Thursday, June 25, 2015

Transit Oriented Developments: Bikable, Walkable Cities or an Economic Double Standard?

Transit Oriented Development

Discussing the modern effects of mixed used zoning, both good and bad

Downtown Las Colinas was the first transit oriented development in the mid-west. This residential and office district now features a light rail, connecting it to the rest of Dallas.

As a former resident of the Las Colinas/Greater Dallas area, I am a huge fan of Transit Oriented Developments and mixed used zoning. When I lived in the area, I could ride my bike to the library, the post office, the local pizza shop and even the grocery store. Las Colinas has a 10 mile bicycle trail connecting it to the neighboring suburb of Valley Ranch. Valley Ranch is a township of the city of Irving, with an extensive trail and canal system running through it's core. Back in 2007 it was the place to be if you were a twenty-something, young, single person or a young couple without kids. I have many fond memories of this place in the 3 years that I lived there, although after 2008 I was hard pressed to find work due to the economic recession. With the addition of a new member to the family, after 2010 it soon did not make economic sense to stay there any longer. My wife and I took advantage of the depressed housing market and we have been living in the suburbs ever since. Not the happy ending I was hoping for, but a happy one nonetheless. 

Don't get me wrong, I love living in apartments. I love living on the chic, trendy side of town with endless choices of good eateries and high end retail. I would be lying to myself if I said I didn't miss the convenience of not having to mow my own lawn, repair my own house, or drive to my favorite restaurant. I miss the late nights as a single guy where I would go jogging around the canals or go free-running in downtown Las Colinas, jumping over trash cans and clearing bus stops. I miss being an urbanist. Maybe one day I can get back to that place, maybe make it a goal. The point is I couldn't afford to live there any longer, I was priced out of the market. I have since made my peace with it and moved on, because change is inevitable and the Valley Ranch/ Las Colinas area isn't what it was 8 years ago anyway.

The truth is, after I lost my job and had a kid, the concept of livable, walkable cities became more and more foreign to me. The fact of the matter is that living in a place where all you do is spend money eating out and shopping goes against everything that someone struggling financially would do. The master plans and zoning regulations of most New Urbanist developments in the United States favor and cater to high end retail, niche boutiques and haute cuisine dinning. Where are all the corner stores and delis? Where are the Aldi's? The Lidl's? The pharmacies? The farmer's market? Is a community that is supposed to be walkable, livable, really sustainable without these things?

The answer to the latter question is no. The minute the economy turned many young people abandoned ship and left Las Colinas to go live with their parents, or to go live in the suburbs where the cost of housing is relatively cheaper. The fall of the economy also coincided with rising costs of living and renting in the area. One could say that a figurative noose was tightening around our necks, as apartment costs out-priced home mortgages. It didn't matter how walkable or bike friendly a place Las Colinas was, essential goods and services were out of reach and the area had no "real" economy to sustain itself with. During hard times, people will eat out less, shop less and drink more coffee at home. Therefore a mixed used zoning development that has businesses such as jewelry stores, coffee shops and organic burger joints will not be able to weather the storm when hard times hit. The people living there will not be able to sustain their consumer spending lifestyle of eating out all the time and not having food in their refrigerators. Yet here in the U.S, at least in North Texas where I live, there are no practical businesses in these types of Transit Oriented Developments being built. The businesses moving in seem to be taking out the corner stores, bakeries, tax offices, and other vital businesses that the existing communities have relied on for years. This is especially true in the case of historical downtown re-developments, or downtown revitalizations. Main streets all across the country have been neglected for about 50 years thanks to suburban sprawl. In the meantime many city centers became working class communities and cultural districts. Commercial and residential property values crashed in these areas and in a lot of cases it brought poverty and crime as a result. In the last 10 years or so, the kids of suburban dwellers started to rediscover urban centers and their affordable cost of living. Many of them started to buy back commercial spaces and historical homes. Now property values in these areas have increased and become too expensive for the blue collar residents that have been living there for generations. Whether intentionally or consequently, Transit Oriented Development has led to gentrifying of whole neighborhoods and communities. We only need to look at places like Brooklyn, New York to confirm this is true.

This is the double standard of Transit Oriented Development. It's affordable for "some", but not affordable to all. It gives the illusion of a walkable, bike friendly community, but without the accessibility to get one's basic necessities. This is what is fundamentally wrong with this model as it is being currently implemented. If I pay over $1,000.00 a month for rent on an apartment, I'm not going to be eating $10 burgers everyday and driving to the next town to find a grocery store. That defeats the point of paying for the "privilege" and convenience of living in a mixed used zoning development. It's better to live in a suburb with a real sense of community rather than in a "fake" economy, glorified strip mall with flats on the second floor. All retail business that do not provide an essential service to the community are "fake" economy businesses. All they do is take up commercial space that would otherwise be used by more permanent entrepreneurs. Many of these businesses stick around an area while they are in vogue, later closing down the minute their sales start to drop. The result is a high turnover of residents and little to no investment in the community. The long term outlook for these new urban developments is bleak unless grocers, bankers, pharmacies and other real businesses start getting in on the action and setting up their shops in them. For that to happen, the current consumer and corporate mindset alike has to change. The concept of the "supermarket" or "superstore" is one that is hardwired and ingrained in everyone living in the U.S. Having a grocery store in a corner retail slot rather than in a stand alone building can be as foreign a concept as the moon to most people living here. Retail businesses are currently increasing rather than decreasing their store sizes, reasoning to themselves that "bigger is better as long as there is somewhere to build it". Case in point Nebraska Furniture Mart, a furniture store that takes up 77 acres of land, or several football fields in size. I mean, who needs a furniture store that big? In order for things to change, consumers need to demand it with their wallets. 

No one wants to hear or to talk about the negative effects of Transit Oriented Developments. Everyone wants to talk about sustainability, complete streets and environmental friendliness. Land developers, architects and investors need to practice what they preach. A truly sustainable community is one were all the residents rely on each other. It's a community where people work, shop, buy their necessities and don't shop at Wal-Mart or other big box stores. It's a community that in a way has it's own GDP; where economic growth comes from within by an exchange of services and not from outside consumer spending. Sustainable developments don't kick the current residents to the curb by raising the rent on them. They adapt and cater to all levels of income and demographic types. The conclusion we can draw is that there is currently a double standard to Transit Oriented Development. It's a situation that could spell the end of master planned, livable communities in the long term unless things change. Many of these projects have been abandoned mid-stage, many end up being converted into office spaces or even ghost towns as a result of unresolved issues. We shouldn't leave good ideas like  the Transit Oriented Development to die. Otherwise people will remember these developments as failed social experiments, not for the potential that they once had. I'm no one with the power to change that though, I'm just a guy writing a blog. Developers, businesses, local governments and entrepreneurs alike need to work with each other and come up with the solution. All I know is if I were the venture capitalist of a master planned community and my aim was livability, I wouldn't allow any $10 burger joints or stand alone supermarkets to be zoned there. End of rant.

P.S on this article: 

I also wanted to say that bike friendly neighborhoods have been a cause that I have personally defended and championed in the past. I still feel that it is the way to go to counteract the negative effects of car-culture. However, I am strongly against any action that would displace others for the sake of "the greater good". I understand that things change, landscapes change and cities change. Change is inevitable. There are people who have come to call a place home only to get uprooted or forced to leave because they were "not a right fit" financially or otherwise. Those people have skin in the game, a real relationship with their community and are heavily invested in their properties. I for one know what it's like to have to leave an area after thinking I had laid down my roots and settled down. So while I'm in favor of purpose built communities and "revitalizations" that favor bicycle transport and walkability, I can't say I agree with the way TODs are being carried out. 

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