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New urbanism movements, young people fueling surge in transit-oriented developments

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Transit oriented developments (TOD) have been called the new model for real estate development. Imagine Housing, a leading non-profit affordable housing developer in East King County, describes TOD as a combination of regional planning, city revitalization, suburban renewal, and walkable neighborhoods, and an “exciting, fast growing trend in creating vibrant, livable, sustainable communities.”

Advocates believe dense, walkable communities can reduce the need for driving – possibly up to 85% — and help solve problems associated with climate change and global energy security. They say such development can benefit residents, cities, natural environments, economic growth, sustainability, and security.

In a recent newsletter, Imagine Housing noted TOD is relatively new to King County and the Eastside, but it is well established across the globe, citing Copenhagen, Curitiba, Euralille, Hong Kong, Paris, Toronto, Vancouver, and Vienna as examples. Authors of the report called it “one of the ultimate collaborative relationships.”

An emerging trend, which some call “an even smarter investment,” is Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (eTOD). This concept “supports mixed-use developments that incorporate affordable housing in close proximity to high-quality public transit and bolsters ridership goals of transit agencies,” according to Enterprise Community Partners, a national charitable organization with initiatives in eight markets across the county, including the Pacific Northwest.

Enterprise officials say eTOD can expand mobility options, lower commuting expenses, and enhance access to employment, child care, schools, stores, and critical services. The organization works with community partners nationwide to create affordable homes. Its support takes many forms, including lending funds, financing development and managing and building affordable housing.

During the past three decades, Enterprise has created nearly 340,000 homes and invested around $18.6 billion in transit oriented developments.

Locally, five entities have received HUD Section 4 grants from the Enterprise Pacific Northwest office, which focuses most of its grant funding on “innovative, environmentally sustainable projects in smart locations.”  The five community development corporations that have shared more than $300,000 in funding include:

  • Bellwether Housing in Seattle, which plans to build 750 new affordable workforce homes;
  • Capitol Hill Housing, Seattle, whose new developments include LGBTQ-Affirming Affordable Senior Housing, Liberty Bank Building with 115 units, and Capitol Hill Light Rail Station with 110 homes affordable to working families;
  • HopeWorks Social Enterprises, based in Everett, whose HopeWorks Station Phase II encompassing 65 affordable apartments is scheduled to open this month;
  • Low Income Housing Institute, Seattle, which develops, owns and operates housing for the benefit of low-income, homeless and formerly homeless people. A current project is the Sand Point Cottage Community in Magnuson Park, slated to open in spring 2020.
  • Mercy Housing Northwest, Seattle, which owns and operates 54 properties for families and seniors in Washington and Idaho.

Imagine Housing helped create the vision for Esterra Park in Redmond, an eTOD spearheaded by Capstone Partners. Capstone’s work on this project dates to 2009, with Imagine Housing joining in 2015. Imagine Housing subsequently created a partnership with Inland Group to build, own and manage 262 units of affordable workforce housing. Groundbreaking is slated for late this year, with completion expected in 2021. The project will include a YMCA Early Childhood Development Center for 125 children ages 1 day to 5 years old.

Construction of the Esterra Park community is starting fall 2019. It is expected to open to residents within 24 months. It will encompass 262 permanently affordable workforce apartment homes together with supportive services and a YMCA Early Childhood Development Center.

“TOD is taking off like a rocket, and how fast this is accelerating should be exciting news to the engineering world,” says Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the Transit Oriented Development Institute, in an interview with Engineering Inc., the official publication of the American Council of Engineering Companies.

Kunz said the concept of TOD has been around in various forms since the 1990s, but reflects even earlier development cycles. “This is actually a revival of how we used to build cities prior to the age of car domination.”

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) states TOD was conceived in 1982 in an effort to link transportation and land use by architect and CNU founder Peter Calthorpe.

TOD proponents say the concept’s growth can be attributed to several factors, including the market for sustainable mixed-use urbanized suburbs. Young people’s desire to live in cities and avoid owning cars or sitting in traffic is also spurring growth. Suburban commuters are also becoming weary of traffic congestion and the toll on their quality of life. Other factors, including the desire for greater community and environmental considerations, will also prompt people to choose denser mixed use environments., an informational website promoting walkable urbanism, transit oriented development, trains and sustainability, calls TOD the one strategy that promises to simultaneously meet three seemingly disparate goals: the demand for location-efficient mixed-use places, support of regional economic growth strategies, and increased housing affordability.

On its site, New Urbanism reports there are more than 4,000 New Urbanist projects planned or under construction in the United States. It attributes the boom to three trends:

  1. Changing housing preferences due to “profound demographic shifts,” noting the market isn’t meeting demand for smaller housing choices that include apartments, townhomes, live-work, and bungalows.
  2. A growing preference for “24 hour neighborhoods” among workers and firms, citing a PricewaterhouseCooper publication that calls 24-hour places “the best real estate investment locations.”
  3. Booming construction of rail and bus systems, with new systems planned or under way in all but three of the top 30 metropolitan areas.

Although TOD and eTOD are increasingly popular, Imagine Housing acknowledges several challenges associated with the collaborative relationships. In its September 2019 newsletter, the group noted ETOD requires advocates willing and able to fight for inclusive communities. “Developers partner with cities, private consultants, banks and investors, public transit agencies, commercial businesses, non-profits, public funders, and residents to create a mixed-use community at or near high-capacity transit. There are large amounts of risk and money; an endless list of tasks, challenges, and puzzles; and numerous forms of expertise needed. Successful ETOD can take decades to complete, is at the whim of financial markets and economic growth, and takes fantastical foresight and political will to complete.”

Urbanism proponents believe the most important obstacle to overcome “is the restrictive and incorrect zoning codes currently in force in most municipalities.” They contend current codes do not allow New Urbanism to be built, but do allow sprawl. “Adopting a TND (Traditional Neighborhood Development) ordinance and/or a system of ‘smart codes’ allows New Urbanism to be built easily without having to rewrite existing codes.”

In hopes of addressing myriad concerns and spurring a new wave of development, an initiative called the Center for Transit-Oriented Development (CTOD) brings together a consortium of groups from the public, private, and philanthropic sectors. Its goal is to make information on TOD accessible to a broad range of audiences and to serve as a repository of innovative practices, policy reform, research analysis and investment tools to support TOD. Its fiscal sponsor is Reconnecting America (formerly the Great American Station Foundation).

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