By Allison Osberg, MN GreenCorps Member (TLC)
Not all real estate is created equal. A development that connects its residents and users to the community in real, practical, and meaningful ways helps to create a place—not just a project. When a developer commits to walkable, bikeable, and transit-oriented design, they create a place where it’s possible for active, green, and local living to coincide.
After six decades of urban sprawl and heavy reliance on motor vehicle transportation, driving is declining and people young and old are returning to city centers, preferring more compact, walkable, multi-use neighborhoods. With the market’s renewed sense of just how interconnected transportation, urban development, and livability really are, Transit for Livable Communities took the opportunity to invite two Twin Cities developers to our latest Transportation on Tap happy hour event to discuss the importance of transportation in their work.
If you missed our conversation with Colleen Carey of The Cornerstone Group (a local, full-service real estate company focused on sustainable development) and James Lehnhoff of Aeon (a nonprofit, affordable housing developer), read on to see what they have to say about the role of their organizations in creating pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented communities.
TLC: At what part of the process does your organization factor in transportation when starting a new development? What are your priorities there and why?
Colleen: Access and availability to high-quality transit options are one of our key criteria in picking new projects. Our priorities revolve around creating great places for people to live and access to transit is one of the most important elements in our initial review of development opportunities.
James: Reviewing transportation options is one of the very first steps when reviewing a possible development for two primary reasons. First, many of our households have no or one car, which means having access to transit, walking, and biking facilities is very important for day-to-day needs and getting to work. Secondly, many of our funding sources have placed an increasing emphasis on proximity and access to transit In particular. In order to be competitive for funding, it is necessary to be close to transit.
TLC: Could you describe one development you’ve worked on where you’ve taken steps to encourage and ensure access to biking, walking, and/or transit?
Colleen: Lyndale Gardens is our most current example of The Cornerstone Group working hard to encourage more access to pedestrian, bike, and transit-friendly development. We have worked with the City of Richfield to redesign intersections to make them safer for pedestrians. We have toured the city by bike with the Planning Commission and City Council to understand the ways that bikers experience this community and we have lobbied hard for the addition of bike lanes along Lyndale Avenue in front of our development. We have also encouraged the city to retain a planner consultant to help them implement a more walkable plan for the Lakes at Lyndale area, which is centered around 66th and Lyndale.
James: Aeon purchased and completed substantial renovations on a property in Roseville now called Sienna Green, which is located in the southwest corner of Snelling Avenue and Highway 36. Prior to Aeon’s purchase, the property had a vast, underused, and crumbling parking lot but no bike racks and no sidewalk connection to buses and businesses along Snelling Avenue. In fact, it was common to see residents walking in the frontage road with cars speeding by. In partnership with the City of Roseville, Ramsey County, and the Metropolitan Council, we constructed off-site sidewalks to directly connect Sienna Green to the greater sidewalk system. We also installed conveniently located bike racks by each of the five buildings. The property went from a disconnected island to a well-connected community.
A rendering of the future public plaza that will connect The Cornerstone Group's Lyndale Gardens to Richfield Lake Park. Credit: The Cornerstone Group.
TLC: What specific challenges do you run up against in local cities when creating transit-oriented or pedestrian-friendly developments? What factors or changes would make your job easier?
James: Increasing land costs are making development more challenging. However, in existing developed communities, it can still be a challenge to add sidewalks where people may not be used to them and the prospect of change can be unnerving for some. Building parking spaces remains expensive and it is common for residents to still want a parking spot even when transit and pedestrian options are available, which speaks to the need for a more substantial transit system that allows people to feel better about not having a vehicle.
Colleen: The biggest challenge is the existing infrastructure. Most cities that we work with want a more walkable place but it is sometimes hard to move from a car-oriented environment to a place that is friendly to people on foot and on bike. The biggest factor in helping remove obstacles is a strong vision from the city and an openness to exploring all kinds of solutions.
Aeon's East Village, a mixed-use, mixed-income development in Elliot Park, Minneapolis. Photo: walkscore.com.
TLC: Can you share an example of a development that was very innovative from a transportation point of view—nationally or internationally—and describe how it has inspired you in your own work?
James: While it isn’t one specific development, the first time I visited Amsterdam and saw their absolutely incredible biking infrastructure, I was just blown away. They have created an integrated system where biking is on par, and in many cases ranked above, single automobiles. From bike parking to stop lights designed specifically for bikes, they have a system where biking is a viable transportation option used by many people. All of our new developments and preservation projects strive to help create a system like that.
Colleen: I am inspired every time I travel abroad and see the many ways that walkable cities make for dynamic and exciting places for people to be. Barcelona, Paris, Venice . . . the list goes on. I am also inspired by the American cities that have just "taken the bull by the horns" and built a transit system; not just a line but a whole interconnected system. We could use some of that foresight and political will—it would dramatically improve the long-term economic prospects for our entire region.
Interested in keeping up the conversation? Stay tuned for more Transportation on Tap events in 2014!