DC: WMATA TOD Tour

IMG_4554The Washington Metro is by far one of the most successful transit networks in North America, both in terms of ridership as well as economic development. As it relates to economic development, it isn’t just that WMATA makes TOD a priority, but also that the system performs well for practical commuting trips (with surge pricing to operate 2-minute rush hour frequencies), and revitalizing neighborhoods by concentrating 713,000 daily riders into walkable marketplaces.

Such was the case with Columbia Heights in particular, where I have spent a lot of time on the ground myself. One (delicious) word: pupusas. The area surrounding the Metro station at 14th and Linwood has been totally revitalized, but not without a high degree of public planning, investment, and long-term involvement.

Ravaged by riots in 1968, the neighborhood was subject to decades of failed revitalization efforts before transit reached the neighborhood. This included the creation of two redevelopment authorities (RLA, NCRC), and a string of failed development projects due to the neighborhood’s struggling economic base and subpar purchasing power. According to this MNCPPC presentation: Things changed in the 1990s as WMATA invested over $500 million into three new entrances, which surrounded 14th & Linwood with air rights development that the District of Columbia then provided $48 million of subsidy to support an anchor shopping center.

It looks great:

The $48 million District investment, following WMATA’s expansion into the neighborhood, catapulted the neighborhood to revitalization. That investment created a 20-to-1 ROI, with over $1 billion in resultant TOD, spread across 55 development projects.

• Since 2001, within a half‐mile of the Columbia Heights Metro Station, 55 development projects, valued at $912 million, under construction or completed

• 3,200 new residential units  Nearly 700,000 SF retail

• >36,000 residents live within a 10‐min walk of the Metro station, and nearly 40% of the population is between ages of 25‐44

• Projects include:

– 53,000 sq ft Giant Food grocery

– DC USA with retailers such as Target, Best Buy, Marshalls, Staples, and Bed Bath and Beyond.

– The 250‐seat GALA Theatre and the Dance Institute of Washington

– Highland Park and Kenyon Square mixed‐use developments: 412 residential units; 20% affordable; 20,000 SF retail– The redevelopment and reuse of the Tivoli Theater

Source: MNCPCC

While placemaking is one obvious ingredient in the success story of Columbia Heights, perhaps the most successful transit placemaking project in DC is the arch at the Chinatown/Gallery Place station – directly adjacent to the LED rotunda above the Metro escalators. This is one of the most-utilized and most-central Metro stations in the entire District, anchored by the Verizon Place arena.

 

Chinatown/Gallery Place is also one of a few of transfer stations, making it a natural fit as a TOD hub. Other less obvious TOD hubs have benefited from substantial WMATA and DC/VA/MD support, including 3 in Virginia, 6 in the District, and 13 in Maryland.

Farragut Square, near the heart of Downtown DC, is one of the most obvious examples of air rights development, with Class-A office space built above the Metro escalators. Of course, two of the Farragut Square stations have bikeshare stations, providing intermodal connectivity.

The station at U Street, one of the District’s most vibrant and active neighborhoods, models a different site plan prototype. In this development at 14th and U, an L-shaped development surrounds an open-air plaza with the Metro escalators, creating a dispersal point between pedestrians emerging from the escalators and queuing at the crosswalk. One of the city’s highest-traffic intersections, it makes sense within this context to shield the Metro station.

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There’s a Wal-Mart at the NOMA station.

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The DC Convention Center is also an interesting prototype, with the Metro station underneath the Convention Center, accessible by escalators inside the Convention Center itself. In this picture, notice that the street pavement is concrete, whereas most of DC’s streets are asphalt. This is because the exhibition hall is underneath the intersection, Convention Center, AND the affordable housing picture to the right (dwarfed but not displaced by the Convention Center).

 

Union Station, the city’s commuter rail and Amtrak hub, as well as a Metro station, is encapsulated by TOD inside and out. The interior of Union Station has been turned into a shopping galleria, with retailers such as H&M and Ann Taylor. Behind the station, to the east, is also infill housing separated by a cycle track.

On H Street in front of (but not connected to..) Union Station is the “beginning” of the DC Streetcar. That said, there are a lot of similarities to how Megabus often dumps you off under a bridge “adjacent” to a transit station, and how the DC Streetcar dumps you off on the H Street overpass above the tracks, but not at all connected to Union Station. This lack of direct connection to Union Station, and particularly the broader Metrorail system, is the only legitimate fault I can find with the DC Streetcar. The route, while short, manages to traverse three distinctly different neighborhoods.

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First is the historic commercial corridor of H Street, which is heavily revitalized, and almost entirely infilled since the streetcar project began. Second is the area around H Street and Benning Road, where the streetcar bends in front of a large outdoor transit plaza (for buses and bikeshare), surrounding by transitional urban fabric with some suburban-style shopping strips. Last is the stretch of Benning Road approaching Oklahoma Avenue, which is primarily suburban-style public housing.

As I rode it in its first week of operation, riding was fare-free, not to mention a relatively festive environment with several other curious riders taking their first ride. Some of them were taking selfies, others brought friends to check it out. In talking to a few residents, I noticed two unique POVs I never would have considered: 1, mothers with strollers were the biggest fans, because it is so much easier for them to board than a bus; 2, the eventual connection to Georgetown has area residents scared that they won’t be able to afford the fare.

The fear is that surely they won’t actually be given equitable access to the same infrastructure that Georgetown residents enjoy. By starting first with a largely disenfranchised neighborhood that was passed-up by the Metrorail, this project has an opportunity to renew these residents’ faith in local government.

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DC: Trains the Old News, Bikes the New News

The Washington Metro, for all its problems including fires and crashes and more fires (just this morning), is the gold standard for transit in this nation. It is a showpiece metro system; a gleaming architectural accomplishment that makes other systems look like functional sewers (ahem, New York). Also count me as a big fan of its iconic waffle-grid station patterns, possible in part because it is one of North America’s deepest subways (due to the swampy terrain along the Potomac).

I will go into great detail on the station TOD programming, but needless to say that TOD is still one of the few things WMATA does flawlessly. Nearly all of their station-area TODs are air-rights construction, which is an amazing level of physical integration between the subway escalators and surrounding development. You often get the sense of emerging in the middle of an open-air shopping mall.

bike-lanes-1bike-lanes-2-e1401476005192All of this said, DC is the nation’s bicycle capital. It has truly become the District of Cycling – little could be more emblematic of this than the protected bike express lanes in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. Beyond Downtown DC, the District has an incredibly extensive network of bona fide cycle tracks (marked in purple). Biking is actually the fastest means of getting around the District, plain and simple.

Washington is also perfectly set-up for biking. It’s extremely compact. Markedly flat, except up north. It may be one of the most pleasant climates on this side of the Mississippi – rarely too hot or too cold. Not to mention, the demographics are young, diverse, and fit. All of this makes a perfect storm for a city that can (and has) embraced biking as a legitimate mode of transport

As a city, the District will realistically never achieve the statehood it so badly wants. However, its real function is as a national role model for planning. Other cities big and small should look to DC for innovations in planning; as our nation’s capital, it has always done a fine job of implementing new ideas. As the 117-mile Washington Metro first opened in 1976, DC has since modeled how to do TOD, air rights construction, and intermodal connectivity. The new frontier DC is pioneering is bike infrastructure. Not just with some pilot infrastructure, but with comprehensive infrastructure: 72 miles of cycle tracks. In fact, no other city has seen as large an increase in bike community as DC.

Grabbing lunch with several different friends while I was in town, they all asked me, “So what do you think of our new bike lanes?” They are top of mind. And unlike nearly all change, people already don’t mind them one bit. Drivers even are surprisingly courteous toward bicyclists. Not to mention, the day that I hit the Hill to lobby for historic preservation, the bike lobby was in full force – passing out bike lapel pins. Many Congressman and even the Architect of Congress proudly display their bike lapel pins during the spring. Bikes aren’t just tolerated, an achievement for most cities, but they are cherished, for which DC stands nearly alone (perhaps amongst Minneapolis, Denver, and Portland).

Better yet, the bike lanes are flawlessly-executed. Curb cuts minimized. Left turn lanes are negotiated with bikes having right of way. Almost all lanes are protected. Bikeshare stations abound – in fact, one of the real strengths of the kiosk-based bikeshare model (as opposed to the cheaper displaced, decentralized Zagster model) is that all station kiosks have bike maps. Even if you aren’t bikesharing, the wayfinding signage at over 350 stations is still invaluable.

With the entire DC Metro system off line tomorrow, an unprecedented move in response to yesterday morning’s “arcing fire” that erupted in the tunnels, there will be more bicyclists than ever before in the District. More may decide to switch permanently. Many already have.

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Biking is making the District more pleasant, equitable, active, green, and attractive. Biking is the new news in town.

Meet the coolest transit project in America: M-1 Rail

Detroit, the city that refuses to die, and the city that got America moving, has gotten a little well-deserved help with their new streetcar. Detroit is long-known as one of those cities where transit projects go to die, with countless different iterations of this same project reappearing every few years. To this point, it’s worth mentioning that the People Mover system (photographed extensively in my 2016 trip) was always envisioned as a “last mile” circulator once people get downtown on a larger transit network that hasn’t materialized until now.

I don’t really know if this project is the coolest transit project in America. I’ll say it’s pretty unlikely. M-1 Rail is a mere $125-180 million endeavor, which puts it firmly in the New Starts realm, while more established transit cities like Seattle are doing crazy things like capping an entire urban freeway, LA is doing subway extensions, Atlanta is developing a copy + paste model for air rights construction over MARTA stations, Minneapolis wants 75,000 downtown residents, and Dallas fully intends to protect its claim to the most light rail of any city. These cities don’t blink at spending billions – yet Detroit’s little $125 million project has been such a topic of controversy. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called it “The worst transit project in America.” It’s hard not to wonder if this is a cogent anti-streetcar argument or just thinly veiled annoyance that this city refuses to conform to the negative outside press. (I feel guilty even offering this up as click bait, but I still feel compelled to offer totally contrasting viewpoints.) If he can make such an unfounded claim, then surely I can counter that by calling it the coolest transit project in America. M-1 Rail brings out the best in transit projects and has a tremendous array of benefits to offer Detroit. In many ways, this small transit project is the little engine that could.

dettransit_mapBoiling M-1 Rail down to its lowest common denominator, this project is a very small but vitally important link that ties together a regional rail network that is finally coming together. M-1 Rail, spanning the Cass Corridor between downtown (served by the very cool and very retro People Mover) and New Center (where Amtrak’s Wolverine and SEMCOG’s commuter system cut through Detroit City), is a 3.3-mile link (red) between these two existing (blue) transit systems that don’t currently intersect.

Now, given that there are some interesting corridors in the rift left by these two systems, doesn’t it make a lot of sense to connect the closest points of these two disparate transit networks? Even without knowing much about Detroit and specifically the neighborhoods that lie between the two transit systems, it would seem to make sense within the regional context: By making that connection, rather than having three disparate transit systems, you now have a single whole network that serves the Detroit region.

b99329484z-1_20151130190435_000_gvcmn04b-1-0It so happens that besides the obvious slam dunk within the regional context, that the localized context further propels the case for M-1 Rail. Woodward Avenue, Michigan Highway #1, is America’s only urban national scenic byway. There are only 30 national scenic byways. Step aside Euclid Avenue (CLE), High Street (Cbus), Wash Ave (STL), Fifth and Forbes (Pitt), Vine Street (Cincy). Woodward Avenue is the granddaddy of all of the great urban main streets.

I have a lot of “crazy theories” one might say, and one of them is that you can usually go up to a tall vantage point and look out over a major city and either point out specific transit corridors, or what should be specific transit corridors. Go to the CN Tower and you can literally see the veins of high-rises that fan out across the city, most notably along Yonge Street, where towers rise up for a dozen or so miles from the low-rise scale of Toronto’s surrounding neighborhoods. In a city without rail, the same experiment is basically a quick-and-dirty method of studying prospective corridors. In Columbus, go to the Rhodes Tower observation floor, and even if you know nothing about Columbus you still can’t help but notice how the entire city literally rises up at High Street. Similarly with Detroit, go up to a tall building on Wayne State’s campus and then look out over the city. You will see the above view. If you were struggling with where to do transit three years ago, the above view would be somewhat illuminating.

The financing of M-1 Rail is the most interesting urban experiment I have ever seen. Detroit City is in fact kind of an outsider to this entire project. This project has been planned, approved, and implemented by a complex partnership between Detroit’s non-profit sector and the federal government, which literally “required an Act of Congress” to allow public-private partnerships to count as the local match required by FTA. It also leverages New Markets Tax Credits, which is the first time NMTC’s have ever invested in public transit, thanks to LISC, Great Lakes Capital, and others. Four foundations, including the Ford and Kresge foundations, also contributed millions. Detroit’s corporate community stepped up to the plate to buy naming rights at each station, contributing far more than a name is really worth.

The financial pieces (totaling $180 million) of this project are as follows, mostly in little $3 million chunks here and there:

  • Kresge Foundation – $49.6 million
  • FTA TIGER I grant – $25 million
  • FTA TIGER VI grant – $12.2 million
  • Quicken Loans – $10 million
  • State of Michigan – $10 million
  • Detroit Downtown Development Authority – $9 million
  • NMTC (LISC, Great Lakes Capital, etc) – $8 million
  • Penske Corp. – $7 million
  • MEDC – $7 million
  • Illitch Holdings (Little Caesar’s Pizza) – $6 million
  • Ford Foundation – $4 million
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan – $3 million
  • Chrysler Foundation – $3 million
  • Detroit Medical Center – $3 million
  • General Motors Co. – $3 million
  • Henry Ford Health System – $3 million
  • Wayne State University – $3 million
  • Wayne County – $3 million
  • Ford Motor Co. – $3 million
  • DTE Energy – $2.9 million in-kind
  • Compuware Corp. – $1.5 million
  • J.P. Morgan Chase – $1.5 million
  • Hudson-Webber Foundation $1 million
  • Bank of America Foundation – $300,000
  • Ford Motor Co. Fund – $100,000

Notice you won’t see “City of Detroit” anywhere on said list. Nor will you see “taxpayers of Detroit” on the list, in any way (through some taxing district, etc). I just think that this is amazing. At a minimum, it’s a testament that the Rust Belt community ethos is alive and well in Michigan, even after a community has broken down and weathered such a storm. 

At this point I must confess that I started out intending to just whip up another quick photo tour and press “publish.” While that is still forthcoming, I just can’t stress enough that with this transit project the devil is in the details. If you bother to look at these details, it really is the coolest transit project in America.

And it is becoming reality.

Progress as of January 2015:

Progress as of February 2016:

Which eventually will resemble these renderings:

So, if you like what you see, mark your calendars for sometime in 2017 when M-1 Rail leaves the station, revolutionizing how visitors (tourists and suburbanites alike) will experience Detroit City. It will be an experience that keeps people coming back and hopefully creates enough concentrated activity to rub off on the less-revitalized remainder of the city.

Rather than insist that every project solve every problem (zero-sum), M-1 Rail is worthy of our support and admiration as a singular solution in a city that collectively needs a lot of singular solutions. M-1 Rail doesn’t fix everything overnight; however, it does fill in the missing link, build on Detroit’s existing assets, connect the city to the broader region where most jobs have moved, and give the city something captivating to build on for the future.

Linking Linden via Design

There are two types of cities that I have worked in, though I’m sure others abound. My experience however has been either economically-driven cities (Dallas, OKC) or equitably-driven cities (Cleveland, Columbus to some extent). For the economically-driven city, the bottom line is the bottom line. They will listen to city planners and urban designers who can offer economic development. For the equitably-driven city, it’s about quality of life for the disenfranchised.

412box7fsnpl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Cleveland after all is the birthplace of “equity planning,” which is a school of thought founded by Norm Krumholz that honed in on planning for the poor to the exclusion of others. Krumholz’s philosophy, which soon caught on in most major cities, was a response to the times, following race riots from which most major cities have yet to recover. Cleveland for certain was rocked by the Hough Riots of 1966 and the Glenville Riots of 1968. The groundbreaking literature on this matter was Krumholz’s 1975 Planning Policy Report, admirably discussed in this article by his fellow FAICP predecessor Bob Brown.

citywidemap20transparentRegardless of in which category a city may fall, no city is practicing planning for fun. Nobody in a major city, strapped for time and resources, has time on their hands to engage in academic exercises. Columbus is also an oddball hybrid community that is probably equally motivated by both the economy and equity. Just when you think economic development matters always win, the city’s disenfranchised communities get a big win. As far as putting our money where our mouth is: Nearly all place-based resources (CDBG, LIHTC, Urban Infrastructure Recovery Fund, grants, discretionary spending) are targeted to low-income neighborhoods, and nearly all TIF resources are targeted outside of the I-270 beltway, representing a strategy schism.

Cleveland Avenue in Columbus is the context for my most significant personal foray into equity planning – specifically the South Linden community located along Cleveland Avenue, between Hudson and 11th Avenue. This community was the focus of Ohio State’s Fall 2015 Community Design Studio with Dr. Jesus Lara, for which our client was the City of Columbus’ Celebrate One Initiative. Celebrate One is an initiative responding to Columbus’ worst-in-the-nation infant mortality statistics. After studying this matter in great detail, the city, county, Columbus Foundation, and other non-profit partners have concluded that infant mortality is spatially concentrated in areas that suffer from pollution, low walkability, high crime, economic distress, and substandard (unhealthy) housing stock.

There is a must-read study on this matter from Wash U in St. Louis. The takeaway: “Your ZIP code is a better determinant of your health than your genetic code.” When it comes to neighborhoods such as this, not only is equity planning a good approach, but it pays dividends to start making partnerships and inroads with public health officials. In equity-driven cities, the public health officials are going to hold a lot of sway, have more resources, and probably be sympathetic to planning goals. 

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In addition to astonishingly high infant mortality, the neighborhood also suffers from substandard and often lead-paint-covered housing, low walkability, high traffic noise, proximity to brownfields, poor air quality, and high crime. The high crime is in part due to broken street lights and un-maintained rear alleys that make the perfect spot for a shady drug deal gone bad. The rest are primarily due to poor transit access, adjacency to high-traffic I-71, and the speedway that is Cleveland Avenue (especially heavy commuter traffic that barrels through the neighborhood to bypass congested freeways).

By the way, Walk Score deduces that South Linden is the 42nd “most walkable” neighborhood in Columbus. This was determined not by visiting and documenting existing conditions, but rather through a computer algorithm that relies on “amenities” it picks up on Google Maps. Many of these “amenities” look nicer on Google Maps than they are in reality – many are no longer open at all – so the reality is actually much worse than Walk Score’s imputed result of “Somewhat Walkable,” but it is a good empirical starting point nonetheless.

Should one actually visit to document the existing conditions, I recommend just taking the #8 or #1 bus and just hopping on and off, talking to lots of neighborhood residents in between. Here are some photos from such an excursion:

The above photo with a bus is actually just the “typical bus stop,” which not unlike elsewhere in Columbus, is basically a pole with a sign. Despite its relatively low walkability, the community has some of the highest rates of transit ridership in the area (4,800 daily riders on the #1 Bus), due in part to the transit-dependent population (no car). Transit in this case is seen as a last resort, and due to its undesirability, is not only relegated out of the way of the area’s motorists, but it’s also ditched by transit riders themselves as soon as they can afford a car.

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To ameliorate this problem the city is giving the Cleveland Avenue corridor our first BRT system, albeit a BRT-lite. The Cleveland Avenue C-MAX is a $47.7-million project BRT with enhanced stations and rolling stock, but without a lane or signal priority. The C-MAX is one of the most significant recent investments in the northeast side of Columbus.

The C-MAX project is my base line for improving the South Linden community, to the extent that our Community Design Studio was tasked with creating design interventions that enhanced quality of life for this neighborhood’s residents. It’s an urban neighborhood, and it’s a transit-propensity neighborhood, so it should also be a walking neighborhood. Reaching people while they’re waiting for the bus is the most-targeted way to touch lives. It’s also a way for these design interventions to really help the people who live here, and not the people who don’t.

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As the member of our studio that focused on transit placemaking, I proposed two design interventions: Bus Box and the “Heart of Linden.”

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Bus Box is a bus shelter made by cutting, combing, and painting shipping containers. Not only is it cheap and trendy, bringing an avante garde style to the neighborhood, but additional “boxes” can be used for community info kiosks, a farmer’s stand at the bus stop, or a “bodega box” that just sells essentials.

It’s tailor-fit to this neighborhood’s needs, which is a food desert for its lack of retail and specifically fresh food options; despite efforts to build suitable retail space, area residents still can’t afford the rent. A lot of the neighborhoods carry-outs get themselves in trouble by selling mostly booze, cigarettes, and junk food in order to pay their rent. Rent won’t be a problem at a Bus Box, and successfully incubated retailers will then be in better position to afford rent in the bricks and mortar behind it.

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Heart of Linden is basically just taking the worst block in this neighborhood (albeit beautifully fenced-off), also located at the heart of it, and re-activating it. “Heart of Linden” has two main components, a scaled-up Bus Box that can basically become an edgy low-cost retail incubator, and a “Food Hub” not unlike the one proposed previously for Weinland Park. There is currently an effort underway for a similar Food Hub in South Linden, and it makes sense that this needed project (and a potential neighborhood improvement catalyst) locate on a prime site. All of the other uses are just programming expansions and connections to surrounding assets, like potential bike trails or the new library.

Bus Box is certainly more practical. It is built off of ideas I have seen in other cities, such as LAND Studio’s Bike Box project in Cleveland (where they built 8-10 of these). Heart of Linden, certainly a tougher project to take on, seeks to solve a number of challenges through forging the right connections. A lot of Linden’s problems stem from disconnectedness. It just isn’t a pleasant neighborhood in which to walk, so nobody is going to belabor themselves worrying about the pedestrians of South Linden.

But they should.

Beyond offering needed amenities in a well-connected site and layout, Heart of Linden is an intriguing idea as a “BRT-OD.” I’ve obviously written a lot about transit-oriented-development or TOD, and it goes without saying that I’m a believer in the power of rails toward the goal of generating this coveted prize. That said, I concede that BRT can move the needle a little bit. It won’t be the sole driver behind billions of dollars in TOD, but it can contribute, and it doesn’t hurt. So just as BRT is a practical innovation, what if the TOD model could similarly be innovated to fit that practicality? As such, a “BRT-OD” could be more of a temporary re-activation of a site, not unlike a pop-up city, and could rely on technological innovations to give it a lighter footprint and lower up-front building cost.

What if “BRT-OD” is a way forward in terms of integrating these BRT systems with surrounding low-income neighborhoods? I leave you with that thought.

Detroit: 2016

Now a year removed from bankruptcy, Detroit is moving on and building the strongest momentum that the city has had since its precipitous decline began, more promising than any other flash of hope that came and went in the past. You can’t come to Detroit today and not see that this is the Comeback City; It’s happening.

Click here for the photo tour from my 2015 trip.

m-1-rail-route-mapSomehow, I seem to be making a personal tradition of making an annual Detroit trip during the winter. I also somehow always luck out and get a weekend that is “relatively” warm, so I’ve really lucked out (2015’s trip was in the 30s, but wedged between two Polar Vortex weeks; 2016’s trip had temps in the 50s). All of this said, and even in the “Comeback City,” there really isn’t all THAT much change in 1 year. A few new scaffolds covering some buildings, such as the Griswold Bldg on Michigan Ave that’s now pretty far along. The booming M1 Corridor isn’t all that unchanged – it’s mostly the same building projects still underway, and the light rail is still under construction, although the street is a little bit more passable.

The one area where there has been a lot of change is the new Redwings Arena. One of the grandiose old hotels are gone, yet the other (two twin hotel towers) still stands, and the arena totally dwarfs everything in the southern end of Midtown. Across Woodward, the western-most block of Brush Park is seeing a lot of new development. Huge projects going up between Woodward and John R.

As always, you gotta start at the Market, especially if it’s a Saturday and the weather is sublime. This area was previously artfully gang-tagged all over, which is now giving way to an actual public art initiative called Murals in the Market. There is a map of murals on their website, but several are new in just the last year, such as the really awesome googly eyes. There are more pics inside the market in my 2015 pics, as this time I mostly explored the surrounding market district, where several distilleries and breweries have given way to cold storage and meat market businesses. The Eastern Market is as old school as it gets.

Murals in the Market

The Eastern Market is just east, across I-75, from Brush Park and Midtown Detroit. The two areas, arguably Detroit’s most active on a nice weekend day, are still pretty disconnected. Of course, Brush Park still has a ways to go toward regaining its lost luster. The M1 Rail project is chugging along, making Woodward Avenue a little more passable than before, and it all looks great. The new Red Wings Arena is also topped out.

Midtown & M1 Rail

 

Confession time: I LOVE the Detroit People Mover. I wanted to hate it so badly. It’s everyone’s favorite kind of rail project to pick on. It’s a monorail, it doesn’t connect to the street level, you need quarters to ride it, and it only does a 3-mile loop around downtown. I always tried using it as an example of a bad rail project. But it isn’t. The Detroit People Mover somehow works. Every single time I’ve seen it, it’s packed full of people. You have to literally squeeze onto it. It could be sped up – it doesn’t need to stop at every station for a full minute or two – but the best thing about it is the headways. With 5 trains simultaneously making the 3-mile clockwise loop around downtown, a train comes every 3-4 minutes. It’s really awesome.

Downtown Detroit is also really awesome. Similarly, I really wanted to hate the Renaissance Center. It’s the most typical fortress city urban renewal project you’ve ever seen. Did I mention that it’s massing is ugly and intimidating? But it’s also really cool, and I finally made it to the Coach Insignia bar up on the 73rd Floor, which makes the Renaissance Center alright with me. Next time you’re in town, you’ve got to go. Go get a drink (not badly priced at all) and watch the sunset. If you hate fortress corporate towers like me, it will still make you fall in love with the Ren Cen.

People Mover & A View From the Top

Corktown is probably my favorite little pocket of Detroit. The main reason for this is probably Slow’s BarBQ. Easily the best BBQ joint I’ve ever been to outside of KC, and I would know bc I’m kind of a foodie tourist.

West is (was) Best

And lastly, I finally made it to the Heidelberg Project, which is truly the weirdest thing I have ever seen. In fact, that is all I have to say about it. Enjoy.

Departure From Reality

Until next time, Motor City!

Twin Cities TOD photo tour

As I’ve been putting humpty dumpty (aka my phone situation) back together, I was able to recover a number of photos from my Twin Cities train tour. Here is a link to the original post, which I will edit to add these photos.

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Green Line route between Minneapolis and St. Paul

The Green Line primarily runs straight down University Avenue, except for a few turns around UMN and downtown SP. I made it to Saint Paul Union Depot, where the Green Line terminates, though my phone died at Dale Street (in Frogtown, west of the State Capitol). Downtown SP is less flashy than downtown Mpls, and mostly comprised of government and office buildings linked by a skyway system.

Immediately east of downtown, the Green Line crosses I-94 on a decorative bridge, and then goes through the State Capitol area – big historic quad, big open space, lots of surface parking. While both downtown and the Capitol area are attractive, historic areas – neither are very walkable or vibrant, except for a few bright spots. However, between the State Capitol and UMN campus, the entire corridor has been quickly transformed by TOD. The entire corridor is marked with new businesses and new mixed-income housing developments, alongside preexisting historic buildings (like the green Spruce Tree building at Snelling Ave) and retail strips. I have pictures at downtown Mpls’ Nicollet Mall, Downtown East, UMN’s East Bank and Stadium Village, grain mills at Westgate, revitalization at Fairview, Snelling, Hamline Midway, and Victoria and Dale (Frogtown in SP). These were taken after first taking photos of TOD along the Blue Line, along Hiawatha Avenue – with photos of stations between the MSP International Airport and Midtown Lake Street station, which have also seen substantial TOD though not as much as the Green Line.

Blue Line (Hiawatha Line) through Minneapolis:

Downtown Minneapolis (Downtown East and Nicollet Mall):

The UMN campus area:

The Frogtown area of SP, which encompasses Victoria, Dale, and Western avenues – is known as the Little Mekong District, and at Western Avenue is a public art installation called “River Dragon” comparing the Mekong River to the Mississippi River. While this area is known for its Vietnamese community, I also saw visible signs of Somali and Hispanic immigrant settlement. Since the completion of light rail through this area, the corridor has solidified with light rail, pedestrian amenities, and ethnic restaurants. It’s kinda cool.

The western side of St Paul, including the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, and eclectic Frogtown, has been perhaps the main focus of TOD throughout the Central Corridor.

And with that, this completely the photo tour of the Twin Cities light rail TOD, up to this point. I imagine that the Blue Line will continue to develop steadily, while the Green Line continues its frenetic pace of development.

Design Ingenuity: Vikings’ new MetroDome

maxresdefault1When stuff turns 50 years old, a switch is flipped. Nobody wants that junk anymore. And if it wasn’t junk, it is now. This happened in the 70s-80s with Art Deco mid-rise buildings in Oklahoma. Once the grandiose old urban core became 50 years old, it was time to bring in I.M. Pei and tear down 2,000 great old buildings. But this post isn’t about OKC and its troubles and rubbles. This is about what’s rising out of the rubble of the MetroDome in Minneapolis. (Or maybe not rubble as much as tattered pieces of inflatable roof.) It’s about an NFL stadium, which is an odd thing to celebrate in a new feature I’d like to call Design Ingenuity. I’ll do these posts for anything I see that really inspires me as an urban designer. Just perusing through Minneapolis projects, an all-around inspirational city honestly, I was really blown away by the new US Bank Stadium.

Important Note: This inspiration is also in part underscored by the fact that NFL stadiums are among the worst thing our society is building right now. It’s a beacon of corporate excess and waste, public finance and corporate welfare, and all of these evils. Yes, I get it – we have people starving, even a small proportion living in poverty in Minneapolis I’m sure, and yet the Twin Cities are subsidizing a $1 billion stadium. IT is what it is. For some perspective however, they’re getting a lot more for it. “JerryWorld” AKA AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX was $1.3 billion in 2009, $1.45 billion in 2016 dollars. They got nothing. A super huge dysfunctional venue that can only host sporting events, surrounded by not a sea but an ocean of parking, across the street from a Wal-mart and an interstate freeway. North Texas for ya.

By comparison, the Vikings stadium is $1.06 billion which is a lot, but nearly 50% less, for a more impressive football stadium. Beyond that, they got the Vikings organization to financially contribute significantly. $551 million from the Vikings, $348 million from the state, and just $150 million from the city. Also compare to Cleveland, where the Browns organization LEFT TOWN in order to force Clevelanders to pony up most of $300 million for their new stadium, and just last year broke the bank again for $120 million in renovations, with $30 million coming from the City of Cleveland just to pay for a new scoreboard. Since $30 million is nothing, most of it actually comes from Cuyahoga County’s sin tax. Ugh. Did I mention that Minneapolis is getting a true architectural gem and a real catalyst for economic and community development? It isn’t a difficult argument to make that neither Arlington nor Cleveland will see similar outcomes from their stadium boondoggles.

I saw this stadium (nearly complete even) when I was in town. You ride right past it on the Hiawatha Line LRT, and switch over to the Green Line LRT at the transit mall right in front of it. Still yet, I didn’t realize how cool it was. My impression from seeing it still under construction was that it was cool, but not necessarily inspirational. Actually, when I came around the bend approaching it, I didn’t realize it was an NFL stadium. It doesn’t look like a stadium. It looks like.. I don’t know, you tell me:

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US Bank Stadium construction aerial from mgoblog.com

From the other side and inside:

It’s a Viking ship!… “setting sail toward downtown Mpls.” How cool is that? The entire stadium’s design has been inspired by a Viking ship, and not just its exterior. The internal structural supports, holding the roof up, are designed to look like sails. Outside, on a corner where you can see the tapered “ship-shape” angles of the stadium, is a public art statue called the “Legacy Ship,” where local die-hards can buy “legacy bricks,” which they will do because you can coherently envision a great legacy coming from this design. My family are primarily Vikings fans, especially my aunt and uncle who have season tickets in Minneapolis, and even though I never got into it I am thrilled that they can be a part of something that is very cool.

But it gets better. The stadium is located right downtown, on the site of the old MetroDome, and totally surrounded by rapid redevelopment. Minneapolis is booming. They have 40,000 downtown residents and are trending toward 75,000 by 2025, which they will probably reach. Minneapolis, indeed, is booming. One of the main reasons for this would be the extent to which they invested in transit, and this project is no different. While most of the $1 billion is for a football stadium, just as the public art was not cheap either, they have also integrated a not-cheap light rail transit mall into the project. Local Tea Party folks are balking at the “ballooning expense” of the $8.7 million pedestrian bridge that carries fans over the tracks and onto the platform, where a train takes people to and from the game. Right now you can just walk on top of the tracks because they aren’t grade separated. There are numerous at-grade crossings that work just fine. So why the bridge?

The explanation lies in this Finance & Commerce article. Once the still-incomplete Twin Cities light rail network is complete, at least as envisioned up to this point, this stretch of tracks will serve as the central hub and transfer point for the entire system. Trains will come through on average every 2 minutes. Let me say that again: Every two minutes, a light rail train rolls through this transit mall. Since trains take a minute (especially at an important transfer point with other LRT lines) to allow for on- and off-boarding, there won’t be many opportunities to cross these tracks on foot. Especially when 65,000 fans get out of a game, along with countless thousands more that fill downtown bars and restaurants during game days. So in this instance, the light rail bridge is a core piece of this stadium project, which has led the city and Vikings organization (which contractually captured ad revenues from the station to pay off its roughly $2 million contribution) partnering on this.

So there you have it. Rather than just building a stadium, Minneapolis is building a legacy. Not just a Legacy Ship, but a project that has been inspired by this legacy in every way, including when it comes to structural supports, the roof of the stadium, its shape, it’s orientation on the site, and so on. Most importantly, they are building a legacy of equitable access not just to and from games, but the surrounding area as well. They didn’t just think of transit, too; they made the light rail access point a core piece of this project, recognizing that by doing so they can legitimately expect Vikings fans to take the train to the game.

Go Vikings. – Sincerely, city planners.

Twin Cities Lesson: Transit can be “Nice!”

Edit: Since 20 additional photos were uncovered from the cloud, they were posted subsequently, at this link. I will also integrate the recovered photos into this post, while leaving as much of the original text.

So, a very bad thing happened, amidst how long it has already taken me to get these pics up. On Thursday I clumsily obliterated my iPhone, which was really a long time in the making. Four days removed from the tragedy, I have finally stopped trying to retrieve my 5,000+ planning/design/travel photos, and have a replacement phone in the mail.

Just minutes before the incident, I luckily posted all of my Denton pics, which are arguably more valuable as a rarely-documented rail fail. I also instagrammed four pics of Minneapolis’ light rail system, plus one aerial from flying in (Captions visible if you click on the photo):

Moving Everyone Forward

These trains are just incredibly nice. I occasionally butt heads with the most well-intended fellow planners, over whether or not transit has to be nice. Many of them deliberately believe it should be not nice. If there’s one unique thing I ever say, it’s the importance of providing dignity to disenfranchised citizens. The assumption that transit users are disenfranchised citizens almost seems like a baseline acceptance just in order to open the door and have a discussion with self-titled equity planners.

The problem with this whole assumption is that it disregards two very important things that successful cities do: 1, attract choice riders; and 2, offer a desirable experience that drives ridership. A frequent objection to urban rail projects is that light rail is “too nice” and that the money would be better spent providing more basic service to low-income communities exclusively. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias is one of these screeds who oppose nice transit in the name of equity, and it’s actually a POV that’s becoming typical of urbanist writers who make inroads into the national punditry. Locally, whenever I talk to COTA, this is the refrain. I think it’s awesome that an agency has gradually adopted a holistic activist mentality toward its customer base, at the exclusion of anyone else.

Another thing I often bring up, but have also heard others use as well, is that social service and transit service are two different things. Columbus provides transit as a social service. Minneapolis isn’t shirking its social duties, but is providing transit in the form of a real transit system. This is shockingly revolutionary. The Twin Cities’ most-utilized assets can not be picked up and moved by anyone, and while they were planned to respond to density and transit dependency where it exists, that density is also being proactively generated by the transit agency itself. It wasn’t “If you build it, they will come.” They built it, and then they committed to a long-term program to drive transit-oriented development along the LRT lines.

Central Corridor

250px-metrotransitmncurrentmetromapMinneapolis is just a nice city. In fact, Minnesotans are nice people, and they say “Nice!” a lot. I saw a few hoodies with a cute little outline of the state alongside such a caption, so it must be official. It befits this nice city that their transit is also very nice. It should be very nice because their most recent expansion, the 11-mile Green Line (which traverses University Avenue, through the UMN campus, between modern Downtown Mpls and historic Downtown St. Paul) cost $957 million, or roughly $87 million per mile. This project cost includes everything from rolling stock (47 new train vehicles), new sidewalk treatments, bike lanes, and even new car travel lanes. The Metro Council, the Twin Cities-area MPO, has found a 50% cost savings by doing all of this at once. Adding all of this work to the LRT project inflates the cost by which LRT is evaluated, but reduces costs across the board in the long-term. It’s a smart thing to do if you can get away with it, which requires public leaders who aren’t scared by a billion-dollar price tag.

The following are photos I took of the Green Line through Downtown Minneapolis (where it shares a transit mall with the Green Line) and the UMN campus (gateway to the Central Corridor):

 

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Wikipedia photo on the Metro Green Line article (Green Line shown traveling past UMN)

The Green Line is projected to have 40,000 riders by 2030. In its first year of operation it averaged 34,500 daily riders, 25% above projections. It will grow employment concentrated in the area by 90,000 jobs by this time, bringing the total (Downtown Mpls + UMN + Downtown St. Paul) to 375,000. It is also responsible for $2.5 billion in private development, which according to this Metro Council fact sheet accounts for 100 projects. According to this 2010 report from the Funders Collaborative, a non-profit group tasked with funding the Central Corridor Vision, the entire build-out potential of what is possible along the new Green Line totals $6 billion, just focusing on private investment potential. This more recent NPR article, calling it the Money Train, actually cites $3 billion in TOD, including 12,000 housing units.

To supplement my abridged photo tour, here is a 2014 run-down of projects along the Central Corridor from The Line. (Tip: You have to wait for the photo slideshow to start at the top of the page) CNN has a remarkably sophisticated photo tour, titled How the Twin Cities Got Transit Right. The annoying drop-down at the top actually tracks your progress along the route, as you progress through the photo tour. The article shows a surprising depth of subject understanding, for a national media piece. A few highlights:

Map overview of Central Corridor TOD, with Downtown Mpls on the left, and Downtown St. Paul on the right:

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Stantec’s master plan of Central Corridor TOD

To achieve this, the Metro Council and its non-profit partners, including the Funders Collaborative and affordable housing consortiums, hired the transit engineering firm Stantec to identify every possible investment opportunity. They identified 500 potential investment opportunities in total, shown above.

As these sites are heavily concentrated in the area between UMN’s campus and the State Capitol, encompassing the entire Central Corridor through the west side of St. Paul, here are the photos that I took through this area:

 

Blue Line

Minneapolis is not new to light rail. Its Blue Eine, formerly known as the Hiawatha Line, has ran from downtown Mpls to the Mall of America since 2004. The line was expanded from the Mall of America southward through suburban Bloomington, MN – where the market has driven a lot of TOD. The original line opened amidst construction, offering a non-stop connection from the Warehouse District around Target Field and Fort Snelling, which is just before you get the airport. The total price tag of this project was $715 million. The line has already far-exceeded its 2020 goal of 24,000 avg daily riders, which is now around 28,000. According to this METRO fact sheet, 50% of its daily riders were new to transit before trying the light rail.

Here are the photos I took of TOD along the Blue Line:

The Twin Cities have been so successful with transit by amenitizing stations, which I found to be in excess of what their own factsheet claims). The following is a list of bells and whistles you encounter as a METRO transit user, regardless of your socioeconomic background:

  • Sheltered platforms
  • Public art (integrated as you’d expect)
  • Push-button heaters (absolutely brilliant)
  • Ticketing kiosks (modern forms of payment)
  • Free on-board WiFi
  • Onboard restrooms
  • Work tables at stations and onboard
  • Prominent connection schedules
  • LED ticker for next train departure
  • LED screens with ads and community info
  • Electrical outlets (impossible to find on other systems)
  • Bike storage onboard and at stations
  • Great skyline views all around

These amenities go a long ways toward driving transit choice in the Twin Cities, which isn’t exactly Chicago. In fact, Minneapolis-St. Paul’s urban fabric is really more comparable to Cleveland or Columbus. A lot of old neighborhoods around a revitalized downtown or two, with a heavy emphasis on the “eds and meds.” It’s really not all that different from the Ohio cities. The difference is bold public investment and bolder progressive policies. The trains in and around Minneapolis are packed, and the faces truly represent the fabric of their community. It’s not all transit dependent users. You see diversity, including its upper bounds. You see a lot of choice riders. Most importantly, you see a lot of people whose lives have been bettered by the light rail: they are living visibly healthy, active lifestyles, which have been made attainable to anyone in the Twin Cities.

This is why the Twin Cities have been perhaps the nation’s strongest light rail success story. They could have cut corners, saved some pennies here and there, and saved themselves the political blowback that you’d expect with a $715 million and another $950 million light rail project. They didn’t do that because they were unfazed by the cost. Other states are unfazed by the cost of new freeways and prisons, so why should they be fazed by the cost of modern rail that they need? To the contrary, the Twin Cities looked for any additional connection they could create between communities and these rail corridors. No stone has been left unturned in the pursuit of developing quality mixed-income housing, adding active lifestyle amenities like adjacent bike trails, and optimizing the user experience regardless of why they’re catching a train on that particular day.

In my case, I caught the train at the airport’s Lindbergh Terminal, which is essentially a shiny-new subway station. It was $1.75 for a day pass. The route was truly optimized for my experience as a short-term tourist: Got to see Midtown, a quirky Riverside neighborhood, an iconic bridge and bike trail, the revitalized downtown area, had a latte near campus, saw the stadiums and associated redevelopment there, saw St. Paul’s Little Mekong neighborhood, and met lots of friendly Minnesotans. By the time I had to get back to MSP to catch my return flight to Columbus, I had more than enough resident recommendations to last a week in the Twin Cities, made some friends who held the door open while I jumped out at each station to take photos I would later lose, and had been told twice that seeing these “light rail tourists” had become a daily occurrence on the Central Corridor.

I am in awe of how Minneapolis exemplifies how a rail project can truly build community. I believe that is what we are all working toward, it’s just that sometimes we disagree about how to get there. I think Minneapolis (and St. Paul too!) have exemplified how investing in transit is one way to get there.

Denton A-Train is just that: A train

Finally getting around to posting my photos from the Denton County Transit Authority’s “A-Train” system, from which I came away with some surprising impressions. For the sake of brevity and organization, they are numbered below:

  1. Very low ridership. Only 1900 daily riders. Yep, you read that right.
  2. The 21-mile corridor, finished in 2011, hasn’t had enough time to generate much TOD.
  3. Good TOD is happening in Denton, Hebron, and Carrollton. Give it time maybe?
  4. Bad service frequencies. And schedule. Had to wait 40 minutes when I parked in Downtown Denton.
  5. Also expensive. A day pass was $10 (!!). That said, it was also valid on DART. DART alone is nation’s largest and most-comprehensive LRT network, and the 21-mile A-Train trip could save I-35 commuters a lot of time and gas.
  6. Bad information. Upon return, actually missed the last train because I was going off of an old schedule. There are three differing schedules online and they don’t have an effective date printed at the bottom like you’d expect. Let’s just say that was an expensive Uber ride, but it was a good exercise in understanding the unreliability of the Denton rail system.
  7. Beautiful trains and stations. Absolutely immaculate system. Very clean. Brand-new Stadler diesel multiple-unit coaches. When the more heavily-ridden DART trains are parked side-by-side, you would never guess which system nobody uses, comparatively.
  8. Follows existing railroad corridor that even awkwardly cuts through some new subdivisions and apartment complexes.

The photo tour starts in Downtown Denton, which has a really nice historic square. Denton itself is well-known as a liberal college town that, as the seat of Denton County, has exploded with growth. Denton is centrally-located in the huge county, which in 1990 had a population of 273,000 – up to 753,000 in 2014. In that time, Denton itself has gone from 66,000 to 128,000. While most of the growth is actually in between Denton city and the Dallas County line (Carrollton), Denton has in-fact captured a lot of that growth, which has fueled mostly subdivisions and a few denser complexes in-town (mostly around the University of North Texas). The A-Train then follows what is essentially the I-35 E Stemmons Freeway corridor through the wasteland that was formerly the blackland prairie of North Texas.