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.

  • This is the “I’ll take a flamethrower to this room” speech the TOD “movement” needs to read. When I’m with my daughter on the train and there are no bathrooms for her to go to, no streets that we can cross without me grabbing her and running for the other side of the massive boulevard, that is when the bullshit of all this top-down design finally sunk in for me.

  • Guest

    What is up with the no-public-restroom thing in Hollywood? My wife and I took the bus to Sunset and Vine last Saturday, soon after which I realized I needed to make a pit stop. I thought it would be no big deal until I had tried 10 or so different restaurants and realized that every single one had a “Customers Only” sign. I actually got into a verbal argument with one waiter at some restaurant in Hollywood Blvd when I mistakenly thought I had finally found a public bathroom and tried to enter.

    By the time we found the public bathrooms at Hollywood/Highland I was in so much pain that afterwords I didn’t even feel like being in Hollywood anymore, let alone spend my money is an environment so hostile to the public.

    Anyway, excellent points in the above post. Doesn’t the City’s planning office have an urban design department they can draw upon to help with street-level TOD details? In the city the size of LA, I’d imagine there’d be a decent sized staff familiar with how to make a good pedestrian experience.

  • Thomas Trojan

    The author obviously missed the point at the ULI-TOD summit. It’s safe to say this same author would probably criticize the WNBA because it isn’t the NBA, although both are basketball leagues.

    Like all projects, there are always two side to the coin. User perspective, and Design/Creator/Developer perspective. This conference was not geared at the user perspective. That was plainly obvious for everyone who checked the agenda before their arrival.

    Anyone who looked at the agenda that was posted on the website, could tell that it was an event strictly for those who are on the design, creator, and developer side of the table. While, I believe the user perspective is a vital part of the process, it is unfair to have so many negative comments for such a great and informative conference that had no intention to cover the other side of the table due to the hosts intention and the time frame. It’s much better to have a great product for a specific audience rather than have a bad product that tries to encompass everything.

    No where did the ULI-TOD Summit mention or pass off as being an event that was aimed at the user experience. The conference said it was going to be a jack of hearts, and it was a jack of hurts, so don’t complain about why the event wasn’t a king of clubs, because it was never supposed to be a king of clubs.

    So to the author, next time you want to criticize an event, you should criticize it in the proper context, rather than write a piece that unfairly criticizes an event for living up to what it said it was going to be rather than complain about what the event “should” have been.

  • Chris L

    @Thomas

    With all due respect your argument doesn’t make any sense. I took my fair share of urban design and landscape architecture courses in grad school, and never once was I told that as a designer I need not consider the user’s perspective. Creating something that creates a good experience for visitors and residents alike is kind of the whole point. If you’re just looking at the big picture and neglecting the details that make or break the end user experience, then you’re simply not doing your job as a designer.

    I see no reason why the conversation about TODs should be siloed into “User perspective” and “Designer/Developer perspective” as its all one subject. Stephen is right to point out that there’s something wrong with a conference that neglects to give enough attention to the end user’s experience. The TOD at Hollywood and Vine is the end result of this kind of laziness and inattention to detail. Compared to real TODs in places like Arlington VA or Portland OR and its really a joke.

  • Thomas Trojan

    @Chris L

    My point is simply that in the process of creating any product there are many components which can usually be split into two perspectives. The user’s perspective, what you want the user to experience and how will they experience it; and there is the developer’s perspective, what financing will I need, what partnerships need to be created, how will it attract businesses and buy in, etc.

    Both parts are important, however, it’s unreasonable to expect to have a conference that can adequately cover both in just one day and attract the professional magnitude that last Friday’s event attracted. The ULI-TOD conference was aimed at those who are creating the partnerships, financing, etc. to build the next TODs or gain more understanding in the “developer” realm of TODs.

    There are many people out there who are not familiar with the “developer” perspective, so this conference was meant to bring that audience of individuals up to speed. The entire “TOD” umbrella has many components, but this conference was focused on the components most relevant to the individuals who will be finding ways to fund and create the partnerships that can make future TODs.

    Neglecting the fact that there are many components and criticizing an event that was only focused on one segment of the pie is not helpful and unreasonable because it was always focused on the “developer” perspective.

    The article portrays those who organized the event as ignorant professionals who do not care about the “user” elements or perspective of TODs, which is far from the truth. Instead this conference just didn’t focus on that component of TODs.

    I hope this clears up any confusion.

  • ml

    TOD is an oxymoron.