Transit Oriented Development Needs More than Just Location

Public Square WestwoodAt the apex of Interstate 93, Interstate 95 and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, a new project is underway touting its focus on Transit Oriented Development (TOD). The term garners support (and rightly so) from designers and planners for its methodology of building denser communities around existing mass transit corridors as an alternative to sprawl. The site for University Station in Westwood, Massachusetts has all of the key components for a successful TOD project.

However, as the project has developed its direction has become a better example of how design and planning choices can compromise even the best of existing site conditions. Despite the fact that close proximity to transit corridors is the most important component of TOD, it is not enough to guarantee success. Location alone will not ensure a vibrant community geared towards transit. A look at the project pulls out some clear examples how development next to transit can go out of its way to orient itself towards something else.

Leveraging Dormant Assets

In the 1990’s Westwood, Massachusetts was faced with a problem that was far from unique in the state or the rest of the country: a large parcel of land once devoted to industrial and R&D uses was losing its usefulness in the eyes of its owners and with it came the waning of tax revenue for the town. In the years that followed the GM plant located there would close and the site festered as under-utilized land despite its inherent planning value. The former suburban commercial hub sat right next to a train stop for both Boston’s Commuter Rail as well as Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service between Boston and Washington D.C. (its most heavily traveled and most profitable route).

University Station has been a gleam in the eyes of its creators for some time. Original planning and negotiations for the project began in 2006 with developers requesting special permits from the town with visions of localized development that leveraged the value of rail access and close proximity to both Interstates 93 and 95. By 2008 filing approvals were setting the stage for a great commencement before the spectre of the financial recession cast its shadow over the site. By 2009 the project was at a complete stop and remained dormant until a new group of developers finalized the site’s purchase in 2012.

Westwood Masterplan

Proposed Site Plan (Click to Enlarge)

The Building Blocks of Success

At first glance, the idea of University Station is flush with promise. The foundation of its design is built upon some of the tenets of Transit-Oriented Design. With over 130 acres of property to utilize, the plan calls for a whopping 500,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space in its first phase of development to be supported by 350 “high-end” residential units and up to 100 units of assisted living, all within walking distance of the train. The retail component also includes a food store on site–a key component to a successful, walkable community.

There’s nothing not to like about a statement like that. We have alternative transit access to Boston, Providence and New York that can depress the need to commute by automobile. There is access to food and retail a short walk from the front door of hundreds of homes. With some diversity of retail program, coordination of public space and a nice mix between market rate residential and assisted living, there is an argument for a sustainable community base.

By themselves, these are qualities and opportunities that more towns and cities should be focusing on for new development rather than expanding via greenfield sprawl. The access that TOD sites can offer can be enough to attract the critical mass to build the variety and breadth needed for a true micro-community that can sustain itself–or at least define itself.

Resort vs. Community

Westwood University Station Image

Would you live here?

However, it would be wrong to say that there are no design decisions to damage a TOD site and its promise of a “community within a community.” The first discouraging sign was the fruition of the retail component with the likes of Wegman’s and Target praised for their commitments to the site. Of course, the decision by the developers to seek out these clients isn’t surprising by any means. Large corporate clients can sign long term leases to guarantee bigger future cash flows up front. To the people-behind-the-curtain this is a good thing for a more robust financial model that reduces risk.

Westwood Pool Station

Pedestrian Community Residential? Not really…

But to the people that would actually live there? These are not community building retail locations realized at the scale of 130 acres. These are national, big-box titans with huge catchment areas required for staying solvent and built at a regional scale. Their footprint and parking requirements alone dictate a building directly contrary to a walkable neighborhood–space that could have been used for denser living and a series of smaller, local stores that offer the same products with less fanfare and higher quality.

Words like “high-end” and “amenities” were some of the next signs of a questionable resolution. In reading a summary from the town:

“University Station’s residential component, consisting of two four-story, brick buildings surrounding a parking garage , will be designed and constructed by The Hanover Companies, a national developer of luxury apartments. The market rate units are expected to rent for between $2,500 and $4,400 per month.”

The statement goes on to outline how “all units will be served by private on-site parking facilities largely shielded from the streetscape, [with] an executive fitness club and courtyard pool, and other high-end amenities.” As recently discussed here on Intercon, there is also a question of how often amenities like this are actually used by the people that move in and whether they genuinely raise the quality of life for residents.

Westwood University Station Bedroom

Of the many ways to describe this, “residential” is probably not one of them. I don’t think I know anyone who has a bedroom like this.

How swiftly the scene changes from a walkable, transit-oriented community of locals to a luxury resort and shopping center with access to rail. While the project’s website does outline an approximate 20/80 split for affordable housing (because it’s state law), the majority of the units are looking to fetch rents that could be found in heart of Boston or New York. A look at the model interiors for the units bears a stronger resemblance to a hotel rather than a home, begging the question of what kind of community the developers are trying to create.

Although the project has access to much more space it fails to reach the image of authenticity that even a small TOD project like Dwell Development’s Columbia Station with its “micro-community” model.

Engineering with Housing Mix

The potential convenience of a site like University Station brings with it a large draw on its own for potential residents to fill new space and form a community, but the nature of how that space is crafted can determine a great deal of the outcome before the first resident even steps through the door.

Looking beyond the shopping mall aesthetic that clamors for the lowest common denominator in diluted nostalgic references paired with a frugality hidden under the banner of “modern”, the planning minds can use more tools to refine (or restrict) who will consider University Station as a potential home–in this case, with the unit mix.

Both the project website and the town clearly define the new units as being comprised only of 1 and 2 bedroom condos, specifically adding that there will be no 3 bedroom units and no units will have dens or offices. The message being broadcast seems equally clear: families look elsewhere. For what is likely an effort to curb an influx of new students into their school system, the town is working to try and focus on rigging the game for young, affluent professionals or couples that will spend lots of money while inflicting a minimal fiscal burden on the town. Again, the methodology for the decision making process is clear, but most likely not one that will produce a great long-term community result.

Furthermore, the project has worked itself into a catch-22. By not attracting families, the plan needs to focus on young, well paid professionals to fill its units. At the same time, the “community” mix of program and design is not what Millennials are looking for. Why would one move out of a city center, to pay more to live in a cultural black hole next to a Target? The entire plan exudes a transient nature of temporal living situations rather than a concentrated effort to craft a place that people would want to build a permanent life around–only further underscored by the fact that all of these apartments are rentals, not homes for purchase.

Vibrant Walkable Communities, Yes. Expensive Luxury Pit Stops, No.

In one architect’s humble opinion, there are a series of changes that could have pointed the project in a more promising direction:

Residential out of scale

If I was pitching a pedestrian community, I probably wouldn’t show a rendering with housing flanked by six lanes of traffic.

Smaller Buildings with Broader Unit Mix: If the project is talking about a community at the scale of 130 acres then the buildings need to respond accordingly. Something closer to attached townhouses would have gone a long way to break down the street walls to family size. Combine this with choosing a few of the broader array of possibilities for housing types; lofts over commercial, apartments, townhouses, live/work units, duplex, cottages, patio houses, etc.

Small, Local Retail: While national retailers may be able to shell out the big bucks, they bring big baggage and a lack of localized identity. Designing smaller retail spaces would attract a larger number of varied local businesses. Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson comment on the value of small scale retail when they describe the community building effort in Mashpee Commons (also in Massachusetts):

“Twenty feet is much too shallow for chain retailers’ standard format, not to mention the low ceiling heights. But these stores serve a valuable purpose as a vehicle for the developer to attract local business by offering small floor areas at low rents. The spaces remain available to rent to locals precisely because they are unappealing to the national chains… all of the shops could be leased at high rates to national chains, but this would undercut the leasing strategy of creating a unique, local place that could not be replicated anywhere else.”

Mixed Use: The segregation of program is quickly growing to be an antiquated form of planning while mixed use buildings are emerging as a predominant way to create synergies between use types and allow those spaces to compliment each other. At a minimum, ground floor retail space beneath 3 floors of residential would have made a big difference in creating an active streetscape.

Design for Walking with Car Support, not the Other Way Around: People walk in places when walking makes more sense than driving. If anything jumps out from a quick glance at the proposed site plan it is the amount of proposed blacktop. The scheme is basically a parking lot. One doesn’t have to go so far as eliminate cars from the scheme, but they should be secondary.

Design for Transit: When choosing the program mix, focus on building strength for the transit component rather than diluting it with a car component. Create housing types for people that will use transit everyday, but also create supporting program that people would come to using transit. No one takes the train to go to a Target, but someone may take the train to spend a day walking around a pedestrian village experience that they don’t have access to nearby.

Transit oriented development is a fantastic concept that can be used by municipalities of all sizes to leverage the benefits associated with increased density, preserve natural resources and foster stronger, more sustainable communities. Within the realm of potential (and viable) answers that we have at our disposal to move towards a more sustainable culture, TOD is unquestionably one of them. But location alone is not a silver bullet and University Station highlights the dangers that a business-as-usual, speculative mantra can render on a seemingly remarkable opportunity.

The frustrating part of the proposal is not all of the shortcomings–we see development like this all over the place every day. The discouraging part is the missed opportunity that could have set University Station apart given its rare connection to such mature, high-traffic transit. Given how little most of the development actually centers around transit use, the unfortunate truth is that in its current likeness, University Station could have existed anywhere and probably should have existed somewhere else.

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