Making Way for Transit Town : Planners Push Apartments, Shops Centered on Bus and Rail; Others Fear 'Manhattanization'


Growing up in the sprawling neighborhoods of Southern California, Anthony Horton always envisioned the good life as a suburban house and a comfortable car.

But when he moved to Seattle three years ago, the 29-year-old restaurant manager found a good life that required neither house nor car. Instead, he lives in a high-rise apartment and gets around town comfortably on the bus that stops outside his door--a lifestyle that urban planners are trying to persuade others to emulate.

"People in Los Angeles laugh when I tell them I don't have a car," said Horton, formerly of La Canada Flintridge. "They can't relate to it because everybody in Los Angeles has to have a car to get around."

That could change.

As the next millennium dawns, the hottest new idea in development circles is one that is foreign, if not feared and despised, in Los Angeles and other cities where suburban sprawl has been the rule. The aim in Seattle and elsewhere is to rein in sprawl and reduce traffic by concentrating apartments, shops and offices around new rail stations or along heavily traveled bus lines.

The message: Density can be good.

Planners across the country--especially in Southern California--herald this "transit-oriented development" as the key to reviving declining neighborhoods and preserving vibrant ones, to reducing congestion and allowing more people increased mobility, to building more affordable housing and protecting open space.

Simply put, the notion encourages constructing neighborhoods for people, not automobiles, by making streets and buildings more accessible to pedestrians and public transit. Along the way, supporters hope it also rekindles a sense of community spirit, which has languished in most suburban neighborhoods.

The concepts are already being put into practice up and down the West Coast, most notably in Seattle, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area. Last fall, California Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation that encourages intensive development around rail stations, with a blend of housing and business projects in bustling "transit villages."

In Los Angeles, the concept is a major component of the city's new long-term growth strategy. The city's new General Plan, unveiled in January, calls for directing 75% of all new development onto 5% of the city's land, mostly around rail and bus stops.

Funneling new growth this way would require offering incentives--such as cutting red tape--to build around transit. The city's Planning Commission will consider the plan this spring.

It ultimately must be approved by the City Council.

"For Los Angeles to try and begin to repair itself would be a major symbolic act," said Peter Calthorpe, the San Francisco architect who is among the vanguard of designers championing a departure from suburban development patterns. "And I think that repairing itself is thoroughly possible."

In Southern California, a handful of such transit-oriented projects have already been built, such as Holly Street Village, a complex of shops, restaurants and apartments at the planned Blue Line terminus in Old Pasadena. Several more projects are under construction--most visibly Downtown Los Angeles' Grand Central Market above the Red Line.

"The problem we've had in this region is the absolute disconnection between land use and transportation," said Franklin E. White, chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "It's imperative we better link development with transportation."

But it remains a tough sell in an area where the single-family home and the automobile are the twin icons of prosperity and freedom. Developers who made their fortunes peddling three-bedroom houses on quarter-acre lots have largely been unwilling to deviate from the tried and true. Joining them are banks afraid of risks--obtaining financing for such projects is notoriously difficult--and community leaders wary of change.

"The overall demand in California is to achieve the American Dream, and the American Dream has been defined for many decades as a single-family home," said Greg McWilliams, Antelope Valley division president of Kaufman & Broad, one of the largest builders of single-family homes in the country.

In fact, not even transit-oriented development's most ardent supporters regard it as the panacea for Southern California's traffic and housing ills. But it would give more people more freedom over how they live and move--particularly the young and the old, for whom the typical single-family home is not affordable or practical.

Those are the lessons other cities are learning.

In Seattle, officials in 1993 opted to concentrate high levels of new growth along bus lines in the urban core and in "urban villages" scattered throughout the city, which has the most congested freeways in the Pacific Northwest.

"One of the key decisions the city made was that we needed to stop designing the city to accommodate the automobile and to figure out how to accommodate people," Seattle Planning Director Gary Lawrence said. "That's a very easy thing to say, but difficult to do. But not doing anything different was the worst choice."

The city pushed for construction of so-called mixed-use buildings--projects that combine housing and retail shops or offices rather than segregate them after the suburban fashion of the last 50 years.

Horton, the former Southland resident, lives in a mixed-use building just north of downtown Seattle. Walking downstairs, he can buy a sandwich at the deli, shop for odds and ends at the drugstore or hop on a bus to anywhere in the Puget Sound region.

"It would be difficult to go back to a car because I've gotten used to not having the added expense and the added stress," said Horton, who estimates he saves about $400 a month by not owning a car.

While already chalking up some early successes downtown, Seattle has not been without failures. Although it offered incentives to builders for urban mixed-use projects, the city did not discourage new suburban subdivisions.

So traffic has continued to worsen and the envisioned network of bus-linked urban villages has yet to coalesce. About half the commercial space in mixed-use projects stands empty. Overall bus ridership continues to drop.

Other regions trying transit-oriented development have been stymied by similar problems. Indeed, the task of retrofitting suburban cities with urban amenities is monumental--and is complicated by fear that doing so will only bring on other urban ills.

In Portland, Ore., planners have found it difficult to attract developers to the areas around stations on their new light-rail system, despite less stringent regulations and fewer procedural hoops than in California.

"No one wants to be the first one in a new market," said Bob Stacey, past Portland planning director and senior policy adviser to former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts. "The big market push is in single-family. It's what the market understands."

In Northern California, Bay Area Rapid Transit lines have been working for more than two decades. But developers and public officials are only now exploiting the potential for development around suburban stations in places such as El Cerrito, home of Del Norte Place, a four-story complex with apartments, shops, two restaurants, a postal annex and even a health clinic for its elderly residents.

One of the biggest draws is the BART station less than 200 yards away and the 20-minute train ride into San Francisco. About 40% of the complex's residents do not own cars and most take BART trains to work.

Some, such as resident Kevin Hauck, just walk downstairs and clock in.

"It's about a minute and a half commute," said Hauck, who manages the J.R. Muggs coffee shop on the project's ground floor. "It's great if you wake up late."

Del Norte Place is an unusual project in a city such as El Cerrito, much of which looks like Fullerton or Fresno or any other middle-class town that has grown up in the last 50 years. The $20-million project was part of the city's redevelopment area in a run-down part of town, pocked with closed shops, empty lots and a cheap motel "where people fell in love at noon and left at 3," developer John Stewart said.

Now, however, Stewart and his partners are marketing the neighborhood to students at community colleges and nearby UC Berkeley as well as to senior citizens, who make up more than one-third of the project's residents.

BART officials praise the Del Norte development as a model for other projects. It was financed in a joint venture between Stewart and El Cerrito Del Norte Redevelopment Agency, which leased the land to Stewart for $1 a year.

"You have to recognize right off the bat that a public subsidy in the form of a grant or an investment is required," said Stewart, whose consortium of developers and limited partners fronted almost a third of the project's costs out of its own coffers.

In Downtown Los Angeles, the MTA is working actively with private developers on the Grand Central Market project by guaranteeing a $44-million bond issue by the Community Redevelopment Agency. When finished this spring, the project will include 121 apartments, office space and retail shops up the block from the Pershing Square subway station.

Likewise, in Pasadena, tax-exempt municipal bonds and a grant from the MTA helped finance the Holly Street Village development and the planned Blue Line light-rail station on which it sits.

"There was a lot of public investment," said Bill Janss, developer of the 374-unit apartment complex, which includes a pricey French bistro and a convenience store. The shops and night life of Old Pasadena are just blocks away.

Because public funds are involved, local officials can require the projects to meet a broad range of social goals, from the provision of affordable housing to the restoration of historic structures.

In Holly Street Village, many of the units are set aside for low-income residents. The average tenant earns about $70,000 annually, but many families have incomes well below $20,000, according to property manager Jeffrey Napier.

Also, Janss has remodeled the city's dilapidated former police station, turning it into artists' lofts, several reserved for low-income working artists. The units rent for $1,500 on the open market.

The extent of public financing for such projects has led critics to complain that transit-oriented development is not self-sustaining or popular enough to pay its own way. But the few projects that have been built in Southern California are nearly full, a trend other cities have noticed as well.

Even so, leafy subdivisions remain the choice of most builders and many residents who reject mixed-use, transit-oriented development as the "Manhattanization" of Southern California. "Most people associate development with a real negative evolution of their neighborhoods," said architect Calthorpe.

And no wonder. The 1980s saw an explosion in the number of apartments built adjacent to single-family homes, resulting in a gaptoothed landscape where stucco boxes tower over modest bungalows.

But planners preparing guidelines for transit-oriented development say it can actually help preserve most single-family neighborhoods. By providing pockets of higher density around transit, they say, more intense development would not encroach upon established neighborhoods.

Further, the style of development can be varied according to the surrounding neighborhood. An urban project on the scale of Downtown's Grand Central Market would not be appropriate for Pasadena, but Holly Street Village mingles gracefully with the area's smaller historic buildings.

But simply building dense neighborhoods around transit stations will probably have little long-term impact on congestion unless the transit system is easy to use, safe and reliable, Seattle's Lawrence and others cautioned.

"We have to meet the needs of the customer instead of making the customer adapt to the needs of mass transit," said Lawrence, whose city is trying to make bus routes more flexible and the buses more comfortable.

Even then, transit-oriented development will not completely unclog the chronic bottlenecks on Los Angeles freeways, said Genevieve Giuliano, associate professor of urban and regional planning at USC. Most people, she said, will continue to drive their cars and will continue to live in suburban neighborhoods.

"We don't know if (the transit-centered approach) has any effect," Giuliano said. "It's very new. We ought to have the ability to build these things and market them, but we should not expect this to solve transportation problems."

Transit-oriented development, its supporters argue, is only one way to give residents more housing choices and more mobility. And the time to start, they say, is now.

"If California thinks it's the leader of the free world in new ideas, they'd better get on board when it comes to (transit-oriented development)," said John Westbrook, who spearheaded a successful mixed-use development around a subway stop in Bethesda, Md., a 30-minute ride from downtown Washington.

"You've got a tremendous base of economic wealth and population. If you can find a way to give form, order and direction to that based on a well-thought-out transportation system, there's no end to how fantastic it could be."

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