Zoom, zoom: Need for smart, transit oriented development accelerates

As Grand Rapids watches the state's first bus rapid transit line near completion and revives a streetcar study, Rapid Growth takes a comprehensive look at transit oriented development in West Michigan. Deborah Johnson Wood reports on why TOD should be top of mind as development moves forward.
Light rail, bus rapid transit, and streetcars are chalking up huge rises in property values along Cleveland, Ohio's Euclid Corridor, the Phoenix Tempe Metro Light Rail, and Eugene, Oregon's Emerald Express. Smart transit has the potential to create jobs, ignite development, and connect a city. But is West Michigan ready for the possibilities – and the challenges – that lie ahead?
The projected possibilities are staggering:
Construction of the Silver Line's 34 stations is nearly 80 percent complete, says The Rapid's Conrad Venema, project manager for the $40 million BRT that launches in August. Amazingly, the high-ticket budget, funded entirely by Federal Transit Administration Very Small Starts and Michigan Department of Transportation monies, involves no local dollars -- unless you consider that it's tax dollars coming back to West Michigan. This is money earmarked for transit; it does not come out of the pot allocated to fix our roads.

The BRT, an express transit service, will run with eight hybrid electric buses, dedicated bus lanes, and technology that will "hold" green lights to reduce stoppages. The route runs mostly along S. Division Avenue from 60th St. in Wyoming, north through Kentwood into Grand Rapids. Click here for a route map.

Jobs, Development, and $1 Billion with a 'B'

Transit is among the top three economic generators, surpassed only by labor and capital, says Grand Rapids Economic Development Director Kara Wood. While the Silver Line will carry its first passengers in August, a proposed future $80 million streetcar line is just that -- proposed. A group, independent of The Rapid, has cracked open a 2008 feasibility study to re-envision streetcars for Grand Rapids.

BRTs and streetcars are very different animals. BRTs carry commuters quickly long distances with few stoppages between jobs, homes, or entertainment venues. Streetcars travel a mile or two at about 10 m.p.h., they run on rails in the street, and are powered by overhead electrical connections. They extend the pedestrian's walking trip. For example, if streetcars ran down Monroe Center Avenue, you could have dinner at Tre Cugini, then hop the streetcar to N. Division for a show at the Civic Theatre, then ride back to your car. But you wouldn't jump aboard for a fast ride from your Kentwood home to work on Michigan St.

While their purposes are vastly different, the effects of a city having streetcars and BRTs are not; property values zoom for three to four blocks deep along the routes.  

"There could be at least $1 billion of economic activity generated by the BRT over the course of eight years because there are so many developable parcels," Wood says. "It's the number of trips past any location that's important. Grand Rapids has experienced a lot of mixed-use development in the last 10 years and can use that experience to develop transit-oriented development (TOD). Not to focus development on parking, but on the pedestrian-oriented first floors and encourage residential development and housing, with mixed-use development focused at the BRT nodes."

Nick Monoyios, The Rapid long-range planner, says that while there's no empirical evidence specific to Grand Rapids' potential investments along the BRT route, it's because no one really knows the dollar amounts that could be involved. "Grand Rapids is trailblazing this effort because we're the first city in the state to have BRT, so we're looking at lessons learned in other communities."
Twenty-one of those communities involve transit corridors that were recently studied by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in the report More Development For Your Transit Dollar which draws a strong connection between successful economic development and governmental support of transit. If that's true, the Silver Line already has substantial government support between the federal and state funding it has received, and the actions already undertaken by the planning and zoning departments in Grand Rapids, Kentwood, and Wyoming.

But will it be enough to drive development to $1 billion in eight years?
Consider this short list of recent development that will be served by the BRT route in Grand Rapids:Like BRTs, streetcars also cause big jumps in development activities.

"In Kenosha, Wisconsin, the last I heard there had been investment between $150 million and $200 million after their streetcar went in," says Bradley Strader, Royal Oak-based LSL Planning, a consultant on Grand Rapids' streetcar steering committee. "Kenosha is smaller than Grand Rapids, with a two-mile streetcar. Regarding Charlotte, North Carolina's Elizabeth Street line, I met with developers there and they were investing before the streetcar construction had started."

Grand Rapids Planning Director Suzanne Schulz says the city is ready for the development surge. The planning Master Plan has TOD zones developed. The creation of form-based code streamlined the permitting process allowing staffers to approve projects without having to make developers appear before the planning commission. And although most of Division is zoned Traditional Business Area, that could change.
"With the BRT stations, I could see us changing the zoning to the TOD zoning, which allows higher buildings and reduced parking requirements. We would just need to amend the (zoning) map," Schulz says. "We rewrote the zoning ordinance to ensure that we would be encouraging TOD. There's not really anything else needed, but the fine-tuning of higher density residential -- there's a gap from single and two-family residential to high-rise; we're missing the mid-range residential piece. That's already being addressed in the Michigan Street Corridor Plan and we would just use that idea for Division and other places."

And all of the potential development means potential jobs.

Although in 2012, the Federal Transit Administration's Peter Rogoff predicted the BRT route would see "some 30,000 jobs in the central business district will be within one-quarter mile of the new bus rapid transit system," Monoyios cautions that real numbers specific to Grand Rapids aren't available yet. "If the development is apartment buildings, there may not be many jobs, but if there's a grocery store, or retail, or medical complexes, that's a different story."
People Need Transit, and Transit Needs People

"There are 6,000-plus people living downtown now," says Kara Wood. That's up from about 4,000 in 2008, and there are "about 900 residential units in the plan review stage or under construction, which does not include what's already completed."

Among those completed are phases one and two of Tapestry Square, a mixed-income residential and retail development at Wealthy St. SW and Jefferson Avenue, which includes the new University Preparatory Academy. Planning began before the BRT was a twinkle in anyone's eye, but now TOD is top of mind for developers Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF).

"Our number one objective is to understand the place that transportation has in the financial lives of low- and moderate-income people," says President and CEO Jonathan Bradford. "A family making $12/hour makes $24,000 a year. A car takes up to 25 percent of their earnings. The reliability of a public transit system has been proven as an economic empowerer of this type of family."

Bradford maintains that developments must encourage a mix of uses, a mix of incomes, and a high number of dwellings per acre, and must be served by reliable transit.

"It's a two-way street," Bradford says. "Transit goes where the riders are, and we want a development where people will use transit."

Three Cities, One Two-Way Street

TOD has the potential to have a transformative effect on areas outside of downtown Grand Rapids as well. "Two-way street" takes on new meaning along the extreme southern end of the BRT route. A stretch of Division from 60th St. north about four miles, splits development possibilities down the middle, literally: Wyoming is on the west, and Kentwood is on just 2.25 miles of the east before it reaches the Grand Rapids boundary.

A steering committee of stakeholders from Kentwood, Wyoming, and Gaines Twp. has begun to create a common vision that will move the zoning on both sides of the street toward TOD within 12 months. Most of the changes will occur at the Silver Line's high-tech transit stations.

TOD encourages retail, commercial, and residential uses, keeps buildings close together, and eliminates property setbacks. The result is pedestrian-friendly live/work/shopping/entertainment areas. But right now, this four-mile section has used car lots, vacant buildings, empty lots, and under-used commercial parcels.

"The transit stations create a game changer," Wyoming City Planner Tim Cochran says. "(Each city) may not have the same ordinance, but with the same vision, we can build things on both sides of the street that are complementary and working toward the same vision."

"Generally you don't see used car lots along the transit route," says Terry Schweitzer, Kentwood planning director. "We think, over time, those will be phased out and a developer will come in with multi-story buildings with retail on the first floor and residential above. Current zoning doesn't lend itself to that at all."

So Do We Need Streetcars, Too?

The recent announcement that a 2008 streetcar feasibility study is being refined ignited a hotbed of discussion on news media sites and social media. With a projected cost of $80 million, many Grand Rapids residents are up in arms about spending money on a limited system that still leaves our roads pocked with potholes.

But, says former Mayor John Logie, who heads the steering committee for the study, and streetcar consultant Strader, that $80 million will come from private investments.

And the $293,895 that will be paid to HDR, Inc. for the study is grant money from federal 5309 discretionary funds and matching state funds, says Venema.

"The streetcar is a pedestrian accelerator -- it will expand an area that's vibrant," Strader says. "People might walk one-quarter of a mile to restaurants or entertainment, but when you add a streetcar, they're willing to visit a much wider area of a downtown."

The 2008 study recommended a streetcar route that ran north along Monroe North from Lyon St. to Trowbridge, east to Ottawa, north to Newberry, then back west to Monroe North.

Nick Monoyios, The Rapid long-range planner, says that no specific streetcar routes are under study today, but rather, an area that encompasses the downtown core and the new Downtown Market is being studied to determine if it might support streetcars.

That area, roughly speaking, is bounded by Commerce Avenue on the east, Lyon on the north, the Grand River on the west, an eastbound jog on Cherry to Ottawa, then south past Wealthy and back east to Commerce.

The refinement study will be done by summer 2014, says Monoyios, and will consider possible new routes due to new developments, such as the Downtown Market, housing at 38 Commerce, on Division Avenue, and at The Gallery Apartments. It will consider new streetcar technologies that don't require overhead wiring, it will update capital and operating costs, and it will recommend a funding structure.

"There's an old rule that goes, 'a rising tide floats all the boats,'" Logie says. "Younger generations don't plan to buy a car; they plan to live without one. Why don't we take advantage of that and make this a place to find a job and live without a car?"

Deborah Johnson Wood is the development news editor for Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird

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