Monday, August 24, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

ULI panel explores the lessons of transit-oriented development

With transit-oriented developments likely to become more prevalent as Austin relies more on mass transit in the coming years, the planners and builders involved in their creation are confronted with the issues of affordability, displacement and appropriate economic incentives.

Those were some of topics discussed at a recent panel discussion about TOD opportunities sponsored by Urban Land Institute Austin, which is set to release a new white paper on the topic this week.

Panel members agreed there are lessons to be learned from established TODs such as the Mueller and Plaza Saltillo projects, which are seen as successful but also show that more work needs to be done to fine-tune the planning and deal structures involved in their creation.

Looking at the more recent Plaza Saltillo, Samuel Franco, president of Infravest Strategies, said commercial tenants like Whole Foods and Target were likely attractive to the project developer but not the best fit for residents of existing East Austin neighborhoods.

“We need to start with the needs of the community, approaching it from the granular neighborhood level and what the existing needs are because Whole Foods is great and fantastic, but I don’t know how many brown people feel comfortable going into a Whole Foods,” he said. “It’s just not where we shop. That may be what the developer wanted for the clientele they were looking to put into that development, but it’s not what the members of that community wanted.”

Sarah Andre, owner of Structure Development, said the commercial mix and subsidies available for a development play a large role in how many affordable units or amount of affordable square footage can be built, especially in more expensive projects closer to the city’s core.

Because of that, she said communities like Elgin and Manor remain attractive for potential TODs as more transit options come online.

“The affordability we have at those more centralized TODs or at Lakeline is heavily subsidized, it’s not natural affordability, and one of the things I like about a more suburban station – and I would personally love to see one in Elgin – is the mathematics aren’t there but if you build it they will come,” Andre said. She added that she tried unsuccessfully to create a tiny homes development in Elgin that failed in part because it would have relied too much on car usage.

“You would then be providing in a way more equitable access. You could get on that train and be downtown not just to employment centers but to cultural institutions or educational opportunities.”

Also important for panelist Steven Pedigo, a professor at the University of Texas’ Urban Lab in the LBJ School of Public Affairs, is the consideration given to the “last mile” problem of residents getting home safely from transit hubs.

“It’s an ecosystem. You can’t just have a development policy. You have to have everything around it to make it work,” he said. “It’s about making sure you have the wayfinding to tell people how the system works and understanding how to take care of the last-mile issue because that’s a big concern in cities like Austin and the way they’re developed. I’m also looking past economic development and thinking about the things that you need around you every day like child care, dinner or dry cleaning.”

Andre suggested it might be wise for local leaders committed to affordability to revisit the guidelines around fee-in-lieu payments that allow developers to build fewer affordable units than what might be called for in building and planning codes.

“The amount of money that comes in with fee-in-lieu, it may sound like a lot, but it typically does not produce many units. People will proudly say they’re putting $300,000 in … that’s not even two units,” she said.

“If we would put those units in the development where it is we would get more housing, but it’s not like it’s incrementally easier to produce housing if I go south of Ben White. It’s a little bit cheaper, but not a lot … there’s not a secret (lumber) store that’s cheaper just because you’re designated as affordable.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore/CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Transit Oriented Development (TOD): Mixed-use residential and commercial areas designed to be compact and walkable.

Urban Land Institute

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