Connect renewal to transit

September 29, 2004|By Robert T. Dunphy

WASHINGTON -- Baltimore is the epitome of the transit conundrum -- a place where transit is extensive and patronized but suffers deteriorating ridership. While Baltimore ranks eighth in the United States in total ridership, it has experienced a net loss of transit riders of 20 percent during the past 20 years.

Among city residents, the decline during the 1990s was nearly 30 percent. Transit commuting continued to grow among suburbanites, but city residents are the primary market, so it is necessary to redouble urban development near transit lines.

A key problem is that some of Baltimore's hotter neighborhoods for development are not well connected to light rail or heavy rail, and some do not have good bus service. Even when there is a potential market, transit-supportive development is often the most complex and problematic and requires developers to overcome many hurdles they don't face on suburban projects. The two most important lessons that successful urban development projects offer is that the public sector needs to facilitate private development and that transit benefits most from the evolution of urban neighborhoods that are active around the clock.

Baltimore is enjoying the growing appeal of urban living to young singles, couples and baby-boomer retirees. The region has carried out significant transit expansion, but a good market and public involvement are needed to stimulate development. A good market trumps good planning. The challenge in Baltimore is the disconnect between the market and transit, which makes public involvement critical.

Public-sector participation is essential because it is more expensive and time-consuming to put new projects in developed neighborhoods than in the virgin open fields of the suburbs and beyond. In addition, public subsidies are often needed to make inner-city projects economically viable.

Two examples of urban development in Baltimore illustrate the problems and opportunities of linking infill and transit.

The American Can Co. project in Canton has good market potential but weak transit access. The former factory, situated between the established community of housing, markets and corner bars and the new Canton neighborhood of waterfront condos, townhouses and marinas, was renovated to accommodate shops and businesses. A creative parking plan avoided the domination of the car. This is a Smart Growth success story, which was successful despite a lack of good transit.

The Station North arts and entertainment district has good transit but a weak real estate market. Last year, an Urban Land Institute fellows' advisory panel recommended that the city focus on long-term reinvestment to offset the long-standing flight of residents and business. Recommendations included developing a destination showcase for the arts, providing gallery and performing space for artists and attracting a wider clientele to this underappreciated artists' gem.

The panel also recommended developing higher-income housing and using the arts showcase as a magnet for new residents, without eliminating existing housing and forcing out lower-income residents. While the panel acknowledged that the neighborhood's easy access to Penn Station was a plus, it did not believe this would be sufficient to attract new housing construction. Other advice to enhance the appeal of this district included resolving residential parking issues, promoting historic tax credits and tax abatements and tearing down some abandoned housing.

Promoting development in a promising transit district requires building a whole community, with considerable participation by the local government.

What's needed to create development around transit, increase ridership and advance urban revitalization is a recognition that such projects involve long development periods and uncertain profits, which some developers feel are not worth the aggravation.

Public officials need to be more aggressive in assisting good transit projects through the neighborhood review process by providing a public voice to explain the project's importance to the future of the community. By sharing the political risk, city governments can make development in central cities more attractive. Local or state government can provide parking, streetscape improvements, utilities or other infrastructure components, financial incentives for development, tax abatement or tax credit programs, land assembly and assistance in expediting the approval process.

Baltimore has been a leader in the development of the downtown, the waterfront and residential neighborhoods. Focusing the same skills on districts around transit can promote greater ridership, reduce traffic congestion and enhance economic growth.

Robert T. Dunphy is senior resident fellow, transportation and infrastructure, at the Urban Land Institute.

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