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Are east side suburbs interested in transit-oriented development and light rail extension?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/01/12 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

How does a region handle its sprawl issue and turn around a moribund suburban housing market at the same time? One way is to reconfigure Northeast Ohio suburbs to be more attractive to those seeking a walk and bike friendly neighborhood. Narrowing streets and introducing 'brick-lined' intersections, street trees and public art like Shaker Heights did a few years back in the Chagrin and Lee area makes the idea of parking and walking more attractive. The makeover of that intersection could carry lessons for the Warrensville-Chagrin-Northfield-Van Aken confusion of streets a mile or so east.

There are amazing similarities and, of course, stark differences between those two intersections. The vacancy rate of the Chagrin-Lee neighborhood is 3.7%, which is lower than 84.2% of all neighborhoods in the U.S., according to Neighborhood Scout. It also has a higher rate of adults with an advanced degrees than 98.6% of the neighborhoods in America. Some interesting facts about their commute patterns include: The average commute time is 10-15 minutes which is "shorter than the time spent commuting to work for most Americans." Most residents (80.5%) drive alone in a private car to get to work. But, quite a number also carpool with coworkers, friends, or neighbors to get to work (6.3%) and 5.5% of residents take the train for their daily commute.

Chagrin-Van Aken-Warrensville has a similar urban density, high housing prices but where it differs is a combination of high vacancy 12.6% and people who live alone (54.6% either older or new-to-the-area young people). An impressive 32% of the Chagrin-Van Aken-Warrensville Road residents have a Master's degree (that's higher than 98% of the U.S.). Like Chagrin-Lee, this is an upper-middle income area-62.2% of the working population is employed in executive, management, and professional occupations. Chagrin-Van Aken-Warrensville commuters also spend an average of 10-15 minutes to get to work, 77.0% driving alone. But, because of the Blue Line, 7.8% take the train to work (5.5% of residents also carpool with coworkers, friends, or neighbors for their daily commute).

Over the years, plenty of frustrated drivers and pedestrians hoped some one would make sense of this clusterf*ck of an intersection (as James Howard Kunstler would call it). This week (Tuesday and Thursday), RTA is studying whether new transit investments, narrowing and reconfiguring the streets and removing some dead zones like the BP gas station on the southeast corner could help this mess.

Some questions being considered:

  • Would it be better to replace the filling station with a new transit center that provides express bus service to University Circle?
  • Does it make economic sense to extend the Blue Line Rapid east to the commercial corridor of I-271/Chagrin Highlands?
  • Or could you make a case for east side commuters to park-and-ride a Blue Line train from Miles and I-271? Is the land where vacant big box stores on Miles line the highway and are hard by a rail line ideally suited for commuter rail service?

Advocates like All Aboard Ohio say 'yes' to this last one-since the underperforming freight rail line runs right to Solon and boomberg suburbs. The case becomes more attractive when houses and shops are within walking distance of the train – and that might mean developing a dense new town center with a train station in Solon.

It would take a shift in priorities-for Ohio's Department of Transportation seemingly uninterested in transit oriented development-and for cities like Solon which might consider rezoning an area around the train for mixed use. A regional cooperative like the one between Lorain, Westlake, Lakewood and Cleveland which sprang up to support a west side commuter rail study could prove the concept and identify funding for innovative ideas like a connected commuter-rapid transit-and bus-rapid transit lines linking up the east side.

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