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Hot Topics: Matt Bell of EE&K Architects On Transit-Oriented Development

Governments More Willing to Embrace High-Density Development If it Includes Transit Component
April 1, 2009
Matthew Bell, a principal with EE&K's District of Columbia office, has been involved in a number of transit-oriented projects.
Matthew Bell, a principal with EE&K's District of Columbia office, has been involved in a number of transit-oriented projects.
With the struggling economy and persistent credit crunch both working to put the kibosh on most new development plans, high-density projects with a mass transit component are still attracting a fair amount of interest. One of the biggest questions being debated in development circles right now is how much of a boost these urban and transit-oriented development (TOD) projects will get from the $787 billion stimulus package, which contains $18 billion for the expansion of mass transit, high-speed rail and intercity passenger rail programs.

CoStar Advisor caught up with Matthew Bell, a principal and 12-year veteran of Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects (EE&K), a firm with expertise in large-scale urban transportation and infrastructure and TOD projects, with offices in New York, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles and Shanghai, to discuss recent trends in this area.

EE&K's building and public space designs include waterfront projects, TOD and transit-adjacent projects, pedestrian bridges, highways and streetscapes. The firm not only designs stations that accommodate trains, subways, buses and parking, but also helps design communities that claim to be more livable and self-sufficient by reducing vehicle congestion and smog. Some of its noteworthy projects around the country include the master design of Battery Park City in lower Manhattan by firm cofounder Stanton Eckstut; the planned 180-acre Aventiene transit-oriented community in Gaithersburg, MD, and two Los Angeles projects completed in 2001, TrizecHahn's Hollywood & Highland, a $430 million Art Deco themed mixed-use project on Hollywood Boulevard; and Gateway Center, an intermodal TOD project in L.A.'s Alameda District near Union Station.

The firm also designed the retail transit plaza and the Dune Beach mixed-use project at Beechwood Benjamin LLC's sprawling Arverne By the Sea development on the Rockaway Peninsula of New York City; and the planned Houston Intermodal Terminal, a $150 million transit center to be located north of the University of Houston-Downtown and Interstate 10.

You’re working with a number of public agencies on projects. Do you see the stimulus bill fueling a boom in transit-oriented development?

Matt Bell: Of course it could, but the question is, will it. Municipalities have a fair amount of discretionary power over spending the stimulus funds. The ones that have been seeing TOD as part of their future are probably already tracking toward it and will be using it for whatever projects they can.

Why is there heightened interest in transit-centered projects?.

MB: Almost every jurisdiction we’ve worked with understands the value of expanding their transit capabilities -- whether it’s light rail or rapid transit -- because they understand the relationship between quality development and mobility. Places like Montgomery County, MD, where there’s been a huge suburban sprawl over the last 30 or 40 years, are now looking very seriously at large transit and higher-density projects that make them more competitive, not just in the region but worldwide.

A lot of developers are having to shelve projects because of the recession. Do TOD projects have a better chance of moving forward than conventional development in this environment?

MB: I don’t have any statistics to back this up but I see more projects that have transit as their basis moving forward, while more conventional suburban projects are put on hold. Obviously, credit problems are stopping many projects. But if you look at the Washington, D.C. metro area, there are a lot of projects moving forward that have prime real estate at transit locations.

Why do TODs have an advantage?

MB: Municipalities are much more willing than they were 10 years ago to support high density at transit sites. TOD potentially returns a greater value to the investor or developer than other sites, which may have to rationalize tremendous road and infrastructure improvements. With transit projects, municipalities are now bending over backwards to ease parking restrictions or help with entitlement processes. One of the things we’re noticing now in a lot of the new development is starter housing for young people. Smaller apartments at transit sites where they can live without having an automobile are very attractive. From a developer's point of view, they don’t have to build as much parking into their buildings per dwelling unit.

What other new projects are you working on?

MB:We’re working with The Johns Hopkins University on their property holdings in Montgomery County, MD. It is very much based on the future of the Corridor Cities Transit Line, a light-rail project that will connect the end of the Washington, D.C. Red Line with areas in the growth corridor along Interstate 270. We’ve worked with the county on a countywide master plan that looks at changing the nature of the transit stations that were originally conceived 25 or 30 years ago as parking lot stations. Instead of having parking lots and garages and "kiss and rides," we’ve been working with the county to concentrate development around the future transit sites, in the middle of the Shady Grove Life Science Center which was county land where the county developed an office park for the development of biotech industries and they built a hospital there.

The idea is to transform it from a suburban office park to being a mixed-use neighborhood with biotech development interwoven with retail and residential uses oriented around transit sites. Like any other great master plan, it comes with a lot of discussion and people who would rather not be part of any great sea change. It’s very preliminary, in the draft master plan stage.

How have transit-oriented development projects changed in the last 10 years? What are some of the newer trends?

MB: We like to distinguish between transit-oriented projects and transit adjacent projects. TOD projects have to do with leveraging the value of transit by having sufficient critical mass and density at the stations and a variety of land uses so that there are visible communities, not just a lot of density parked at the transit site. For example, if you have a lot of office uses, you want to design it so that these people have a place to go to have lunch during the day or that they can walk home at night, and reduce a lot of automobile trips.

It’s one thing to park density at a transit site. But the real definition if TOD is more about livability, about a place with a much greater sense of community where people can live near a transit site, shop, work and eat lunch there. Sometimes it takes a while for a place to become what it’s going to be. The practice of architecture and the practice of urbanism are a bit different in that architecture often is about building buildings in a short period of time. Sometimes when you practice urbanism and you do large-scale plans, sometimes it’s a number of years. My partner Stan Eckstut has been working on Battery Park City for 25 years.

So a lot has changed from the days when cities and counties were actively afraid of higher-density projects like apartments.

MB: Governments are now savvy enough to know that the market responds well to amenities like transit. The things government can do to support those amenities can help a market to coalesce, rather than just expecting it to happen. One of the things I’ve seen change in recent years is municipalities are trying to leverage whatever assets they have to get the development they think is going to serve them best. At transit sites, you have a much greater chance to build at greater densities and realize projects that have a broader mix of uses because of the advantages of transit.
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