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Commissioners want action, precision on overlays for equitable transit-oriented developments

Friday, October 13, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

As planning and zoning strategies for areas around transit corridors are developed over the next year, members of the Urban Transportation Commission want the city to make the density of in-process transit-oriented developments one of the highest priorities.

At last week’s meeting, the commission received an update from Warner Cook, a planner with the Transportation Department, on the progress of equitable TODs, which were approved as a concept by City Council this spring. In addition to reducing vehicular traffic, the city sees ETODs as preferred over more traditional transit development because they can address wealth gaps and displacement while offering job training and cultural preservation of existing neighborhoods.

According to the update, an equitable transit-oriented development plan works toward “building equitable outcomes through proactive actions to ensure that everyone, especially low-income communities and communities of color, can benefit from transit connectivity.”

Cook said staff is moving ahead with planning for the North Lamar and South Congress ETOD planning, with engagement sessions coming later this month.

Work is also beginning on creating a TOD overlay model to guide development, with the goal of creating a few “flavors” of overlays that could be tailored to meet the housing, commercial and cultural needs of different areas. An outside consulting firm is starting this month to guide the overlay concept process, including market studies for various corridors and recommendations on code changes needed to make the overlays most effective.

After that process is complete, Cook said staff will map the parcels throughout the city’s eventual mass transit system and then begin pursuing code amendments with the Planning Commission and City Council.

Commissioners took no action on the item but told Cook the city needs to move forward quickly with the planning process for TODs and the station areas throughout the system, while making sure each area gets the development benefits most needed by the surrounding community.

Chair Susan Somers said she thought other recent planning forecasts for TODs and corridors throughout the city had population forecasts that were too modest.

“If you’re looking at something like university area, 38th Street and areas like that, do we really need a bonus program there?” Somers said. “It’s gonna look different there than it should at Yellow Jacket …. Let’s just build it high and get four times the amount of people. We know that that’s what’s gonna make us competitive (for grants) and we know that that’s what’s gonna make us resilient with climate change and health.”

Commissioner Daniel Kavelman said the city risks losing opportunities to guide development standards around transit areas if it takes too long assembling the component pieces for the overlays.

“I’m looking at the vision and then the plan to create an implementation plan to create a plan to engage, to create a plan to implement zoning layers on,” he said. “The most important thing to us as a body is we’re interested in getting ridership high and just sort of throwing jobs and retail and businesses and housing units down on the ground around transit stops. I’m worried that we are trying to accomplish too many goals and too much plans to make plans to do this.”

Cook told Kavelman the consultants’ market analysis for different areas of the city will let the staff create overlay models that can apply in different areas instead of going through a separate process for every transit district.

Commissioner Ruven Brooks said Cook and other staff should build the overlays with a primary goal of creating four times the housing density around transit areas.

“I’ve learned just a little bit about the basics, and one of the basics is ridership is proportional to density. If you wanna have four times as many people riding transit, you gotta have four times as many people living within a half-mile of a transit stop,” he said. “I don’t hear any comments to the effect that yes, this is a problem.”

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