On the Move

Is taller, denser housing near transit hubs right for the Capital Region?

Back Longreads Jan 2, 2019 By Russell Nichols

In south Sacramento, the Meadowview Road Light Rail station used to be the end of the line. Commuters could leave their cars at the parking lot and take the Blue Line downtown, or keep going north to Watt and I-80. In 2015, a 4.3-mile extension pushed the line out to Cosumnes River College. After that, the 15-acre parking lot fell even further off the map, becoming an underutilized property people rode past.

Could converting this type of lot into residential development be a key to solving California’s housing crisis?

Last September, a panel from the Urban Land Institute, an international nonprofit research and education real-estate organization, toured the area near this station and one on Florin Road. According to James Corless, the executive director for the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the panel concluded that transit-oriented development around these stations could fill housing gaps, spur additional ridership, bring jobs and serve as a template to stimulate more TOD activity in the Sacramento region.

“The ULI panel said, ‘You’re not being ambitious enough,’” Corless says. “They told us we have the opportunity to use these large parcels of undeveloped land, and the market will support more housing options.”

In urban planning, TOD is a type of community development that integrates housing, office, retail and other amenities into walkable neighborhoods within a half-mile of public transportation. It was the golden egg behind Sen. Scott Wiener’s (D-San Francisco) ambitious 2018 legislative proposal, Senate Bill 827, which died in its first committee and is poised to resurface in 2019. But even without a mandate from the state, planners and developers throughout the Capital Region are thinking critically on how to bring together transit and housing in a way that fits with their communities.

A POTENTIAL STATE MANDATE

Supporters of SB 827 hailed it as a game-changer. This transit zoning bill aimed to ease California’s housing crisis by allowing developers to build taller, denser housing near high-frequency mass transit stops.

But not everybody was on board. The battle is basically a difference in perspectives: On the NIMBY side, the complaints are about infringement on local control and that dense housing near transit hubs will destroy neighborhood character, fuel traffic congestion and limit available parking. On the other side of the argument, the YIMBYs say that housing near mass transit stops will fuel increased ridership of trains and buses while enabling others to walk or bike, creating more integrated neighborhoods and decreasing carbon emissions by limiting the need to drive.

“The state needs to set enforcement standards instead of letting communities do what they want.”Scott Wiener, State Senator, San Francisco 11th District

“These transit-oriented development areas become little neighborhoods, and people like to be in neighborhoods,” says John Hodgson, former chair of the ULI Sacramento chapter and president of The Hodgson Company, a Sacramento-based real-estate, land-use and government advocacy firm. “But I don’t think it applies that much to the Sacramento region because, to the best of my knowledge, we really don’t have many good transit-oriented locations.”

Legislators killed SB 827 in its first committee hearing, but Wiener plans to bring it back this legislative session with revisions. He has been working with stakeholders and certain groups who opposed the original iteration on a revised version of SB 827. While the changes haven’t been finalized, Wiener says the new version will offer more flexibility to communities where displacement has been happening.

Wiener knows how difficult it will be to win over those who don’t want the state to have any role in housing but believes the strategy to be necessary for a sustainable housing future in California.

“We can’t just keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them the past 50 years. … The state needs to set enforcement standards instead of letting communities do what they want,” he says.

LOCAL BARRIERS

When it comes to TOD, the location makes a big difference. Compared to the Bay Area and Southern California, the Capital Region doesn’t have many mass transit hubs to build around. Much of Sacramento Regional Transit’s current light rail system opened in 1987 along freight railroad tracks and through industrial zones, not having been originally intended for residential use — which means the infrastructure (water, sewer, electrical) near the stations needs to be upgraded for TOD, Corless says.

This past December, the Sacramento City Council unanimously passed the Transit Oriented Development Ordinance, which will restrict certain low-density, car-oriented uses within a quarter mile of the city’s 23 light rail stations, such as gas stations, auto repair businesses, warehouses and drive-through restaurants. The ordinance also reduces minimum parking requirements around these stations. The City’s goal is to preserve these transit areas for “appropriate development opportunities,” such as housing.

Corless also points to the issue of cost: “Even though we’re in the Bay Area’s economic orbit, it’s harder to get high rents, which makes the margins really thin for developers,” says Corless, who held senior positions at the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “We can’t get the same rent or sale price as in the Bay Area, but we have the same labor costs.”

The public sector, he adds, can help address the funding gap and eliminate red tape. In 2017, Caltrans awarded a $492,000 grant through its Sustainable Communities Planning Grant program to SACOG and SacRT. The two agencies provided a combined local match of $202,000, bringing the total project cost to $694,000, which will help fund an interagency framework to guide future TOD.

Related: Closing the Transportation Gap

Listen now: Creating a Culture of Community Around Transportation

The board of directors for SacRT has prioritized the sale of surplus and underutilized property, hoping to foster new TOD and increased ridership, says Jessica Gonzalez, director of marketing, communications and outreach for SacRT. The agency has signed a purchase and sale agreement for several properties: 880-936 Arden Way, 2200 Cemo Circle and the land at the University/65th Street light rail station, which SacRT is selling to a developer while retaining certain bus stop rights. Other potential TOD include Calvine Road/Auberry Drive and the Power Inn Road light rail station. When built out, the properties are expected to provide a total of over 1,000 housing units, according to Gonzalez.

“Recently, with interest rates rising and retail housing slowing, there is some concern by developers to move forward,” Gonzalez says. “However, if we can show the developers the great potential, then we may be able to capitalize on this opportunity to bring about a new way of thinking and make transit a serious first option.”

About 350 feet from the tunnel to Sacramento State, a new development is under construction at the 65th Street Transit Village. Kuchman Architects PC assisted in the entitlement processing of the student housing project — a 90-unit building with bicycle-parking spaces inside and commercial space on the ground floor with other amenities, and entertainment in walking distance. With the bus-transfer location and light rail station, the project offers an example of what TOD in Sacramento can look like.

Efforts toward TOD aren’t new. In 2004, SACOG adopted the Blueprint Scenario, a smart growth vision that highlights TOD as a way to direct future growth to existing infrastructure. In the preferred scenario, 41 percent of new jobs and 38 percent of new housing are within walking distance of 15-minute bus or train service. Five years later, SacRT released a TOD guide, pointing out how there is no one-size-fits-all model for TOD, given the diverse geography of the Sacramento region.

“The definition of TOD tends to force a single programmed solution onto the different types of communities served by transit,” notes SacRT’s “A Guide to Transit Oriented Development.” It says, “On the contrary, the land development pattern in the Sacramento Region is sophisticated and diverse with a multitude of conditions. The types of projects that might be appropriate in older neighborhoods close to downtown are different from those that might work in new and growing areas in the County.”

BUILDLING CONNECTIONS

In Placer County, which doesn’t have many major transit stops with high-frequency bus routes, evolving ideas of transit factors into planning. With the rise of communal bikes, telecommuting, ridesharing and autonomous vehicles around the corner, transit doesn’t look like it did 20 years ago.

“You want housing in and around where you have multiple transit options,” says Shawna Purvines, principal planner for Placer County’s Community Development Resource Agency. “Walkable communities are also a factor we consider. With more ride- and car-share options available like Uber and Lyft, this allows us to think of transportation a little differently and more broadly than just around bus stops.”

Recently, a project within Placer County was awarded $16 million from the State’s Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Grant for an affordable-housing project of 56 multifamily units in the North Tahoe area. The funds will support not only affordable housing, but also assist with other transportation needs in the area, like the purchase of four new electric buses, needed updates to a transit center and improvements to a nearby bike trail. Another project in North Auburn seeks to build a 79-unit affordable-housing project, also near existing transit services. This project is located within the county’s Government Center.

Elk Grove’s city officials are also eyeing increased transit opportunities and, along with them, options for higher-density village centers, according to Darren Wilson, Elk Grove’s development services director. The City is currently conducting a study to determine costs and ridership projections for a bus rapid transit service along the Big Horn Boulevard corridor. Village centers could be developed along this route.

Last March, the City of Elk Grove completed its Multimodal Station Feasibility Study. Since then, City staff and the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority have been collaborating at a multimodal station site on the Sacramento subdivision rail corridor. The property is owned by the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District, but it has been identified as a potentially viable location for Elk Grove’s future multimodal station, says Mike Costa, the city’s transit system manager.

The SJJPA is currently conducting an environmental study for the construction of multiple passenger rail stations along the Sacramento subdivision railroad corridor and for their Amtrak passenger rail service that would operate on that corridor, Costa says. One of the passenger rail stations considered for construction in the study is Elk Grove’s station. Costa expects the draft environmental document to be available for public review this year.

The San Joaquin Council of Governments continues to work with its local jurisdictions to identify areas where transportation investments can support TOD. A recent example is the Cal Weber 40 affordable housing project in downtown Stockton. Next year, Anchor Village, which has 51 affordable housing units mainly for veterans and individuals with mental health issues, is set to open near the downtown transit center. Similar projects could be on the horizon, but that depends on funding for both housing and transit services, says Kim Anderson, senior regional planner for SJCOG.

“The region and its transit agencies have made important strides towards more robust transit services and in supporting housing served by that transit,” Anderson says, “but TOD is relatively new in San Joaquin County — we are taking baby steps in that kind of development.” 

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