National expert says streetcars could dramatically intensify, sustain Grand Rapids’ development

By: Deborah Johnson Wood

The industry phrase used to be “Development Oriented Transit.” Today’s catchphrase is "Transit Oriented Development."

Charles Hales, a national TOD expert, has led streetcar and Bus Rapid Transit urban development initiatives in metros across the country, including Portland, Ore., Miami, Fla. and Scottsdale, Ariz. He spoke on Thursday at the University of Michigan Urban Land Institute Real Estate Forum in Grand Rapids.

“Streetcars are not like buses, light rail or BRTs” Hales said. “They are a different animal. They are about extending the urban walking environment and enhancing pedestrian circulation around the downtown, not about getting people to their jobs faster around traffic congestion.”

Circulation brings customers, and the streetcars, slow moving with frequent stops, are pedestrian accelerators, getting workers to appointments and lunch with ease, much like moving sidewalks. The allure ups a city’s ante for attracting young talent and for economic development.

Hales cited a case in point. Powell’s Books was the only store in a bleak area of Portland. A one-hour pedestrian count near the store on a Tuesday afternoon totaled three people. Five years later, after the installation of a streetcar stop, a one-hour pedestrian traffic count on a Tuesday afternoon logged 938.

“Needless to say, Mr. Powell was happy,” Hales quipped.

Conservative estimates for the return on investment for the first leg of Grand Rapids’ proposed streetcar is 400 percent, says The Rapid CEO Peter Varga. Most of the development would happen along the southern end of the line (Fulton Street/Monroe Avenue) and along Monroe north of Michigan Street.

“A streetcar line will work in any city that can figure out how to pay for it,” Hales said. “The key is to work with property owners and redevelopment agencies to get the first piece in the ground. After that, you’ll have everybody’s attention.”

Source: Charles Hales, HDR

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Deborah Johnson Wood is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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