Transit-Oriented Development in the Super Region

Forget ‘Build it and they will come.’ It is now ‘Get them there and they will live, work and play.’

Wikipedia online offers clues: “A transit-oriented development (TOD) is a mixed-use residential and commercial area designed to maximize access to public transport, and often incorporates features to encourage transit ridership. A TOD neighborhood typically has a center with a transit station or stop (train station, metro station, tram stop or bus stop), surrounded by relatively high-density development with progressively lower-density development spreading outward from the center.”

Central Station Downtown Orlando
Central Station, Downtown Orlando

These words, taken from a sign next to a budding parcel of land, offer reality: “Orlando’s Premier Transit-Oriented Master Planned Development. Direct Connection to SunRail, Lynx and Lymmo. Urban Style Hotel. Retail/Restaurant. Residential Rental Units. Class A Office.”

Sure, transit-oriented development, or TOD, isn’t a new approach. And the concept is evident to at least some extent across the region. For proof, just take a look at the TECO Line Streetcar System, where passengers can swiftly move around downtown Tampa’s restaurants, hotels and retail shops. Yet, the future of TOD is coming fast—faster than you can say commuter rail.

“Transit-oriented development comes down to compact walkable communities around transit stations,” describes Michael Carragher, Southeast regional manager of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. in Orlando, which provides planning, design and engineering services while specializing in transportation, land development and environmental protection. “A hub, a center of activity around a community. It creates an area that not only generates activity at the pedestrian and bike level, but it also starts to allow businesses an opportunity to have more people walking by their places of business.

“Transit -oriented development brings all those elements of community closer together around a transit station.”

In the case of Metro Orlando, beginning next spring, that means a SunRail transit station.

Widely chronicled and highly anticipated, SunRail’s commuter rail system will connect DeLand in Volusia County to Poinciana in Osceola County when it’s scheduled for full completion in 2016. Phase 1, consisting of 32 miles and 12 stations, is under construction, connecting DeBary with Sand Lake Road near the Orlando International Airport. Phase 2, scheduled to begin construction next summer, will extend the line north to DeLand and south into Poinciana.

That’s certainly good news for would-be passengers, who will be able to eschew the congestion of Interstate 4 and, basically, get on with their lives. “Your way of life becomes built around these cores of mobility,” cites Adrian Share, senior vice president and Florida district leader for HNTB Corp. in Lake Mary, an infrastructure solutions firm with construction oversight on SunRail. “The advantages create an environment where you’re less dependent on an automobile. You have more time available. You’re helping the environment. And you’re also helping the economy by creating the need for investment opportunity around these stations and the areas surrounding it.”

Notes Max Crumit, former executive director of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, “Travel mode decisions are based on a variety of factors—convenience, travel time reliability, cost and speed, to name a few. More transit relieves congestion on all of our roads, including the expressway system.”

SunRail Florida Hospital Health Village Station
SunRail’s arrival next spring has put numerous development and connection plans in motion along its route.

And it’s even better news for transportation planners and land developers. Fortuitously, SunRail runs along the I-4 corridor, creating an economic spine of sorts. In addition, because SunRail uses existing tracks, many of the cities along the route already have oriented their development that way. That activity has intensified.

“We are involved in development unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my career,” comments, John M. Lewis Jr, CEO of the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority (LYNX), which serves Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties. “We’re starting to see that all along the corridor, developers coming to us: ‘What are your plans in the future, and how can we complement that so we can attract the business that want to make transit an amenity’?”

LYNX plays an integral role in the SunRail/TOD equation. Passengers drive to the rail station, park for free, hop on the train and get to a station. From there, Lynx is available to bus them to their final stops. “Our job is to make those connections seamless and easy for SunRail patrons,” Lewis says. No extra transfers required.

Joe Waggoner agrees with the idea. The executive director of the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority is a big believer in keeping things simple for riders. “The first mile and last mile of any transit trip is key. So you try to create these centers where you can attract people. If you create these nodes, these transit-oriented development centers, then you can set up bus stations,” says Waggoner, who is leading THEA in substantial bus-toll lane efforts.

Nowhere is the concept of transit convenience more evident than at downtown Orlando’s Central Station. The 5.6-acre, $200 million Central Station site, under development by RIDA Development Corp., is located across the street from two of the city’s largest and most prominent buildings. The last large undeveloped parcel downtown, the site is a five-minute walk to most of downtown’s employment and entertainment centers and only 20 yards from what will be the main SunRail stop downtown. Also, housing is planned—Crescent Central Station, consisting of 275 luxury apartments along with more than 20,000 square feet of amenities and urban retail space.

Plans are in the works at several other stations, too.

For one, Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization for Transportation, is taking notes. Chiaramonte laments not yet having such a transit option in Tampa Bay, but he’s holding out hope. “Absolutely. Not only are we watching, but we’re trying to figure out how to connect to what’s happening [with SunRail],” he says. “I expect we will look at technologies similar to SunRail in the new plan.” At present, Chiaramonte’s group is working on a plan to be completed in December 2014.

“Once you have a plan in place, especially when you start implementing it, you attract different developments to those areas,” he says.

Indeed, the train is nearing the station.

Says Carragher, “It’s the natural evolution of communities. … It’s really emulating what has happened around the country; people want to be around good transportation nodes.”

Demographics Point the Way

Why the increased interest in transit-oriented development? One reason is demographics. Both young and old are drawn to its inherent conveniences.

According to a 2013 Urban Land Institute study, more than half of Gen Yers (early 20s in age) place a high priority on proximity to public transit when choosing a place to live. Nearly 25 percent of Gen Yers said they regularly walk to destinations, the study revealed.

Similarly, older Americans—baby boomers who are retiring— want easy access to culture, medical care, entertainment and shopping. Like with Gen Yers, public transit is an measurable market demand.

Also notably, studies show that people who bike and walk spend more per person than people driving in their cars.