Remaking Greater Los Angeles as a Transit-Oriented Region
September 11, 2017
Several decades into a voter-approved transit focus, both the city and the county of Los Angeles are proudly showing off a growing list of transit-oriented development (TOD) projects. Supported by a new half-cent tax that could fund an estimated $120 billion worth of public transit improvements over the next 40 years, the region is ramping up the creation of TODs not only in downtown but also along transit lines further out. Private developers are planning and building dozens of TOD projects around transit stations, some of them joint developments with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), to create more comprehensive “transit-oriented communities” (TOCs).
Angelenos spend an average of 81 hours a year stuck in traffic, and only 5 percent take transit. With 10.2 million people in 88 cities, L.A. County is projected to expand by 2.4 million people in the next 40 years. To mitigate worsening traffic congestion and air pollution in this car-culture region, Metro will double the size of its rail system to better connect downtown L.A. to the county’s edges.
L.A. County has voted for four half-cent sales taxes since 1980 to support transit improvements. Measure R, passed in 2008, raised $36 billion for rail, subway, and road projects. The funding expanded L.A. County’s Metro Rail system from two to six lines, including two rapid-transit subway lines (the Red and Purple lines) and four light-rail lines (the Blue, Green, Gold, and Expo lines). The system now has 93 stations and 105 miles (169 km) of rail, as well as connections with the Metro Busway bus rapid transit (BRT) system (the Orange and Silver lines) and the Metrolink commuter rail system. Riders can travel from downtown to the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, LAX airport, East Los Angeles, and the beaches of Santa Monica and Long Beach to the west and south, respectively.
Last November, 71 percent of county voters passed Measure M to fund $120 billion worth of rail expansions, highway improvements, walking and biking infrastructure, and local street repairs. More than half of all revenues over the next 40 years will be spent on new construction, according to Metro, including five new transit lines and at least six extensions of lines that are already built or under construction, plus BRT line expansion. Measure M, through the city of Los Angeles, will fund $200 million for a future downtown streetcar.
With this shift to transit, Los Angeles and surrounding cities are addressing the need for taller, denser, walkable, and bikeable commercial and residential development along major boulevards and near transit lines to support the public investment in transportation infrastructure and to provide transit access for people. Taller and denser has already been happening in downtown, Hollywood, Koreatown, and other areas. Greenland USA’s $1 billion Metropolis, with hotel, retail, and luxury residential towers rising to 56 stories, is under construction on a former parking lot at Eighth and Francisco streets, less than a half mile (0.8 km) from the Seventh Street/Metro Center Station in downtown.
In more suburban areas, TODs are bringing mixed uses and greater density. Metro Expo, the newest light-rail line, stretches from the downtown west to Santa Monica. One station stop is in Culver City, an independent “gateway” city that historically has been a center for the film and entertainment industry. The Metro Expo light-rail station, which opened in 2012, has helped accelerate redevelopment of the Hayden Tract area from run-down industrial buildings to a creative district for tech and film businesses, art galleries, home décor retailers, and architecture and design firms.
Ten years ago, the Runyon Group, a Culver City–based real estate brokerage firm, built the area’s first mixed-use project. The firm later became the first to develop in the city’s TOD area. In March 2016, Runyon opened Platform, the $150 million redevelopment of a former car dealership on five acres (2 ha) across from the light-rail station. Platform includes 50,000 square feet (4,600 sq m) of upscale retail and restaurants and 80,000 feet (7,400 sq m) of creative offices. Culver City’s Abramson Teiger Architects designed four repurposed 1960s-era buildings and three edgier new ones, all between one and four stories. Five ground-floor restaurants and two more opening in the spring are clustered around a courtyard. Office tenants include the West Coast headquarters and a studio for SoulCycle indoor cycling and Paris-based Criteo online advertising and Technicolor digital effects and film editing. All the retail and office spaces are leased. Another office-above-retail building is due to break ground in October and be finished in two years.
“The big idea” was to create a place to showcase “independent and unique retailers from around the U.S. and world in a neighborhood like the Marais in Paris or South SoHo in New York,” says Joseph Miller, Runyon cofounder and partner with David Fishbein. “We had the experience working with retail tenants and knew their needs, and there was nothing else like this in L.A.” The firm purchased the property in 2010, he says, “to create a place that people want to come to. It’s a very central place in the region, and by train, freeway, and bike is a very accessible part of L.A. As the city grows east and south, it becomes even more central.”
The $300 million Ivy Station mixed-use complex next to the Culver City light-rail station broke ground in July at the intersections of Venice, Washington, and National boulevards. Designed by Santa Monica–based Killefer Flammang Architects and Culver City–based EYRC, the 5.2-acre (2.1 ha) infill property, developed by L.A.-based Lowe, formerly Lowe Enterprises, is slated for 500,000 square feet (46,500 sq m) of development. It features 200 market-rate rental apartments, a 148-room boutique hotel, a 200,000-square-foot (18,600 sq m) office tower, and 55,000 square feet (5,100 sq m) of ground-level retail and restaurants. The station’s 1,500 below-grade parking spaces include 300 spaces dedicated for Metro riders. In the transit plaza, two acres (0.8 ha) of programmed space with an event lawn serve as a hub for light rail, bus, pedestrians, and cyclists. Though Culver City has a 55-foot (16.7 m) height limit, Ivy Station buildings will rise to 70 feet (21.3 m) in height, in exchange for providing the community benefit of a better retail and outdoor gathering-space environment. Project construction is scheduled for completion by early 2020.
“We’re still in our infancy in understanding TOD, but that gives us an opportunity to do it with an innovative approach,” says Mike Lowe, co-CEO of Lowe. “We’re still learning as we go as a city. We’re 30 or 40 years behind a city like Washington, D.C., where they get the infrastructure in, and people embrace the fact they need to be flexible around the transit nodes if they want to continue to grow as a city.” Over time, Lowe says, “L.A. will get more comfortable with density, and we’ll see more density around transit stops.”
Until the 1960s, Los Angeles was well connected by streetcars, and Metro now owns many rights-of-way where rail was removed. Under its joint development program, Metro has partnered with private developers to provide long-term ground leases for more than 25 TOD projects that are completed, in process, or under review. Recognizing the importance of appropriate zoning, Metro developed the Toolkit for Transit-Supportive Planning, a web-based best practices guide. In 2011, Metro launched the TOD Planning Grant Program, which has awarded 36 grants totaling over $22 million to Los Angeles County jurisdictions to develop and approve land use plans that remove regulatory barriers to TOD. It recently began a pilot program that provides funding to cities to study the creation of tax increment financing districts around transit stations.
“Metro has committed to facilitating transit-oriented development in a holistic community context,” which has become more challenging since redevelopment authorities were dissolved statewide in 2012, says Jenna Hornstock, Metro’s joint development program manager and executive officer for transit-oriented communities. Metro’s TOC planning approach expands the typical TOD focus on single development parcels to consider opportunities within a half-mile (0.8 ha) walk shed around a station and up to a three-mile (5 km) bike shed.
“The TOC vision is that L.A. orients its land use planning and community development goals around access to compact neighborhoods that are walkable and bikeable around transit,” says Hornstock. “Single-family neighborhoods will remain, but adjacent to transit corridors, we’re planning for communities accessible to households of all income levels.” A joint development program goal is for 35 percent of housing in the portfolio to be built as affordable for households earning 60 percent or less of area median income (AMI). Metro considers discounts for joint development ground leases of up to 30 percent of fair market value for affordable housing.
Under a master plan being developed by Trammell Crow Company and a team including Los Angeles–based HKS Architects and RELM landscape architects and urban planners, the North Hollywood (NoHo) Station, located in the heart of L.A.’s NoHo Arts District, could become a transformative transit center and TOC model. The $1 billion joint development project, one of six Los Angeles TODs that Trammell Crow is developing, is also L.A.’s largest to date. Metro owns the 15.6-acre (6.3 ha) site, which includes the station and 957 transit parking spaces. As the terminus for the Red Line subway and the Orange Line BRT, the station is a major transit hub in the San Fernando Valley with over 24,000 daily boardings. Trammell Crow will build a new transit center that consolidates all bus connections for the Orange BRT line and local bus service.
The Cesar Chavez Foundation will build 20 percent of NoHo Station’s 1,400 homes as affordable for households earning 60 and 40 percent of AMI. The project will also have 400,000 square feet (37,000 sq m) of office space, up to 150,000 square feet (13,900 sq m) of destination retail, 1,000 parking spaces, plus two or three acres (0.8 to 1.2 ha) of open space. Development guidelines created with the community balance historic preservation of the arts district with the height, density, and pedestrian environment needed for a successful TOD.
“This is a game-changer for connectivity in the region and especially to Union Station,” says Brad Cox, Trammell Crow senior managing director. “This project has allowed us to think about the future of transit in L.A. and the shared economy as we move into this major investment in transit, and how people will live, work, and play in a very dense city.”
After Measure M’s passage, Mayor Eric Garcetti said that over 70 percent of the electorate agreed that “we are sick and tired of traffic and we’re going to do something about it.” He said the “car capital of the world” would soon be home to “a transit system that is the envy of the world.” Measure M tax has no sunset clause, so funding could continue indefinitely. The federal government is responsible for about half of the funds, though, with the future of federal infrastructure funding as yet undetermined. Meanwhile, Metro, private developers, and some cities in L.A. County are moving ahead with TOD development that supports transportation alternatives to gridlock.
Kathleen McCormick, principal of Fountainhead Communications LLC in Boulder, Colorado, writes frequently about sustainable, healthy, and resilient communities.