ambitious transit and open-space investment programs. The BeltLine will reconnect four historic freight rail rights-of-way that circle the city to create an “emerald necklace” with more than 1,300 acres (526 ha) of new parks and connect 45 neighborhoods. Other key elements of the plan include a 22-mile (35-km) transit loop, 33 miles (53 km) of trails, 5,600 units of affordable housing, and the environmental cleanup of more than 1,100 acres (405 ha) of land. The BeltLine investments are being funded, in part, by a 6,500-acre (2,631-ha) tax allocation district. As of early December, $350 million worth of improvements had been put in place.

SternAtlanta_2_351Suburban Transit and TOD Lessons

Several panel discussions focused on how transit agencies, landowners, and developers throughout the nation are approaching—and funding—transit improvements and TOD that produce more walkable, livable places in suburban locations.

The DART Experience. Speakers from the Dallas region discussed how Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) and its partners have created an innovative development rating system and value-capture techniques. David Leininger, chief financial officer of DART, described how the Dallas/Fort Worth region has engaged in an ambitious buildout of the light-rail system, funded by a 1983 ballot initiative. The DART system is now one of the most extensive in the country, with almost 80 miles (129 km) of track and 62 stations. Jack Wierzenski, director of economic development for DART, discussed how the agency is applying four criteria—property attributes, accessibility, third-party entities, and market potential—to identify and prioritize station areas for TOD efforts.

Gary Slagel, former mayor of Richardson, Texas, and a current member of DART’s board of directors, described how a 2000 ULI Advisory Services panel study helped set the stage for TOD in the suburban city. DART’s first major public/private partnership, the 27.5-acre (11.1-ha) Galatyn Park urban center, now includes a performing arts center, a public plaza, 283 apartments, 6,813 square feet (633 sq m) of retail and restaurant space, and a 336-room hotel—and has spurred additional development on adjacent land of a new corporate headquarters complex. Slagel also offered some lessons learned. “Involve, involve, involve,” he urged attendees.

White Flint, Maryland. Francine Waters, managing director of transportation/smart growth enterprises for Lerner Enterprises, described how property owners have taken the initiative to help fund transportation investments needed to support new TOD within a sprawling, auto-dominated 430-acre (174-ha) segment of land surrounding Rockville Pike, a major arterial in Montgomery County, Maryland. The White Flint Partnership, a collaboration of six major real estate players, has created a master plan that aims to transform Rockville Pike from a traffic-clogged roadway into a 21st-century boulevard with a center lane dedicated to bus rapid transit (BRT), while a new pedestrian- and bike-friendly road network will put the entire area within a ten-minute walk of BRT and/or Metrorail, the D.C. metro area’s subway system. Because public funds for such projects have dried up, landowners created a taxing district, and are paying for the construction of new roads and upgrades to existing roads on their properties. The three-phase project is expected to create $1.3 billion in net new property revenue, $7 billion in new property tax revenue, and 39,000 new full-time jobs.

SternAtlanta_3_250Perimeter Center, Georgia.
John Heagy, a vice president with Hines, described how the Perimeter Center Improvement Districts helped transform four square miles (10.3 sq km) of dairy farmland that now spans four jurisdictions in metro Atlanta into an “edge city” office park with a regional mall and limited housing—and how those districts, with the addition of transit (Perimeter Center now has three MARTA stations), are working to make the area a model livable center through a focus on connectivity, improved transportation options, walkability, and green spaces. A place that once had abundant “no pedestrian” signs and no sidewalks is evolving into a livable community that will be able to retain and attract major corporations and their employees by offering an appealing lifestyle and quality of life.

Referendums to Fund Transit and Transportation Improvements

The forum’s final panel offered lessons learned on ballot initiative efforts. Jason Jordan, director of the Center for Transportation Excellence, presented the Atlanta initiative’s prospects in a positive context: Since 2000, voters in all regions of the United States have passed nearly 400 ballot measures that have included a transit element. The success rate for the past four years—since the recession began—has been even higher than the long-term average, and transit ballot measures are more than twice as likely to succeed as other ballot initiatives. Jim Stokes, interim executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition of Metro Atlanta, shared details of the upcoming Atlanta vote.

Kathleen Osher, executive director of Denver’s Transit Alliance, presented her group’s experience in transforming failure into success. The coalition of 35 public, private, and member organizations was founded in 1997 after a failed ballot measure; it then mounted a pro-transit campaign that resulted in the passage of FasTracks 2004, a program that is adding 122 miles (196 km) of light rail, commuter rail, and BRT to the Denver region.

Jordan and Osher stressed the importance of forming strong coalitions, starting campaigns and fundraising efforts early, conducting polling and other research to identify voters’ concerns, presenting clear and specific messages that can be segmented and microtargeted, responding to critics, identifying and making the most of “champions” and other spokespersons, and incorporating new tactics and tools like social media to reach out to young adults and other often disenfranchised citizens. Voters, Osher concluded, like to tune in to that popular radio station WIIFM: “What’s In It For Me”?