Transit-Oriented Development and Communities of Color: A Field Report

The Pearl District in Portland is Often Held Up as an Example of TOD

(This article first appeared in Progressive Planner, the official magazine of the Planner’s Network and is reprinted with the author’s permission.  Gen Fujioka is the senior policy advocate with the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development. This article was written in collaboration with the Urban Communities of Color Caucus which seeks to advance practices that strengthen existing diverse neighborhoods. For further information contact: gen@nationalcapacd.org)

Transit-oriented development (TOD) has become a leading policy prescription for reversing America’s sprawling path of growth. The Obama administration, through its Sustainable Communities Initiative, state and local agencies and progressive think-tanks all emphasize TOD as a means to achieve housing, transportation and environmental goals, often through public-private-partnerships. But as TOD has been justifiably promoted as the cleaner alternative to auto-dependent development, gaps have appeared in the discourse that understates its costs. This report seeks to fill in some of those gaps with snapshots from four communities of color that have been impacted by various stages of TOD in the cities of Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Minneapolis-Saint Paul, respectively.

What Is a TOD?

Non-profit community development organizations were early innovators in building TOD projects, seeking to link affordable housing with transit. Today, TOD projects vary but they can be generally defined as mixed-use, higher density development oriented toward nearby public transit. In its varying forms, TOD is being promoted by a growing range of government programs.  The largest federal transit program, New Starts, strongly favors projects that incorporate TOD, and many state and local governments have created expedited approval processes, incentives and zoning and land use policies that foster TOD.
As the concept has been embraced by some market-rate developers, even some TOD proponents concede there may be social costs of such development. The federally funded Center for Transit-Oriented Development and others have published a number of policy toolkits and best practice guides for equitable TOD. While these publications describe individual exemplary projects, missing is an evaluation of the impacts at scale. The experiences described below suggest that much more needs to be done to ensure that TOD does not become a greener version of gentrification.

Affordable Housing Fuzzy Math in Seattle

ID Village Square, with 31 affordable units, opened in 2004. For more information, click here.

The multi-ethnic and Historic International District of Seattle (also known as the ‘ID’) lies on the southern edge of the city’s financial district. A majority of the neighborhood’s residents are very low income and people of color. Originally Seattle’s Chinatown, the neighborhood became a business and residential district for successive waves of Asian immigrants. In addition to housing, it offers a range of ethnic restaurants, shops and services. The ID is now also the central nexus of the region’s transit, including light rail, buses, Amtrak and the future high-speed rail station connecting Seattle with Portland.

The convergence of new rail lines and downtown growth led the city to adopt a transit-oriented upzoning that will allow more than a doubling of housing units in the already high density district. On paper, the plan’s goals would create 4,500 units of housing affordable for lower income households, however, the new zoning does not ensure the affordable units will ever be built. Over the next six years the city’s estimated $145 million housing fund will support the production of 1,800 affordable units for the entire city. If the ID received a proportionate share of the projected funding, it would only support several hundred new affordable units. “So far, smart growth in Seattle doesn’t add up,” says Ken Katahira, housing development staff for InterIm Community Development Association, a nonprofit that has built affordable housing and a community garden in the neighborhood. “Zoning for higher densities does not necessarily create more affordable housing.”

Upzoning the ID for taller buildings and greater densities has compounded the development pressure already generated by the new transit infrastructure. And as a practical matter, taller buildings cost more. Concrete and steel construction, required for structures over six stories, is unaffordable to even moderate- income families without deep public subsidies. In the absence of more prescriptive regulation and more robust funding, the city’s plan to foster TOD through zoning in the ID threatens existing affordable housing and small businesses located in “underdeveloped” buildings without ensuring affordable housing within new construction.

Transit-Oriented Displacement in the Mission District of San Francisco

Compared to many other urban centers, San Francisco has maintained a strong commitment to transit and affordable housing. With a dense urban core, regional transit hubs and an expanding network of light rail, a majority of San Franciscans take transit or walk to work. San Francisco has also pioneered many of the housing and land use policies that are now proposed by policy guides as innovative models for equitable smart growth, from inclusionary zoning to demolition and conversion controls.

Found sprayed on the wall in the Mission District.

One test of San Francisco’s affordable housing policies came in the 1990s during the dot-com boom. Amidst a hot real estate market, development pressures grew particularly in transit-rich areas. Evictions reached record levels and entire neighborhoods were transformed in a few years. According to research by UC Berkeley’s Center on Community Innovation, during the period between 1995 and 2000, the out-migration of low-income households exceeded 9,800 each year while the numbers of upper income households grew. Proximity to transit was a significant factor in explaining the pattern of displacement. Neighborhoods within a half-mile of major transit were particularly at risk of gentrification and displacement, suffering marked declines in the number of households of color.

The heart of the city’s Latino community, the Mission District, was ground zero for displacement. Located between two major BART stations (the city’s regional rail system), near new tech enterprises and overall transit rich, the primarily working-class neighborhood experienced widespread evictions in which entire buildings were cleared for young professionals attracted to urban, transit-accessible living. In the midst of this crisis and despite the booming market, city administrators regularly provided developers with exemptions from inclusionary housing requirements and zoning controls.

“The original challenge wasn’t a lack of affordable housing policies— those that we had were not being followed. The first challenge was about building community power so that we could have policies enforced when they mattered,” recalls Nick Pagoulatos, then an activist with the Mission Agenda Coalition (MAC), a grassroots anti-displacement organization, and now a planner at Dolores Street Community Services, an organization that continues to serve the neighborhood.

Over the objections of overflow crowds mobilized by MAC, the city’s commissions repeatedly approved ever larger development projects fueling more displacement in or within walking distance of the Mission. With both established policies and neighborhood concerns being ignored, MAC and a citywide coalition turned to the ballot and elected an anti-displacement majority on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Voters also amended the city’s charter, breaking up the mayor’s exclusive control over the land use process. These changes led to the adoption of an extraordinary moratorium on new development in the Mission.

The moratorium stopped the largest abuses but led to a grueling eight-year planning process. “In the end we did not get the full protections we wanted,” says Pagoulatos. “The extended process itself wore the community down. And we did not have the community-based institutions that could provide the technical expertise to take on the developers at every step. But we did change the rules of the game so that development became more transparent and potentially more democratic— it’s still a question of power.”

Putting TOD in Context in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles

Mariachi Plaza two days before the Gold Line Eastside Extension opened.

In contrast with Seattle or San Francisco, Los Angeles is still in the early phases of rebuilding its regional transit system. One of the first new light rail lines runs through the predominantly Latino Boyle Heights neighborhood. Even before it opened, the line spurred the start of gentrification. “After they started construction we had a wave of evictions near the station,” reports Isela Gracian, director of community organizing for the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC). “Landlords were looking for any excuse to evict tenants. Fortunately, many families contacted us so we were able to help them assert their rights. The recession also hit so the soft market has helped slow the evictions.”

With years of prior organizing and investments in the neighborhood, ELACC was in a position to proactively challenge the transit agency in other ways. ELACC worked to keep the neighborhood’s small business community in place. “The transit agency did not understand the community that was here before they started the project,” Gracian recalls. “It wasn’t just that they didn’t speak the language. They didn’t appreciate what we had that would be lost.” One of the specific enterprises threatened by the line was space along the main business corridor where Mariachi musicians gathered and promoted their services. ELACC helped bring public and media attention to the issue—ultimately ensuring that merchants, musicians and the community will still be able to keep the streets as their own.

ELACC also pressed the transit agency to ensure that the properties it acquired for the construction of the line would provide a long-term public benefit. On one of those sites, ELACC has completed the community’s own version of mixed-use TOD: affordable housing and community services, including offices for the newly formed Mariachi musician’s association. “TOD is much more than building some affordable housing,” observes Gracian. “It needs to be a part of supporting the whole neighborhood . . . we need to be positioned to help address the changes that are coming ahead.”

Regionalism’s Challenge in St. Paul

MAC’s impact on the city planning process and ELACC’s impact on shaping TOD in oneneighborhood were based upon neighborhood and community based organizing. But the shift towards regional governance may favor large developers while undermining public engagement.

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) have long played a central role in directing regional transportation investments. But as transit investments begin to drive land use planning and the allocation of other scarce public resources, MPOs wield greater power. The shift towards regionalism is reinforced by progressive initiatives such as HUD’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program and California’s greenhouse gas reduction legislation (SB 375), each giving MPOs more influence over local processes. But MPOs are more insulated than city governments from local and neighborhood-based organizing and are often governed by a mix of elected and unelected appointees and agency representatives. Furthermore, their structure and highly technical forms of discourse pose new challenges for democratic participation.

For example, the federally funded Central Corridor Light Rail Transit project, designed to connect the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, runs through the predominantly African-American and Asian-American neighborhoods known as the Rondo and Frogtown districts, respectively. The original plans provided the fewest number of stations relative to the number of transit riders in those neighborhoods. While offering little service, the project threatened years of construction disruptions and the elimination of most street parking.

Only after each community filed a civil rights complaint with the Federal Transportation Agency did the region’s MPO, known as the Met Council, agree to install additional station stops in the minority communities. Now with the stations approved, the communities are being offered little to ensure that market-driven TOD does not displace existing small businesses and low-income residents. “We’ve basically been shut out of the planning process,” says Veronica Burt, organizer with the Preserve and Benefit Historic Rondo Committee, a coalition that includes the local NAACP, church groups and community development organizations. “The Met Council went through the motions of holding meetings but didn’t listen to community concerns. There has been no way to make them accountable.”

The Need for Critical Assessment

Making regional agencies more accountable is an inherent challenge for communities of color in obvious part because of demographics. While African Americans, Latinos and Asians may have gained local representation in many urban areas, they remain electoral minorities in almost all regions. Less obvious but no less daunting for organizers is the need for a common language to convey what is at stake in regional planning —what David Harvey describes as the need for ‘translation.’

Such translation is not merely for non-native English speakers; even in plain English the abstract and dislocated language of regional planning is generally indecipherable to all but professionals and developers. For communities to become engaged and participate on a regional level requires a radical reinterpretation of planning proposals in terms of real, place-based experience—an approach that organizations such as New York’s Center for Urban Pedagogy have begun to develop but needs to be widely expanded.

Despite these and other challenges, efforts are under way to engage communities in regional policy discussions. This is driven in part because transit itself is connecting communities, creating shared needs and interests. For example, ELACC has participated in the formation of the Los Angeles Neighborhood-Based Community Development Coalition to connect Latino, African-American, and Asian Pacific Islander neighborhoods to proactively engage in the future planning of LA’s new light rail stations. And in Seattle, InterIm and other community organizations have joined the newly created Regional Equity Network to directly participate in their MPO’s planning process, which has received the support of HUD’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program. What remains to be developed across regions is a community-based agenda, reinterpreting the meaning of TODs to benefit existing diverse neighborhoods and incorporating a sharper critique of the dominant paradigm.