Michael J. Carragher & Jim Hall | SunRail TOD

While the debut of SunRail, Central Florida’s new commuter rail system, is grabbing headlines, there’s potentially a bigger economic impact in the form of transit oriented development (TOD) surrounding some of Phase 1’s 12 stations. Case in point: Altamonte Springs, where city officials have been working with Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (VHB) for the past several years to set the stage for residential, retail and commercial growth—all built around transit. Also notably, since 2005 VHB has been a key member of the SunRail team, providing a wide range of services from transit planning to stormwater design.

Michael J. Carragher, VHB’s Southeast regional manager, and Jim Hall, VHB’s Florida director of planning and urban design, spell out the details on SunRail TOD.

For starters, exactly what is transit oriented development?

Mike Carragher: A TOD neighborhood typically has a center with a transit station or stop. TOD involves creating places where we all want to be, where we feel safe and where we feel healthy—all around transit. VHB is helping to restructure how projects are approached. It’s exciting, and it’s the way we see successful community development going.

In terms of ROI, it depends on the location of the station. The downtown Orlando station is six acres, and the land value is there. For others, the land value is also there. But for Altamonte Springs, the land had moderate value. So there will be great increases in taxable values. Then you can put that money back into the neighborhood and into the TOD. You can build more and more infrastructure, which begets more development of the type you want, which generates taxes and raises revenues. It’s a great economic redevelopment tool.

How does a station get developed—in this case the Altamonte Springs Station?

Jim Hall: There is no one recipe for how the development starts. Typically, though, there needs to be a champion. It could be a land owner, or the champion could be the local government. For Altamonte Springs, [city] officials wanted to use SunRail and all the nearby transit elements to really drive economic growth. A transit nexus can do that for a city—if you approach it in the proper means.

What are the “proper means”?

Hall: There are really three things to consider. First, the number of different types of transit, along with their frequency, dictates the density of what can be created. The more buses and trains at the stop, along with bicycles, and the more walkability that can be established, the denser the development can grow.

Second, there has to be a commitment by the local government and the political will to develop something denser than typically occurs in Central Florida. The thinking can’t be “not in my backyard.”

Third, it’s taking a people-centered approach to the planning, design and management of what you are building. The pedestrian becomes the guiding principle for design decision making, and the auto is relegated to a secondary role in design.

But, what was great about Altamonte Springs was the city’s vision and thought process. City officials posed the question: How could this station become a center of urban economic and mobility activity? They city answered by looking at a quarter-mile radius around the station and carefully considered how to create a place that has connectivity to the transit station and a place where people would want to live, shop and have fun, and a place that would attract office development and urban retail development. The vision was to create a nexus of people and economic activity.

So, while there is no development now at the Altamonte Station, what can people expect in that quarter-mile radius?

Hall: Today, there are 400 parking spaces and a concrete platform with a trellis roof and a bus station. The interesting thing is that area is the absolute best land for redevelopment—it’s right next to the SunRail station.

Additionally, in the case of Altamonte Springs, to the east of the rail line is a fair amount of lower-valued vacant land. So the east side of the rail line offers a great opportunity for development. … The city has stepped in as master developer and is adding urban streets, a park and a master stormwater system to accommodate future development. This sets up what is called a “catalyst site.” Now, there will be vacant affordable land that is ready for development. Developers will come in and think this makes all the sense in the world.

We have finished the studies that identified the development standards, and the city has adopted them. This is a dramatic change. This is about employment; this is about offices with a minimum of six to eight stories. This is about being truly urban.

Carragher: What can people expect? Just imagine if I get off at the Altamonte SunRail station and I’m on the platform scanning the area. I might see a street-side cafe in front of a six- to eight-story medical office building. If I walked three or four minutes, I would be in a park with a half-shell for concerts and fairs. And there’s a beautiful water feature. On the other side of the park, there are townhomes and a few more small retail shops. All of these things make me want to spend time in the area of the station. So, it’s no longer just a drop-off and pick-up site. It’s the nexus of activity mentioned earlier.

What is the timeframe for such development?

Hall: The VHB planning team is designing the first phase of the infrastructure today. You could have development occur there probably not this year but certainly next year.

Carragher: The city staff is now revising the comprehensive plan, which will likely be done in the summer. Also in the summer, the VHB planning team will refine the building code in this “downtown.” That should be complete near the end of the year. So, when developers come in, the comprehensive plan will be refined, and the codes will be updated. There will be roads plus a stormwater system and utilities will be in the ground. The local government is providing that palette, if you will, for its vision to evolve. This will be a dramatic centerpiece for Altamonte Springs.

How much of a concern is environmental sustainability with this kind of urban development?

Hall: TOD is inherently sustainable because it’s not just predicated on the car and the suburban style of development. And as you go vertical, you’re incentivizing density and the outcome is more sustainable . … It weaves together very nicely in that if you have TOD, sustainability just is part of the fabric.

Similarly, what about the idea of healthy communities in TOD?

Carragher: One example of healthy community planning, away from Altamonte Springs, is VHB’s work with the City of Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood comprehensive plan. The planning is predicated on addressing key issues and questions. We are asking residents to help answer this question: How do I live in an environment that has human social networks, is a pleasant place to be, and offers the opportunity to walk and bike to my transit station or place of business? Essentially, the redesign of the community will change life patterns for the residents and create a healthier setting. There is a whole social, cultural change. Working with residents and the city, the idea is to create connectivity into the urban core, into SunRail, into more recreational activities, into more shopping and into more healthy food opportunities. This creates a whole new vision for what a community can be.