An Interview with Gary Leavitt, Transit-Oriented Development Manager, City of Saint Paul
By Dave Van Hattum, Transportation Policy Director
Editor’s note: At the start of this year, the City of Saint Paul put new emphasis on transit-oriented development (TOD), hiring dedicated staff to manage TOD for the first time. Experienced developer Gary Leavitt stepped into the role. We recently sat down with Gary to talk about his approach to the job, and about realizing TOD potential in Saint Paul—along the Green Line and beyond.
Gary Leavitt. Photo credit: TLC
TLC: Tell us about your job with the City of Saint Paul.
GL: I was brought on primarily to assist with transit-oriented development along the new Green Line. Acting as a liaison for the City, I meet with owners, stakeholders, developers, brokers, or investors who want to do transit-oriented projects on University Avenue or elsewhere in Saint Paul. I meet as many people as I possibly can to talk about transit and about opportunity, and to explain why this is a good thing. The most difficult part of development is time; the longer it goes, the more it costs, and then it gets difficult to make a project work. My goal in that sense is to get involved early enough to save time by helping with small zoning issues, station-area or comprehensive plans, or potential funding sources. Coming from a private background helps me build rapport in the field.
TLC: Does the City have explicit goals for additional housing or commercial development?
GL: There isn’t really a number we put out there. I just like to use the term “a lot”—more than what we have seen in the last five years.
TLC: How would you describe the emerging TOD market along the Green Line specifically?
GL: The ridership is up much higher than we expected and that’s great. People are buying into it. In the beginning, some landowners and developers were saying, “We don’t know if it’s going to work or if it’s the right time.” Now, I am having meeting after meeting with people who are saying positively, “There is a lot of activity. A lot of people are riding and they’re getting off the trains and walking around in the neighborhoods.” We are seeing quite a few more opportunities than I expected.
TLC: What has happened to-date in terms of development along the corridor?
GL: We have a number of projects in the pipeline, including the Hamline Station development, new Goodwill site, old Whittaker Buick, and 2700 University. As far as development, Raymond Avenue has been tremendous. The most calls, probably 40 percent, have come from this station area so far.
Green Line LRT at Raymond & University, Saint Paul. Photo credit: Allison Osberg, TLC.
TLC: Are there big projects that have your or the City’s attention?
GL: The 35-acre “bus barn” lot near Snelling and University is the biggest by far. That is a joint development between a private owner, the City, and the Metropolitan Council. As we phase in development with these big properties, it is so important that we are thoughtful in the process. What may be a perfect deal today may not fit the market ten years from now. That consideration takes a lot of time and funding. And those are big home-run deals. But I also enjoy the smaller ones that really get neighborhoods involved and can happen now versus five years from now.
TLC: What might that site look like?
GL: I see four or five stories at most. I see mixed use as well as mixed income: housing, some commercial, hopefully some offices, plenty of open space for parks, walking, placemaking, and a gathering area. With a site this size and with so much opportunity, we want to create a destination not only for the neighborhood, but for out-of-area residents as well. I think the development will be phased, beginning with the Walgreens on the corner. Then, we’ll probably want to put housing at the Big Top Liquor site and keep moving south. With the A Line on Snelling as well, we want to focus on that corner to ensure we are pushing transit-oriented development opportunities south and north of University.
TLC: Where are the other TOD opportunities in the city?
GL: We are doing some research on Robert Street. We also are working on Gateway and those station-area plans. I’m a fan of Riverview on West 7th Street; I think that is a huge opportunity.
TLC: Can you say more about station-area plans?
GL: We look up to a quarter-mile away from the transit station. Density is critical. We like to see buildings and storefronts up on the street. The whole goal is to get people out of cars—get them on bikes, walking, and on the trains. When the plan is drafted, the community has a chance to weigh in. That was the process with the Green Line and we’re doing that planning on Gateway right now.
TLC: How does the City define or think about equitable TOD?
GL: Our region made this investment in the light rail and we hope everyone has the same opportunity to use it. Everybody should have an opportunity to prosper, whether by better, healthier, safer living, or access to new affordable or market-rate housing. Everyone should have access to those. And the bottom line is access to good, living wage jobs. If someone finds a job in another neighborhood, they have the opportunity to ride transit to get to that job.
TLC: Has the issue of gentrification come up in your work on TOD? How do you respond to those concerns?
GL: That’s a fair question and it does come up. It’s a healthy debate we have about how much affordable housing should happen, what gentrification takes place. I want bad landlords and slumlords out of the neighborhoods. But when we talk about new projects maybe raising rents, I think more about overall cost to live. I look at a new development that may be a couple hundred dollars more, but it’s safer, more energy efficient so your electricity bill is lower, cleaner so you’re sick less and missing work less, and closer to transit so you may not need a vehicle any longer. Your overall spending on a monthly basis could be the same or better.
TLC: Before moving to the Twin Cities, you worked in Phoenix. How do those transit and TOD markets compare?
GL: The biggest difference is that the Twin Cities community is very much involved. There are some community relations in Phoenix, but I’m shocked and pleased by the amount of community input you have here. Residents are excited and specific about what they want in the neighborhood. I’m happy to see that. You also have a more diverse set of riders here with people taking transit to a number of different destinations.
TLC: How do you see bike and pedestrian infrastructure as a part of TOD?
GL: Bike and ped are huge components of TOD. The most important part is getting people out of cars. That’s important to us as a city. With potential developments, I may target an area that I know is going to be on a new bike route. I may reach out to owners and developers so that we can have more green space and placemaking along these routes.
TLC: Car parking is a challenge and an opportunity for every TOD project. How does parking factor into your and the City’s thinking?
GL: On University Avenue, we have no parking requirements, but as a practical matter you need parking in some places. We had a lot of discussions about that prior to the Green Line opening. With light rail planning in Phoenix in 2008, there was lot of concern that parking was going to be an issue, but after the train opened people were pleasantly surprised. I’m seeing that here as well. I’ve not received one call yet about cars parking in the neighborhood. People want to talk about potential problems. Let’s let the challenge come and we’ll address it then; let’s not create one out of thin air.
TLC: What would you say to the Saint Paul residents who might be skeptical of greater housing or commercial density?
GL: At the end of the day, what’s being tried here is for the greater good. At the end of the day, people are going to be safer, healthier, and have better opportunities to increase their quality of life. Nothing is perfect. Not everybody is going to be happy. That’s unfortunate, but we do what we can to accommodate everyone.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.