Can transit grow neighborhoods?


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Each weekday, light-rail cars packed with a total of 13,000 commuters rumble through the Beechview business district, which is dotted with vacant storefronts.

Buses haul another 30,000 riders on the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, passing the Homewood station, surrounded by long-standing blight and decay.

Can railcars and buses be engines of rebirth for those and other struggling communities? A growing body of planners, nationally and locally, thinks so.

They have embraced a concept they call transit-oriented development, the aim of which is to create and sustain walkable neighborhoods with a mix of housing and retail development and transit hubs -- light-rail or busway stations -- at their core.

"If the single-family home in the suburbs was the American Dream of yore, the new American Dream also includes lofts, townhomes, live-work spaces and apartments in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods near high-quality transit," says Reconnecting America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes transit-oriented development.

An audience of 170 government and transit officials, planners, private developers and community leaders attended a symposium on the concept last week at the Regional Renaissance Tower, Downtown.

Soaring gasoline prices and traffic congestion have boosted public transit ridership to the highest levels in 50 years and helped to fuel demand for living space that is closer to work and shopping.

The increase in ridership has, in turn, boosted the value of housing and commercial space that is within walking distance of transit.

People in transit-friendly neighborhoods spend an average of 9 percent of their incomes on transportation; those living in auto-dependent places spend an average of 25 percent, according to Reconnecting America.

Even with the recent drop in gasoline prices, the American Public Transportation Association estimated the annual savings from using transit rather than driving at nearly $8,400 -- more than what a typical household spends a year on food.

Add concerns about fossil-fuel pollution and the nation's reliance on imported oil, and "all of the elements point to transit-oriented development as the wave of the future," Sam Zimbabwe, a technical assistance director for Reconnecting America, told the symposium.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said the event was the first attempt to bring together the varied regional interests with a stake in transit-oriented development.

The General Assembly in 2004 enacted legislation to promote development around transit hubs.

It allows for creation of Transit Revitalization Investment Districts -- zones within a half-mile radius of those hubs -- where increased tax revenues from development can be earmarked for transit, infrastructure and streetscape improvements.

Several efforts are under way locally to create such zones.

In May, Mt. Lebanon and Dormont completed a joint study on prospects for transit-oriented development around the Potomac, Dormont and Mt. Lebanon light-rail stations.

In Pittsburgh, studies have begun in East Liberty, Homewood and Allentown/Beltzhoover/Beechview/Mount Washington.

East Liberty has launched the $51 million Eastside V development at Penn Circle East and Penn Avenue, steps from the East Busway. It will be anchored by a 156,000-square-foot Target store.

Neighborhood leaders hope to team with the Port Authority to develop a state-of-the-art transit center there to better integrate the busway with the retail district.

"There are dysfunctional areas of the city with great transit assets," said Ernie Hogan, deputy director of East Liberty Development Inc., who addressed the symposium and helped narrate a bus tour of transit-friendly neighborhoods.

The tour helped illuminate the enormous challenge facing community planners, developers and government and transit officials.

In Pittsburgh's Allentown section, where a little-used light-rail line cuts down the main street, vacant and blighted storefronts abut vibrant businesses. Just repairing the crumbling surface of Warrington Avenue was estimated years ago at $11 million, said Breen Masciotra, of the Mount Washington Community Development Corp.

Vacant lots and boarded storefronts dominate Homewood, a 12-minute busway ride east of Downtown.

In Beechview, several nuisance bars hugging the light-rail line were closed more than four years ago as part of a redevelopment push that has yet to flower.

Down the light-rail line is South Hills Junction, through which 50,000 bus and rail passengers travel each day.

The Mount Washington group sees potential for development around the site, but for now, said Ms. Masciotra, "it's visually and physically difficult to access and anecdotally unsafe."


Jon Schmitz can be reached at jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.


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