Editorial: Four Ways To Encourage Transit-Friendly Affordable Housing

Metro should pursue joint development beyond the five rail lines under construction, including sites like this bus parking on Wilshire Boulvard just east of the Vermont/Wilshire station. Image via Google maps
Metro should pursue joint development beyond the five rail lines under construction, including sites like this bus parking on Wilshire Boulvard just east of the Vermont/Wilshire station. Image via Google maps

I’ve been thinking about Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s recent motion to help Metro partner on joint development of affordable housing near stations. Also, Garcetti-ally L.A. City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell expressed support for reducing parking requirements in new affordable housing developments along transit corridors, to “help lower construction costs and therefore rents.”

A new report this week, joins previous reports with similar findings: Los Angeles is one of least affordable places to live in the U.S., second only to Honolulu.

So, I figure it is time to offer some of my sage advice.

I don’t know that Garcetti, O’Farrell, Metro, or city departments need my advice, but I’ll go ahead and offer four suggestions on how Southern California can foster transit-oriented affordable housing. None of these are easy. They would involve different governmental agencies operating on different timelines. But perhaps a number of these measures could combine over time to overcome some of our systemic biases for sprawl and against infill transit-oriented development (TOD) and make a dent in L.A.’s affordable housing shortage.

1. Additional Metro Joint Development Sites

Garcetti’s motion [PDF] to the Metro Board of Directors encourages housing at Metro owned-sites on the five new rail lines under construction. These are good places for affordable housing, but there are a lot more joint development sites among Metro’s holdings. It is possible that some projects that I am not aware of could already be underway at some of these sites. Here are three categories of additional Metro site that come to my mind:

  • Existing stations: Just in my Koreatown neighborhood, I’d like to see joint development of affordable housing on top of the Vermont/Beverly and Vermont/Santa Monica Blvd/LACC Red Line stations. These aren’t big vacant lots (like some of Metro’s Boyle Heights vacant lots, currently in early development stages) so housing would likely be directly over the station portal, similar to Hollywood/Western Red Line Station.
  • Existing transit parking lots: I think that there are fairly low-hanging fruit opportunities for development at the stations that are at the end-of-line until further extensions open: Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line station and Culver City Expo Line Station. I know Metro tried and failed to jointly develop the San Fernando Valley Red Line parking lots, in part due to excessive replacement parking requirements. It’s going to take some creative architect/developer to balance some needs for parking at these sites (in the short run.) They’re not going to go from 100 percent parking to 100 percent housing overnight, but they should remain under consideration for future joint development, ideally, mixed-use affordable housing with retail.
  • Existing Metro bus parking areas: It bugs me that, on prime mid-city real estate on Wilshire Boulevard at Shatto Place, immediately east of the busy Vermont/Wilshire Red Line station TOD, Metro has a large bus layover surface parking lot that appears 95 percent empty 95 percent of the time. It looks as though Metro employees park cars there, too. Yes, Metro needs bus parking in this area and I expect that bus parking inside a building isn’t easy; it’s going to need high ceilings, large turning radii, etc., but it is not rocket science. The Wilshire surface lot could be jointly developed as affordable housing on top of Metro bus parking, hopefully with walkable, maybe retail, frontage on Wilshire. There’s another similar bus parking site at 6th Street and Oxford, just around the corner from the Wilshire/Western Purple Line station.

2. Separate “Un-Bundle” Parking from Housing

Right now, when someone rents or buys housing in Southern California, the price automatically includes a couple of parking spaces. Whether you use them or not. For homebuyers, this can mean $20,000-$30,000+ per parking space. This parking is “bundled” with the cost of the housing. Cities can un-bundle the parking, with individuals and families renting/purchasing only as many parking spaces as they actually use. Un-bundling is L.A. City policy in some areas, mainly the recently-approved Cornfield-Arroyo Seco “CASP” plan area north of downtown L.A. Un-bundled parking is a staple in adaptive re-use projects downtown, too. If you live in a building that doesn’t have parking, and you need parking, then you rent parking space nearby.

I confess that I don’t know exactly what the next steps should be to greater un-bundling around transit. Though it is needed, it is not clear to me exactly how un-bundling will work outside downtown L.A. I couldn’t find any new development examples in the CASP. I seem to remember that un-bundling wasn’t legal except where legally permitted… all this to say that logistically, un-bundling is going to need a little work. Perhaps cities (say Los Angeles, Pasadena, Culver City, others ?) would draw a walkable (say half-mile) radius around Metro stations and mandate (or otherwise incentivize) un-bundling for all new developments there.

3. Minimize Parking Requirements for Affordable Housing

There’s a tricky balancing act with parking requirements and affordable housing. Current density bonus laws allow developers to essentially avoid some excessive suburban requirements in exchange for building affordable housing. I think it is a nutty system, but this is where we are right now. If we shift to saner parking requirements (say, zero parking required within a half-mile of a Metro station) then we remove some leverage for affordable housing, potentially encouraging luxury housing (albeit with relatively little parking.)

My guess is that cities (again, say Los Angeles, Pasadena, Culver City) could do a fairly straightforward, simple ordinance that allows developments to trade reduced parking for affordable housing. Something like this: developments within a half-mile of rail station, automatically get a 10 percent parking reduction by right, then, 10 percent additional parking reduction for every 5 percent affordable units (and un-bundle it all, of course.) So, say there is a 100-unit transit-adjacent housing project. If 20 units are affordable, then the parking requirements would be cut in half.

4. End Road Widening

Pasadena already did this, but Los Angeles is still widening streets when we build new transit stations and new housing. This takes away land that could be developed as affordable housing. See my earlier editorial for ten reasons that L.A.’s 2014 Mobility Plan should end the fiscally-irresponsible practice of road-widening.

Those are four ways that could help make transit-oriented housing more affordable and plentiful.

Apologies that some of these aren’t fully-fleshed out – hopefully SBLA commenters can help with that. There’s a lot more to do. I didn’t get around to ways that we might ensure preserving existing affordable housing, and how we can look to develop affordable housing next to high-quality bus service, too.

Are there better ways that the mayor and others can foster affordable transit-oriented housing? Let us know in the comments below.

  • Steve Herbert
  • tbatts666

    All these suggestions are incredibly obvious as smart things to do right?

    We need to get the transportation engineers, the urban planners, the public transit agencies, the public health departments in on an educated discussion about this stuff.

  • M

    Another advantage of unbundling parking from buildings is that is brings a better awareness of the public transportation options available in an area to potential residents.
    When I first moved into the neighborhood I’ve been living in for quite a while now, I had no idea LA even had a subway, let alone that I lived less than 1/2 a mile from it! That’s kinda crazy for me to even think about now that I’ve been car free for years (and now my parking spot acts as a guest spot… while convenient for people visiting me, it’s not the best use of the limited parking space available in my neighborhood.)

    Also, no more of the stupid projects like the bridge at the Red Line Universal City/Studio City station without exhausting every other option available. Every time I see the construction for the project, it makes me cringe and feel horrible about how much of the land at street level, right next to the train station, is being dedicated to such a ridiculous project of simply allowing people to cross the street. It’s a huge patch of land immediately next to the metro entrance and 2 huge patches on the Universal property at street level. I can come up with so many better ways to use that space, money and get pedestrians across the street.

  • Joseph E

    Eg: “zero parking required within a half-mile of a Metro station”
    What about the bus lines? Living 1/4 mile from a frequent, 24 hour bus line within 3 miles of Downtown LA may be more important than living 1/2 mile from the Green Line, as far as being able to live without car goes.
    Portland reduced parking requirements within 1/4 mile of all frequent service bus lines.

  • fqrfdgsesd

    I love the Wilshire/Shatto bus layover area because sometimes when I’m waiting for the 720 at Vermont, a bus will just pop out from there with no people on it and it is so magic.

  • calwatch

    There is a layover at 7th and Maple (Maple Lot) which is an example of parking garages on top of bus layover space: http://www.bing.com/maps/?v=2&cp=34.043245~-118.248506&lvl=16&sty=x~lat~34.043245~lon~-118.248506~alt~45.067~z~30~h~158.6~p~-0.9~pid~5082&app=5082&FORM=LMLTCC

    The problem is that because of the use of compressed natural gas you can’t really put a bus layover below occupied buildings without a lot of ventilation. The Santa Ana Transit Terminal was closed by Art Leahy, no less, when he was head of OCTA due to the natural gas issue. As long as he is in power at MTA, it is unlikely that will change. http://articles.latimes.com/2008/oct/26/local/me-buses26

  • Alex Brideau III

    One of the problems with local bus lines is that, unlike rail or BRT, there’s little permanence in them. Metro could remove 24-hour service, re-route the line or both. TOD works better near more permanent rail or BRT stations. I’d develop those as a first priority, then (maybe) convince Metro to beef up its investments in Rapid infrastructure (enhanced, more permanent station/stops, bus-only lanes, etc.) and reduce parking requirements within 1/4 mile of those station/stops.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Although most of the bus lines in Los Angeles are pretty set in stone for most of their length. The 2 bus just isn’t going to leave Sunset Blvd for most of its length (though it could conceivably change exactly where and how it does the turn to get into downtown). Even with something a bit more “fragile” like the 780, it’s clear that there will be a bus that goes down Colorado Blvd, there will be a bus that goes down Hollywood Blvd, and there will be a bus that goes down Fairfax Ave, even if it’s not guaranteed that one bus will continue to do all three. (It’s also not guaranteed that the East LA light rail line will always connect to the Santa Monica light rail line – it could switch to the Long Beach one.)

    Frequency and 24 hour service are definitely more fragile, but rail doesn’t have any better guarantee about those things.

  • Joe Linton

    I agree – I mentioned high qualtity bus service in the last paragraph. I think it could be defined and used similarly… though perhaps a slightly smaller radius? I agree with your suggestion of 1/4 mile, probably from the actual bus stop on these lines.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I disagree. It doesn’t really matter whether the East LA leg of a rail line connects to the Westside vs. Long Beach; in both cases the rail station (and to some degree, a BRT station) has far more permanence (platform, TVM’s, catenary, right-of-way, etc.) than the local bus stop (pole, sign, bench…if you’re lucky), which can be far more easily relocated or removed altogether. As far as I’m aware, since our modern rail lines debuted, no Metro station has ever been permanently shut. Compare that with the number of local bus stops that no longer exist and the frequency with which Metro makes bus route changes. So if I’m a developer that wants to build near the most permanent transit infrastructure I can find, the choice is clear.

    I think we need to focus on reducing parking minimums first and foremost around the most permanent transit backbones: rail and BRT stations. Of course, up until the early ’90s and beyond, LA’s transit backbones were indeed the local buses (2, 4, 20, etc.) and they still see a high level of ridership, but with the growth of rail and BRT, the game is (slowly) in the process of changing. A decent amount of their ridership has already been spun off to limited-stop Rapid lines and parallel rail lines. Will that trend continue? It depends on Metro’s game plan for local lines.

    Around half of my Metro patronage is on local lines. It’s a helpful service for my first/last-mile needs and fairly well patronized. But the service is a slow and uncomfortable ride in mixed traffic flow with far too many stops to woo most discretionary riders. The new bus equipment is a big plus, but it doesn’t really help with speed.

    If you’re still reading at this point, I’ll attempt to conclude my soliloquy: I think Metro’s rail and BRT services should function as the “trunk lines” of Metro’s network. All should offer 24-hour or “owl” service. Metro should recommit itself to enhancing its Rapid service so it can function as a secondary truck service that goes where rail and BRT don’t (yet) go. All Rapid service should also offer 24-hour or owl service and Rapid should more effectively publicize to its riders (and operators perhaps) that between-stop disembarkations are allowable upon request, with the operator’s consent. Local, frequent-stop bus service is not the most efficient way to transport people over long distances, but is more helpful as a neighborhood circulator and as a method for riders to more conveniently access the trunk services. Hours of service should be maximized, but if push comes to shove 24-hour service would not be necessary on all of these circulator/feeder Local lines. Yes, this reconfiguration of Local service would change the decades-long status quo, but perhaps that what we as a region need.

    Anyway, boring rant complete.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    You’re right about a lot of bus stops, that they get moved and changed. But many rail stops were too – over the course of the 20th century, lots of rail stops were completely removed, while the bus system has continued for many decades. The modern rail system is still only 25 years old, and it’s dangerous to get complacent about a history that is that short.

    Is the Farmdale station on the Expo Line really that much more secure than the stops on the 704 and 757 at Santa Monica and Western? I would say that Santa Monica and Western will definitely always have relatively decent transit service, and is probably a safer place to site transit-oriented development than Farmdale, even though the latter might currently have somewhat better transit service.

    You’re definitely right about the changing mix of local, rapid, rail, BRT, etc. And I think your further proposals make a lot of sense. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t assume that *every* rail stop is more permanent than *every* local bus stop (especially as we start considering some of the new stops on the newer rail lines, some of which are serving less central parts of the city).

  • Alex Brideau III

    Agreed. And you know what they say about assumptions!

    Hmmm. Now that I think back on it, I think some development adjacent to Rapid “stops” (formerly “stations”; see below for rant) qualified as TOD. I believe there’s one on the NE corner of Sunset and _____ and I think the retail complex at Santa Monica & La Brea also qualified as TOD or something like that (TOD-lite?). :-)

    Metro’s Rapid service, while an improvement in some regards over parallel Local service, has unfortunately been diluted too much since it was first unveiled. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the original features of Rapid lines were intended to be:

    > simple, easy-to-understand routing (but rush-hour, weekday-only, and “short line” Rapids don’t fit this bill as they add too many exceptions to what should be a simple, easy-to-memorize routing, similar to rail or BRT; i.e. just stand here between these hours and a bus will arrive within XX minutes)
    > nighttime on-demand disembarkation upon request, as safety permits
    > signal-priority transponders (still in effect, I believe/hope)
    > enhanced stations with real-time next-bus displays (now Rapids are just another sticker on a standard Metro signpole)
    > perhaps some other features I forgot (?)

    While it’s awesome that Metro has expanded its Rapid service, it’s time for Metro to reaffirm its commitment to the enhanced service levels that are supposed to be a hallmark of Rapid service. Of course, it makes sense that newer Rapid service may take a couple years to establish itself along a certain corridor, so perhaps starting with the oldest Rapid lines, a plan should be implemented to upgrade established stops to “stations” with the more permanent weather protection, real-time status displays, trash/recycling receptacles, etc. Also, Metro should re-publicize the fact that during the evening hours riders can request between-station disembarkation. (This is especially important during the darker winter months.) And why not also allow the oldest, most established Rapid lines to be upgraded to 24-hour service? If these Rapid corridors have matured enough to still be around then providing always-there service will only help ridership.

    Well, here’s to hoping!

  • SZwartz

    I only say this article today, March 9,2015. Increasing density at subway stations and along Transit Corridors was mathematically proven to be an extremely bad idea in 1915 — yet a century later, the warning which the City of Los Angeles gave itself is still being ignored. http://bit.ly/cJh5BP

    Increasing population density in TODs attracts too much density towards too small an area and the mathematics show that traffic congestion will be the result.

    People close their eyes to some established facts in order to delude themselves into thinking that Smart Planning. TODs and mixed-use projects are beneficial. No fixed rail mass transit system will function in a huge circular urban area, especially when the planners create downtowns, century cities, and other places of extreme density.

    People will not walk more than 1/2 mile to a subway station. When people actually take the time to do the math for an urban area that is over 5,000 sq miles, they realize that subways will not reach more than 10% of the area. [Transit needs do not stop to city limits or even county borders, especially where LA County merges into OC.]

    People who are too lazy to read the 1915 Study of Traffic Conditions will continue with their myths about subways, buses, and increasing urban density. People who learn the basics knew that increasing density was a plan to benefit only land owners. The more they can build per square inch on their property, the more their property is theoretically worth. As was explained in 1915, allowing land owners to set zoning benefits only the land owner while harming everyone else in society. Page 38.

    In fact, even Gail Goldberg, former Planning Director for LA City, said in 2006 that allowing developers to set zoning was leading to disaster.

    While people may think that math from 1915 is no longer accurate and that Goldberg was wrong, the US Census proved that 1915 math is true in the 21st century and Goldberg was correct. Between 2001 and 2010, Garcetti’s CD13 lost so many people and drove out so many businesses that CD13 ceased to qualify as a legal council district.

    Furthermore, the census data showed that the cause of the population exodus was the advent of the subway and Garcetti’s mixed-use projects. The population loss came census tracts contiguous to the subway stations and the mixed-use projects.

    The fact that TODs did not function the way they were predicted was also proven by the 2001 San Jose Transit Study which showed that people who live in TODs still have cars and that they use their cars. Thus, increasing population density in TODs increased traffic congestion.

    On Jan 15, 2014, the Los Angeles Superior Court issued is decision in the Hollywood Community Plan litigation and it expressly found that the Smart Planning, TODs and mixed-use basis of the Plan was based on “fatally flawed data, “wishful thinking” and subverted the law.

    Los Angeles has dumped close to $2 BILLION tax payer dollars into these never ending fiascoes, which is the parimaryr eason the City’s infratsructure is crumbling. Tax dollars were diverted from streets, sidewalks, parks, water main upgrades, paramedics, firefighters, police, tree trimming, pension contributions, and as a result of the funding of these Smart Planning projects, The City was insolvent and on the brink of BK when the state abolished the CRAs.

    The CRAs had been the primary tool to divert tax dollars away from maintaining City infrastructure and to the developers. When the abolition of CRA/LA was effective 2-1-2012, The City was save from BK as about $325 Million was NOT diverted to the CRA/LA.

    Los Angeles will never recovery from the harm done by the corruption which foisted Smart Planning with its TODs, mixed-used projects and myopic mass transit spending on LA, but the least we could do is stop planning based on “fatally flawed data and wishful thinking.”


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