Transit-Oriented Developments: Defining Convenience

A Q&A with Brian Lawlor

If you live in or near Metro Boston, you've undoubtedly noticed the myriad large-scale housing construction projects springing up around the area. These new apartments and condominiums are being built primarily to satisfy the increasing demand of professionals who, post-recession, want to live closer to where they work, and are willing to pay for that convenience.

They’re called transit-oriented developments (TODs), and are constructed specifically with the needs of the urban commuter in mind.

The advantages of living in such developments can be numerous. In addition to proximity to the office, TODs offer transportation-cost savings and provide easy access to dining, retail, and entertainment options. More broadly, they also benefit the environment and reduce congestion by keeping cars off the road, and encourage investment in multi-model infrastructures.

Here, SMMA Principal Brian Lawlor shares his thoughts on where he sees the TOD trend heading in the future, how it’s impacting the Greater Boston Area, and what obstacles developers have to navigate when designing projects of this nature.

What’s behind the push for new housing and mixed use development with close-by transit?

BL: In a word, demand. There is a high demand for living and working in cities, and choosing to live close to public transportation allows people to have easy access to work and social connections. Many of these new residents are young professionals who elect not to own a car for environmental or economic reasons, and embrace a more sustainable, walkable community.

So, smart developers are looking for sites to meet this need?

BL: Developers know from all the demographic research that demand for transit-accessible housing will increase steadily in the coming years. I read a research report done by the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center recently that projected a need to provide urban housing for another 12-14 million residents in the US by 2040. Much of that development will be close to transit options.

Is it easier to move transit-oriented developments through the permit and approvals process?

BL: For cities, transit-friendly development is beneficial. So there is more flexibility, and even encouragement, to look at opportunities within a short walk of public transportation. For communities and neighborhoods in which these developments are seeking to build, reduced reliance on automobiles and increased promotion of walking, biking, and transit options benefits existing residents. The climate for permitting and approvals varies with each project and location, but on the whole, the process is more positive and collaborative than other types of commercial development. 

How is this development trend playing out in the Boston area?



BL: The extension of the MBTA Green Line and the relocation of Lechmere Station are creating new housing and retail opportunities along that new line to Medford. We are working on one of the first big projects, the Zinc multifamily tower that will be built across from the new Lechmere Station. There are dozens of other transit-oriented design projects in the planning and design phase in Boston, Cambridge, and along other MBTA commuter lines. We’ve seen what works and how these projects can be successful when handled well from a community and design sensibility.

Keep reading if you're interested in learning more about Zinc.

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The permitting and approvals process in Cambridge and Boston has a reputation for taking years. Is that still the case?



BL: I think everyone involved is more aware of what is required and more flexible about what may work best in a given situation. For example, city zoning requirements are complex, and requirements vary depending on the block you are trying to develop. It is important to be mindful of the neighborhood's goals, as well as knowledgeable of the nuances of the process—in certain cases, special permits can streamline efforts, the city may allow exceptions for zoning variances, and exemptions or bonuses may be available for project proponents.

What works and what doesn’t work for developers with urban sites? Where does the process start?

BL: Before you get to consider the design and community approval issues, developers and their consultants have to look at the challenges presented by these urban sites. With any urban site close to rail lines, the odds are high that a past use was industrial. Brownfields, asbestos, and underground hazards are frequently found.

How about navigating the public and community reviews?

BL: We tell our clients to approach it in the same way they would want if the change was in their neighborhood. You need to spend time understanding the issues and getting to know the community. In city neighborhoods, building a relationship is key.

Each community has individuals who are influencers, the experienced few who are look up to by others as leader and informed advisors. Understand and solicit their knowledge, and learn from it to inform the project elements.

We also work to discover what the hot-button issues are. Is it parking? A desire for more retail? Amenities such as open space or public access? In the Symphony neighborhood of Boston, where we are working on two residential projects, the big issue is student housing. Residents understand the need for student housing, but also seek balance—it is their neighborhood, and they want to see both permanent home-ownership and a well-designed and well-maintained rental market.

Our TOD Milton Landing, pictured here, has been recognized by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance as one of 28 projects in the Greater Boston Area emblematic of “smart growth.”

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