What Was Missing from Last Week’s T.O.D. Conference

(Earlier this week, Gloria Ohland reviewed what happend at last week's T.O.D. Conference hosted by the Urban Land Institute.  Today, Stephen Box takes a different look, and examines what was missing. - DN)

6_10_10_Box.jpgPhoto: Stephen Box
The Urban Land Institute's (ULI) Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Summit, held last Friday at the Hollywood & Highland's Renaissance Hotel, was as notable for what didn't happen as it was for what actually took place. As could be expected, hundreds of people representing local governmental authorities, agencies, and departments mixed it up with consultants of many flavors along with politicos of all stripes. This was, after all, a celebration of the future of TOD.

The ULI-TOD Summit also, inadvertantly, served as a metaphor for what's wrong with the TOD landscape in our community, in our city, and in this country; a focus on the big picture at the expense of the individual or personal experience. In other words, high-altitude, big-picture solutions that lack attention to details.

This Summit came complete with Senator Barbara Boxer's lunchtime announcement of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's endorsement of LA's 30/10 plan to leverage anticipated transit revenue in order to fast-track a dozen significant regional transit projects. Definitely huge! Along the way, the feds were represented, the state was represented, the county was represented and the City of LA's City Council President Eric Garcetti joined the feeding frenzy to add his blessings to the TOD lovefest. Attendees rubbed elbows with financiers, developers, consultants, innovators, real estate brokers, contractors and all of the many partners who work together to bring the magic of TOD to life, or at least to the ribbon cutting ceremony.

Missing from the Summit was an acknowledgment that the most important element in TOD projects is the individual's experience. Granted, everything is important and everybody contributes in their own special way, but the unique and personal perspective of the individual must never be lost in the awesomeness and hugeness of TOD. Unfortunately, losing that human touch is the norm, not the exception.

The simple process for registering for the TOD Summit demonstrated the Transit Oriented Disconnect that is all too common, offering driving instructions and parking instructions in first position. No mention is made of accommodating those who might arrive on a bike. For those who might attempt to ride the Metro, there are incorrect instructions and no wayfinding tips once out of the station. One would think that TOD Summit attendees, of all people, would be most likely to use mass transit but apparently not. It must be an acquired taste.

The Summit itself was loaded with breakout sessions that ranged from "The Money Train" to "Planning Objectives" to "Financing Tools" to "Green House Gas" to "Public Private Partnerships," demonstrating a huge bias in favor of the "deal" and a lack of sensitivity to the personal experience of the individual. There was a gesture in the right direction with the "Placemaking" session, led by architects who use words such as "thoughtful" and "enhance" and "vibrant" to describe their work.

There were three TOD tours offered to attendees, featuring the Hollywood & Highland facility, the Wilshire & Vermont project and the new Hollywood & Vine Fortress. Unfortunately, the TOD tours were unable to uncover any of the thoughtful and vibrant enhancements that might be used as evidence of a sensitivity to the needs of the individual. 

Missing from the tour was an example of the intersection improvements that would encourage pedestrians to cross the busy streets that surround all three TOD projects. No ped scrambles, no bulb-outs, no refuge islands, no enhanced signalization, nothing.

Missing from the tour was an example of any improvements that would accommodate cyclists and allow passengers to close transit gaps, as well as residents who might use a bike for local trips, and also cyclists who shop at the TOD businesses. Unfortunately, no bike racks, no bike storage facility, no bike signage, nothing at all.

Missing from the tour was an example of any innovations in wayfinding, not just to help lost tourists find their way around the neighborhood, but to support the local economy by encouraging people to experience more of the surrounding community. Granted, there is signage, albeit outdated, confusing, and oriented in the wrong direction. Worse than nothing!

Missing from the tour was an example of any innovations in public space, pleasing and comfortable at the personal level. The brochures for the featured TOD tours offered aerial pictures of the projects, something the individual on the ground doesn't experience. Missing was a tour of shaded benches, tranquil resting spots for weary travelers, safe space for a parent with restless children, a meeting place for friends, or any of the other Great Space elements that bring that purported commitment to the personal experience to life. Again, nothing.

Missing from the tour was an example of how public facilities (rest rooms) can be incorporated into the design and operation of a large TOD. "Customers Only" is the traditional greeting on Hollywood Boulevard, in contrast to the TOD experience of tourists, families with small children, commuters, and customers in other parts of the world. The Hollywood & Vine experiment with restrooms has already failed, resulting in the closure of the ill-positioned and poorly maintained facilities and allowing the Metro to shrug and offer "I told you restrooms were a bad idea!" as the latest innovation in TOD comforts. Less than nothing.

Missing from the tour was an example of how a TOD can connect with the surrounding community, drawing people in and creating a destination, not simply a transit hub. All three TOD tours took place in facilities that have fortress-like qualities that create great space with fantastic amenities for those on the inside, but at the expense of that infamous "conversation" with the street. "Womb-like" is the experience once one is inside the W Hollywood compound, allowing the guest to experience a spectator's vantage point of Hollywood Boulevard and the surrounding city. As for connectivity, nothing.

Missing from the tour was a demonstration of how TOD projects can be more than simply an innovation in real estate development, structural engineering, and housing funding, but in the creation and support of Great Communities. No mention was made of the standards that must be established to ensure that TOD projects are not simply development tools, but that they are significant commitments to making LA a Great City. As for standards, nothing.

The Urban Land Institute is made up of 40,000+ members around the world, including developers, builders, engineers, attorneys, planners, investors, financial advisors, academics, architects and public officials. Their commitment to providing leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide is significant. Last week's ULI TOD Summit bears witness. But...

Beware the Developocrat! The Metro has 32 TOD projects in play with a total of 50 on paper. Once funded, there is no turning back. There is an impending battle looming on the horizon and when DIMBY (Developer in My Back Yard) meets NIMBY, the community will suffer. Now is the time to find the middle ground, to celebrate the impending arrival of the Money Train by doubling down on the development and implementation of TOD standards that put the personal experience of the individual back where it belongs, in the center of the TOD Vision.