Is Solair Really Transit Oriented Development?

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Yesterday, Metro officials and executives from KOAR Development celebrated the "topping off" of the foundation for the Solair real estate project located just North of the Wilshire/Western Purple Line Station. Solair is part of Metro’s joint development program which "seeks to provide the most appropriate private and/or public sector development on Metro-owned property at, and adjacent to, transit stations and corridors." Metro claims the project will reduce auto dependency by allowing greater access to transit for residents at the 186-untit complex and shoppers.

But does Solair qualify as "Transit Oriented Development?" In today’s advertisement article in the Times, the writer finds space for one paragraph questioning how transit oriented Solair really is.

Critics, however, have questioned whether building housing near transportation lines gets motorists out of their cars. For example, the subway under the Solair does not make the link to the Westside, a key L.A. destination.

The Times doesn’t make the space to examine whether or not the unnamed critics have a point, and quickly moves on to a discussion of the Subway to the Sea. However, there is plenty of material to debunk or justify the critics’ claim. For example, the Times could have pointed out that there is a lot more transit access for residents of Solair than just the Purple Line. There are these things called "buses" which run at-grade along both Wilshire and Western. The transit center is a stop for two Metro local lines, the Wilshire Rapid line and a DASH route.

Of course, maybe the Times assumes that people paying at least $800,000 for a condominium aren’t likely bus riders.

The issue of cost for these units raises another question. Will future Solair residents, who will most likely be upper-class homeowners, take advantage of the transit options available? After all, it seems to be an unwritten rule in Los Angeles that the wealthy don’t take transit, and certainly wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus.

KOAR Development is betting that they, and future shoppers in the 40,000 square foot of retail, will not be transit riders. Every residential unit will come with two deeded parking spaces in the parking garage, to say nothing of guest parking. There is also parking set aside for the retail center. According to Reconnecting America, a California based transportation and development think tank, the average amount of parking at a residential development considered TOD is 1.41 spaces per unit in California.

By having this much parking on-site, KOAR Development undermines Metro’s claim that Solair is "transit oriented." Despite its location near transit and the relative walkability of Koreatown, residents are being encouraged to drive more than they are encouraged to take transit; after all they will be paying for two parking spaces when they buy their unit. People shopping at the retail center are also being encouraged to drive, as plentiful parking will make taking the automobile attractive to those wishing to shop at Solair.

It’s probably too late to do anything about the parking plans at Solair since the project is already under construction and residents have already bought units and parking spaces.  Hopefully future T.O.D. projects on built on Metro owned land will be more transit, and less parking, oriented.

Photo: Damien Newton

  • People at least have the OPTION of transit coming directly to their front door (okay, fine, it’s a 50 foot walk to the curb) if they deign to use it.

    I guess that’s not much, but what are we supposed to do, make people use buses and trains under pain of death?

    All we can do is provide the best transit service possible and hope people figure out that using said service and leaving their car in one of their 1.4 parking spaces (or, miracle of miracles, actually SELL their car) is actually a very smart idea. We’ll always have the people who can’t afford their own cars to consider, but if we can grab the car owners and convert them to (at least part-time) transit users we’re doing great.

    Until $5.00 per gallon gas comes along, then maybe people will be a little bit less resistant to taking public transit.

  • $5 a gallon gasoline isn’t the same to the person who pays the mortgage on the nearly million dollar condo as it is to the person who cleans the million dollar condo.

    This is THE point, with these developments Damien. In the short and near term all they do is exacerbate the traffic nightmare, because the average transit user can’t afford them, and the rail network isn’t expansive enough to attract the residents out of their European luxury vehicles.

    You’re supposed to build the transportation infrastructure FIRST, then densify. And by infrastructure I’m not talking about A LINE, but an honest web – a network.

    Right now, rail stations in this city are simply considered an excuse to completely ignore traffic mitigation requirements for development. It’s the same bad characters with a new script.

  • BlogReader

    Damien, $5 a gallon is not the same, but it does make a difference.

    I may not be able to buy a million dollar condo, but as of today, I can buy a $700,000 condo, if I wanted to (I have enough down payment). $5 a gallon would make a difference to me. It would make me consider public transit.

    I agree with the fact that TOD is being used to completely ignore traffic mitigation.

  • I think the majority of the shift will be to more fuel efficient vehicles – for those that can afford it, and possibly more carpooling. Both of those are good thing, I just don’t think it will remove enough single-occupancy vehicle trips necessary to do much to improve average trip times.

    The mass transit system just isn’t reliable or fast enough right now. And the only way to improve that reliability and speed (save a massive investment in grade separated rail) is a political non-starter: lots and lots of bus-only lanes. And even that has its limitations.

  • M

    This is the same issue I have with the planned development near Universal City. When discussing plans in the media, they don’t mention the thousands of parking spaces they are adding as well (~4500). They are anticipating thousands of cars in a tiny area, even right next to the train station and next to tons of housing units! One would also have to assume they are expecting more pedestrians and bike traffic that must compete with the extra cars parking there.

  • Radical Transportation Engineer

    For any development to be considered transit oriented in New Jersey (a state where TOD is actually working to revive neighborhoods and promote transit use)…the units can have NO MORE than and average of 1.5 parking spots AND there HAS to be an affordable housing component. I’m not sure why there are more affordable housing components here in LA or these types of developments. These two items are the only way TOD can succeed. Otherwise you are just creating more vehicle trips in an area that has a lot of pedestrian traffic, causing yet more conflict. But don’t worry, I’m sure the LAPD will dutifully ticket those pedestrians trying to take transit!

  • Radical Transportation Engineer

    Yeah, that should say “why there aren’t more affordable housing components…”
    it’s early, I haven’t had my coffee yet.

  • Sam

    Parking is the key here, and City municipal code requirements for parking can’t be overcome easily. There need to be policies in-place, such as the “transit overlay district” proposed on the Downtown LA Parking Plan produced by CRA last year, where parking requirements can be reduced for developments near transit. This would be a win-win for developers and potential occupants, as a lesser amount of parking would need to be built or paid for.

  • Developers are afraid of building without parking, as they think the units will not sell. There are many older buildings around downtown and Koreatown without parking, but there is only one place where it is LEGAL to build new without parking, and that is downtown.

    I do think it is progress that urban developments like this sell for a premium, and many of the residents will likely be able to walk to many of their daily needs (but their kids will use transit). But Los Angeles still has a long way to go. At least Downtown is ahead of the curve.

  • MRS-MAN

    Realistically, in LA you need to have parking even in an area right next to a subway station, because so much of Greater LA is not on the rail system. Many areas are much easier to get to by car than by transit.

    That being said, projects like this may be able to reduce the amount of car dependence, even if the residents can’t go completely car-free. Perhaps the future relatively-wealthy residents of these units will need their cars to go to work, visit family, etc. but will use the transit system to take advantage of some of LA’s entertainment, like Disney Hall or the Staples Center.

    Perhaps, a two-income family had specifically chosen to live here, becuase one of the principals can take the subway to a job Downtown, while the other spouse drives to work in an area that is not as transit-friendly. Perhaps this two-income family can downgrade from a two-car family to a one-car family becuase transit is accessible for one spouse’s downtown trip. Maybe they could sell back the second parking space, or reserve it for out of town guests.

    I think getting more two-car families to become one-car families is a huge step in the right direction.

  • Damien Newton

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that there should be absolutely no parking in new developments…after all I drive a car myself. All I’m arguig is that by guranteeing two deeded parking spaces per unit, you’re not encouraging people to be less auto-dependent, even if the development is built on top of a train station and next to multiple bus lines.

  • Sam

    To Bert Green – It is an adaptive re-use policy in downtown that allows existing structures without parking to be redeveloped without providing new parking, not just the fact that the developments are in downtown. There are fewer options for this outside of downtown, but this policy could be applied elsewhere.

    I agree with you on the developer’s viewpoint. One option is to better promote shared-use parking facilities or provide covenant parking in adjacent facilities.

    A new trend in “unbundling” parking allows a new resident to decide whether or not to include the purchase of a parking space with their new condo/dwelling. When they see that the difference between one parking space and two may be as much as $300k (as is the case in some locations such as NYC), they may decide they can live with one parking space.

    The other key to all of this is for the City of LA to better manage on-street parking, through improved meter technology, variable meter rates, extended hours, and better enforcement.

  • Bert hits the nail on the head when he says that developers won’t build structures without much parking because they won’t sell. Which again goes back to the root problem: our public transit system does not compete well with the automobile.

    Understand that the cities with a high percentage of transit riderships (NYC, D.C., Chicago, San Fran, Boston), transit does compete well with the automobile. It’s not just about the cities having too much traffic; it’s about the system performing the service as good or better than the personal vehicle.

    And see that’s the gap right now. Our politicians don’t see rail infrastructure projects as something necessary to compete with the personal automobile. Most of them at best see it as a better alternative to those stuck on buses, and at worst simply see them as an excuse to increase development projects and cut ribbons.

    The whole basis of allowing high density around transit is that the otherwise negative impact of the increased density is off-set by the accessibility to transit and other improvements that will require less single-occupancy or even multi-occupancy vehicular travel. It’s not about skylines or giving LA a “world city feel.” It’s about traffic and urban planning. Solair, and much of what is being built today in L.A. does not address the need because within today’s transportation system, they’re for the wrong market.

    Really, given the state of our transit system the only high density development that should be allowed should be for people who can’t afford cars.

    If we want to be bold and ambitious:

    1) identify the 10-15 major centers of activity in our region currently and anticipated to be for the next 50-100 years (not hard really)

    2) spend the next 5 years creating a 20-year detailed plan (down to the types of plants and lighting) for those centers to transform into pedestrian oriented and sustainable environments (schools, parks, grocery stores, fire stations)

    while simultaneously:
    a) building grade separated rail to connect the centers

    b) focusing the high density development within the centers or within close proximity.

    The development will fund the local infrastructure improvements, but the regional transportation infrastructure cost is too great and needed to immediately to be primarily borne by government. We’d need bonds, and they’d be worth every single penny.

    By the way this centers concept is nothing new – it goes back decades. It just needs to be implemented, now more than ever.

  • Wad

    I live two blocks from Solair and want to share some perspectives on what impacts Solair will have WRT transit ridership.

    1. It’s very hard to get an exact model on how a single megaproject can single-handedly impact transit ridership. Hollywood & Highland opened about a year and a half after the Red Line was completed to North Hollywood. It’s hard to quantify what the shopping center has done to “pop” ridership on the Red Line. While there’s a significant overlap of subway riders whose destination is H&H, don’t forget there’s also Hollywood High School, a few major office buildings and a couple thousand residents within walking distance of the station.

    In the case of Solair, the subway station predated the projects by at least a decade. The two Koreatown Purple Line stations contribute about 15,000 boardings to subway ridership. This is because of residents and office buildings, but the Wiltern can and does pop ridership on performance nights by a few hundred boardings.

    Any noticeable ridership pop tends to be observed initially after a year of completion, then examining whether ridership stays or grows since that time.

    2. Koreatown and the subway existed long before Solair, and the viability of transit is not in question even if this project is a dud.

    The Mercury is now a year old and it is almost as empty as it had been sitting since 1994, when the earthquake damaged the building and sat empty for more than a decade.

    Is the Mercury’s failure a harbinger for the failure of transit oriented development? Maybe if you’re Joel Kotkin. Go just one or two blocks away from Wilshire and Western and you’ll see plenty of apartments in brisk demand. The area is certainly desirable. The problem had to do with the collective insanity of society known as the 2000s Housing Bubble, and its bursting wiping out the market for $400,000 single apartments that also include over $1,000/month community fees! There won’t be much demand for the Mercury when the same size dwelling can be rented for the same cost as the fees.

    The Mercury didn’t do anything for subway ridership, but fortunately the subway didn’t hitch its fortunes to the condo selling out and everyone riding the train.

    3. Koreatown does not need to encourage ridership, neither on bus nor train. Again, we use the hell out of what is here. We have the one subway line, but we also have some of the busiest bus service in the entire country. The major streets here have bus service that runs typically every 10 minutes — midday. During peak hours, it’s every 2 minutes.

    The subway is only good for going east and north (the transfer to the North Hollywood-bound Red Line is still faster than taking a Hollywood-bound north-south bus). The buses are very good for trips of 5 miles or less. The problem is, these are already crowded as it is. Plus, the service is so frequent right now that adding more to already busy services will not be noticeable to riders. Making a 30-minute bus every 15 minutes has more of a noticeable impact than making a 10-minute service every 5 minutes, even though both are doubling service supplies.

    You’d think of hearing a figure that says transit only accounts for 7% of total mode share means every transit vehicle is running at only 7% of capacity, and we just need more of the 93% to ride. Transit agencies schedule based on demand; Metro only provides service that people are actually using. Don’t assume that because the mode share is small there’s plenty of room to spare.

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