Interest in transit-oriented development (TOD) continues to grow in Connecticut as municipalities in the state plan to take full advantage of new transit lines like the CTfastrak bus rapid transit system and New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Rail Line. On June 4, local and state officials from Connecticut traveled north to Massachusetts to look at TOD in various settings, and learn about how it was implemented there. The trip was the second of two tours sponsored by Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Partnership for Strong Communities, Regional Plan Association, and Connecticut Fund for the Environment with the support of the One Region Funders Group. The first took place in December 2012 in New Jersey.
Lowell’s Downtown Comeback
Attendees first stopped in Lowell, a diverse city of 107,000 residents that is about 25 miles northwest of Boston. Lowell was founded as a textile manufacturing center, but like other industrial cities, fell into decline as manufacturing jobs left the U.S. However, the city preserved its historic mill buildings, many of which have been converted into thousands of units of residential housing. Since the 1970s, the city has seen a remarkable turnaround.
Smart policies have helped. As a way to incentivize development and maintain the walkable environment, the city “basically take[s] parking out of the development equation,” Assistant City Manager Adam Baacke said. No parking is required for non-residential uses in downtown, but residential developers must identify 1 parking space per unit, though this space can be leased out of a public parking garage.
The revival of Lowell’s downtown helped pave the way for the redevelopment of the Hamilton Canal District, a 15-acre site roughly a half-mile from Lowell’s commuter rail station. The city found a unique model for this redevelopment that incorporates both community input and helped the developer more easily manage development requirements, Baacke said. When the developer was brought on board they were required to run a community visioning process that would result in a master plan for the site. Once the visioning process was completed, the city agreed to rezone the site so that the master plan could then be built largely as of right. Baacke said that this avoided two common outcomes of the redevelopment process: A developer concept that hasn’t received community input, leading to public opposition; and a community-supported vision plan that isn’t economically feasible to build.
TOD in Melrose
Attendees also stopped in Melrose, a wealthier, more suburban locale seven miles north of Boston. Planners there also thought parking requirements were holding back development around its three commuter rail stations. “We thought it was crazy to build 2 spaces per unit” for Oak Grove Village, a 550-unit mixed-use complex completed in 2009, said Denise Gaffey, the director of the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development. Instead, the city granted variances for that and other projects close to transit. Melrose later adopted a “smart growth” overlay zone that cut parking requirements: 1 space per studio or 1-bedroom, 1.5 spaces for a 2-bedroom unit, and 2 spaces for a 3-bedroom unit. Car-sharing is also available for the development’s residents, and the city adopted inclusionary zoning requiring that new developments set aside 10 percent of units for affordable housing.
Lessons From Massachusetts
Attendees finished the day at a lunch session at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the Boston area’s regional planning agency. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials said that while TOD in Massachusetts was largely happening around existing stations, there have been examples of new transit lines spurring growth-such as the Silver Line bus rapid transit service-which was credited with spurring development on South Boston’s waterfront.
Asked about what Connecticut leaders could learn from Massachusetts’ experience, MAPC Executive Director Marc Draisen advised attendees that “If you want TOD to be successful, you need to build a community of uses”– sites should not just have housing, but also retail, office and open space. Stephanie Pollack of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy argued that “walkable is the key.” Urban planners and researchers are increasingly arguing that walkability is the most important ingredient for vibrant, economically healthy neighborhoods.
Parking also came up as a topic during the MAPC lunch, with several Massachusetts attendees suggesting that the surface parking lots around some Connecticut Metro-North stations could be used for redevelopment, bolstering the findings of a recent Regional Plan Association analysis that found parking requirements are too high to support TOD around 16 of 42 Metro-North stations in Connecticut.