Transit-based development takes hold here
By Tim Logan
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Sunday, Jan. 03 2010
At one level, transit-oriented development seems like a no-brainer.
Clustering condos and office space and stores, all around a MetroLink stop. Getting people out of their cars and onto the trains. Creating dense new chunks of urbanism. "Smart growth" for the 21st century.
And in a few places around MetroLink's 37 stations, that has happened. There are a few office buildings where there otherwise might not be. New homes that sell better because they're close to rail.
But by and large, for a variety of reasons, "TOD," as it's known, has been slow to catch on in St. Louis. Beyond downtown and a few key stops, the dominant feature of transit stations here is a giant parking lot. There's little new growth around them.
Now, a couple of projects on the drawing boards might start to change that.
One is at the Forest Park-DeBaliviere station, on DeBaliviere Avenue, where builder McCormack Baron Salazar wants to put up condos, retail and a garage on what is now a 100-space park-and-ride lot with a strip mall next door.
It's a spot that chief executive Richard Baron has been eyeing for eight or nine years, an "ideal place" for this sort of development, he said. But between MetroLink's expansion and then the transit agency's financial troubles, the timing was never right.
That changed last fall, when the federal government made $1.5 billion in transportation funding available as part of its economic stimulus package. Metro and McCormack Baron partnered to apply for $19 million, a good chunk of the $43.2 million it would take to build the development project.
Plans are still in the early phases, said Cady Scott, who is leading the project for McCormack Baron, and there will be community meetings to seek input. But it would probably involve about 147 condos or apartments, with retail on the ground floor and a garage to replace the 100 parking spots now on the site. The bus station and the entrance to the MetroLink platform would be improved. And, Scott said, they would hope to better integrate the station with the surrounding neighborhood.
"It's a wonderful opportunity for TOD," Scott said. "We should have something that really creates a sense of place around the station.
"Another proposal on the boards is in north St. Louis County, where DCM Development wants to put an office building and retail on 17.7 acres just south of the North Hanley station.In recent months, DCM — which also built the Meridian, an office and retail complex at the Brentwood station — has been talking with St. Louis County officials about plans and financing. North Hanley is the only MetroLink stop situated in unincorporated St. Louis County, said County Planning Director Glenn Powers. He would like to make the most of it.
It's a chance to put some density in a place that makes sense, Powers said. But it is unclear just how transit-oriented the project will wind up being. DCM did not return calls seeking comment; Powers said public hearings for the project — originally set for spring — were being delayed a bit while the developer firmed up its plans.
"Their interest in doing something a little bit different is genuine," he said. "But they have to respond to market realities. I think we're both pushing for more TOD, but whether we'll get it or not remains to be seen.
"While both projects are opportunities for transit-based building, they also highlight some of the challenges such projects face.TOD projects often take place in the middle of existing neighborhoods, so McCormack Baron must assuage nearby residents who may worry about a big clump of new buildings. It also must negotiate land rights not just with Metro, but also with owners of the neighboring strip mall. If it doesn't win federal funding, the developer may just put a smaller project on the parking lot, Scott said.
And then there's funding. There are 1,380 projects that applied for those federal stimulus grants, 21 in Missouri alone. Combined, they're seeking $56.5 billion, while the U.S. Department of Transportation has but $1.5 billion to give.
The weak economy hasn't helped.
For years, Washington University has been trying to find someone to redevelop an old auto shop it owns on Delmar Boulevard, just west of the MetroLink stop there. It's a good spot between the train station and the burgeoning East Loop, said Mary Campbell, the university's vice chancellor for real estate, and they've gotten some interesting ideas for it.
"Unfortunately, nobody's been able to pull the ideas off the shelf and get financing together to do anything," she said.
There are other challenges more unique to St. Louis.
The decision to run much of MetroLink on existing rail lines saved money in building the system, but also made many key stops tough to develop around, said Jerry Blair, director of transportation planning at the East-West Gateway Council of Governments. "That's a huge factor," he said. "Generally for TOD you're really looking for walkable spaces. Being in a rail corridor or along a highway, you're restricting your options."
The big parking lots at many MetroLink stations are a factor, too, several people said. DCM's project at North Hanley would be across a massive surface lot from the actual station — a walk of at least a quarter-mile. And a focus on commuter parking adds a burden to any new proposal, said Tom Shrout, executive director of St. Louis-based Citizens for Modern Transit. "In fast-growing cities that have classic TOD, you don't see nearly that much parking," he said. "There's a lot of discussion in some communities about maximum parking requirements, instead of minimums."
Also, unlike many transit agencies, Metro doesn't have any staff particularly focused on development around its stations. That complicates matters a bit, several TOD advocates said. Spokeswoman Dianne Williams acknowledged that, but noted that given the agency's budget shortfalls, "right now we have been much more focused on keeping transit on the street."But development is part of Metro's job, too, Williams said, and it partnered with McCormack Baron on the DeBaliviere stimulus grant. They would welcome other projects, too, she said."We know it's happening," Williams said. "And we're certainly cooperating."
There may be more opportunities for TOD down the road.
Beyond the stimulus grants, several experts expect federal funding for transit-based projects to grow in the next few years. A new transportation budget program now in the planning stages is expected to include more money for TOD, and a proposal in Congress called the Livable Communities Act would provide funding to plan these sort of projects.
Combine that with energy concerns and a desire to drive less, downsizing baby boomers and growing ranks of young people who may want to live in denser urban environments, and demand for transit-based projects is likely to grow, too, Blair said."There's a market out there for this," he said. "I don't think we've quite recognized it yet."
After all, Powers said, a place where thousands of people visit every day, and from which you can travel the region quickly and without a car, is a pretty good asset from a development perspective. Planning to use them better, he said, is a step in the right direction.