TOD Is Here; Now Let’s Make It Really Work For Us

October 16, 2012 | by Greg Meckstroth

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What’s Missing

Like the base zoning, the new TOD overlays will be law-binding, adding or subtracting additional regulation where necessary. This means that around specified transit stops it will be perfectly legal, and encouraged, to build buildings a bit taller, increase use diversity and reduce parking requirements.

Photo: Theresa Stigale

What is clear from the new code is that the City’s planners understand the advantages of urban density, an assumption indicated by their push for TOD. What gives their push a little less umph is the lack of a plan to create open spaces and parks in conjunction with future transit-oriented developments.

Parks near density thrive–they are better cared for and are utilized by a wider range of people. Rittenhouse Square provides a clear example of this, but probably isn’t what TOD open space would look like. Think transit plazas, squares, civic greens, and pocket parks as appropriate typologies.

The advantages of open space near transit are clear: a well designed open space system developed in conjunction with transit-oriented development catalyzes pedestrian development, creating a healthy neighborhood full of transit riders with strong sense of place characteristics and higher property values to boot.

Paseo Verde | Image: WRT

The best way to go about ensuring open space creation amongst TOD is through the planning process, something the City Planning staff seems hesitant to do; they have expressed concern about such efforts placing too much restriction on developers. “The TOD visioning process won’t result in codifying placement of open space, especially on existing private land,” says Barr.

But DC Is Doing It…

Chicago does well with utilizing its current built environment, but when it comes to developing open space within newly built transit-oriented development, Washington DC is a clear leader. DC officials have been able to take lofty planning and design talk about the importance of open space in TOD and make it reality. The way they’ve gone about this has varied and so have the results.

Columbia Heights TOD, Washington, DC | Photo: Whiteknuckled, Flickr

In Columbia Heights, situated along Metro’s Green Line just west of Howard University, the highly gentrifying neighborhood boasts one of DC’s proudest examples of TOD. Flush with convenient services, restaurants and housing, the area immediately adjacent to the metro stop also features highly utilized transit plazas and a public square. It’s exactly what planners envision when they talk TOD.

According to Dan Emerine, urban planner with the DC Office of Planning, the reason why Columbia Heights is so picture perfect is because the City owned a significant amount of land around the stop and could appropriately plan its design and implementation.

Other TODs haven’t been so lucky. When a metro station opened in the NOMA (North of Massachusetts Avenue) neighborhood, private development quickly followed suit, but without a plan to guide its implementation. “The private development is what we wanted,” says Emerine, “but no open space was created.” City planners are now trying to piecemeal together open space left over from the private development.

A third example is familiar-sounding enough. Just north of NOMA, land around the Brookland stop along the Red Line has long been underutilized. Seeing development pressures increase in the area, City planners developed a “small area plan” for the stop. Similar to what the district plans are doing for Philly’s neighborhoods and its TOD process, Emerine explains that SAPs “provide guidance on growth and development at the neighborhood level, and are created through a bottom-up, collaborative process with stakeholders.”

Since the Plan’s approval, development and open space creation has followed. “Thanks to the SAP acting as a guide, three Planned Unit Developments have been approved in the area around the station,” explains Emerine.

No Means NOMA

Temple University station, Paseo Verde | Photo: Theresa Stigale

Philly is one step ahead of DC: through the district planning process, all TOD overlays will receive treatment similar to what the small area plan gave the Brookland metro stop.

To avoid becoming NOMA, that is, all development, no open space, Philly needs to encourage open space in conjunction with transit-oriented development, something Emerine says must initially happen during the visioning process.

He believes there are a number of ways to go about doing this without being overly restrictive. “Ideally, you identify places where you want open space to be created and then incentivize the creation of it,” he says. “For years, cities have successfully implemented such rules, exchanging additional building stories or other development perks for the creation of open space.”

For the DC Planning staff, the trick has been making sure open space is appropriately designed, and not haphazardly placed in nonsensical ways. “Over time, we’ve added more stringent rules to specify exactly what we want. Otherwise, you have random pieces of open space that don’t achieve placemaking capabilities.”

Girard El Station | Photo: Theresa Stigale

The new Philly zoning code does feature similar regulations for Center City and University City, but doesn’t seem willing to include open space as part of the TOD overlays. Developers probably won’t be either–without incentives developers won’t prioritize open space, likely treating it as a threat to already narrow profit margins.

Considering their desire to recommend TOD overlays only in places where a significant difference can be made, Philly planners have an opportunity to turn significant development pressure into strong public projects that enhance the public sphere.

Such a tack would strongly impact places like the Spring Garden and Girard stations, areas in high demand and likely to continue redeveloping with or without the help of TOD overlays. To ensure this development occurs the way planners want it, an insistence on TOD with integrated open space is doubly critical.


About the Author

Greg Meckstroth Greg Meckstroth is an urban planner/designer, freelance writer, and recent Philly transplant. Greg received a Master of Community Planning from the University of Cincinnati in 2009 and has spent the last few years bouncing around the private sector planning world, more recently moving to Philly to work for a nationally renowned design firm in Center City. He also writes for Flying Kite Media and blogs at the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog. Twitter follow: @GMeckstroth.


  1. John says:

    Will the dynamics of a block like 2nd and Girard ever change? There, any potential for transit-oriented development appears to be blocked by seemingly permanent installations – 7-Eleven and McDonalds – which are both national chains located in a high-traffic area, and presumably are highly profitable franchises.

    1. Devin says:

      While there might be some pushback from these groups, bringing them into the equation could be even more useful. The promise of even higher traffic could persuade them to buy into a TOD. National chains have been successful because they are willing to adapt to the environment, communities just need to make it clear to these chains that the paradigms have changed and that they will profit more if they adapt.

      Also, does anyone happen to have any information on the Wayne Junction TOD overlay? I

      1. Devin says:

        Also, I think that any Regional Rail TOD would be vastly strengthened by the development of an S-Bahn Regional Rail system. Trains running every hour or half hour will not attract people to pay more for TOD living.

  2. Josh says:

    What would be more profitable? A one story McD’s and a 7-11 with surface parking? Or a McD’s and a 7-11 on the first floor of a 5-story mixed use building in a vibrant TOD neighborhood?

    1. Devin says:

      Exactly, there might be a higher barrier of entry to getting in larger businesses given their scale, but most businesses are open to adaptation. Even the famously suburban Walmart is incorporating one of its locations into a TOD project in DC.

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