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Understanding the region's housing, transportation and land use equation

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/11/11 @ 2:42pm

The Sustainable Communities Initiative ? including a $4 million award to Northeast Ohio to create a smart growth plan ? has been unwrapped since late 2010. The mash up between HUD, DOT and EPA has the laudable goal of bringing into being "places that have a variety of housing and transportation choices, with destinations close to home?they tend to have lower transportation costs, reduce air pollution and stormwater runoff, decrease infrastructure costs, preserve historic properties and sensitive lands, save people time in traffic, be more economically resilient and meet market demand for different types of housing at different prices points."

Places that we tend to think of in this context-Chicago and Seattle-are ahead of the pack integrating regional land-use, transportation and affordable housing. In Sustainable Communities parlance, they are 'phase 2' regions, receiving funds to move an existing plan to implementation.

Reportedly, the abovementioned cities are a model for Northeast Ohio's 3-year grant. It's a smart play-instead of reinventing the wheel, look to regions that have already thought through urban/suburban issues, i.e. how to make transit-oriented development work and how to ensure that affordable housing is close to new job centers.

Our region's Sustainable Communities initiative is being directed by Hunter Morrison, former Cleveland Planning Director and a planner at Youngstown State University. The initiative has been underway since November, 2010; frankly, six months along and it has barely left the station. While it intends to bring on staff and consultants they have yet to be hired. Both will be crucial in ensuring this effort breaks new ground and produces a plan that is actionable, so that Northeast Ohio can expect to move into phase II like the leading regions mentioned. If the staff and consultants are not visionary and able to navigate the conservative mentality around these issues in the region-and if the initiative isn't undertaken with the real metrics attached to it, such as reducing the region's vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by X%-the $4 million investment will not leverage the opportunity to build a more competitive region like our peers who are currently in phase II. Enough accumulated knowledge is available, from the director to the board of trustees of Northeast Ohio's Sustainable Communities, to see it transcend entrenched interests and reflect a can-do spirit found in more progressive regions. This is one to watch.

A good data point for Sustainable Communities is the Center for Neighborhood Technology's report, "Broadening Urban Investment to Leverage Transit in Cleveland." The report, produced for Living Cities and former Governor Strickland, identifies directional goals and action items. It found a gap between supply of urban and even suburban transit-oriented development and demand from baby and 'echo' boomers (their kids). Parking lots in downtown Cleveland into apartments and/or mixed use is ripe for development -- the waiting list for apartments like 668 Euclid Avenue had more than 150 names on it.

The opportunity sweet spot for Northeast Ohio may be the coming recognition / population projection skewing younger and more educated, two groups that prefer more dense, urban type development.

Changing demographics, investor preferences, and an underbuilt multifamily market will provide Greater Cleveland the opportunity to diversify its housing stock, both in the urban core and in surrounding communities. The Center for Transit-Oriented Development projects that 28,568 additional households could be captured within a half mile of GCRTA fixed-guideway stations by 2030 on top of the 60,954 households already living within walking distance of transit.

CNT, the powerhouse think tank in Chicago, notes that "investment in automobile-oriented infrastructure has taxed household budgets already strained by increases in health care, mortgage payments, and other expenses. The Greater Cleveland region must concentrate its public resources in affordable Housing+Transit neighborhoods to alleviate household exposure to mounting transportation costs.

NOACA and municipal governments should:

SET GOALS FOR REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT AROUND TRANSIT. NOACA should adopt a goal in future regional planning to focus new development in neighborhoods with transportation choice so that 50 percent of household growth is captured in rail and bus transit corridors. Cleveland and its surrounding communities can share in this growth as transit choice expands.

TRACK SUCCESS IN SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT. NOACA should track the number and percentage of jobs and dwelling units within mile of fixed guideway stations and a mile of arterial bus routes as well as the number of new dwelling units located in block groups affordable to households earning 80 percent of AMI. The region can use these indicators to measure success in a more compact form of development:

REGULATE LAND USE TO PROMOTE H+T AFFORDABILITY, RATHER THAN RESTRICT IT. Municipalities should establish inclusionary zoning measures within low and moderate H+T cost areas to provide affordable housing where it is needed most. Inclusionary zoning measures should award density bonuses to development projects in transit zones that exceed the affordable housing requirement. Communities that currently restrict mixed-use and multifamily housing should update their zoning code to permit it around transportation nodes and job centers.

Connect People, Jobs, and Transit Households, jobs, and transportation options are the "three legged stool" of sustainable economic development. The region should plan its economic development incentives to ensure new and existing jobs are accessible to other businesses, a diverse workforce, and multiple transportation modes.

Municipal governments, GCRTA and the business community should:

CREATE TRANSPORTATION MANAGEMENT DISTRICTS THAT LINK JOB CENTERS TO FIXED GUIDEWAY ROUTES. More than 160,000 jobs sit along the GCRTA's fixed guideway lines, but many jobs along the Outerbelt are just outside transit's reach. Businesses in these job centers should pool their resources to create vanpool options for their employees that link with nearby stations on the Red, Blue, and Green Lines. These TMDs will widen the available labor pool for Cleveland businesses while giving their employees the choice of living with fewer cars or driving less.

SUBSIDIZE INCUBATOR SPACE ALONG EUCLID AVENUE. Small firms in Cleveland badly need affordable space. The Ohio Department of Development should subsidize space along Euclid Avenue in Midtown, where the HealthLine provides easy access to professional firms downtown and to the research institutions in University Circle. Incubation space in this corridor will reinforce the connection between downtown and University Circle and allow Cleveland to maximize the knowledge spillovers created by job density.

LOCATE WORKFORCE TRAINING CENTERS NEAR TRANSIT FACILITIES. "Old" and "new" economy businesses can create jobs for workers with lower levels of education, but for economic development to reach transit-dependent populations, the training facilities to acquire the skills for these jobs need to be accessible. Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, and the Ohio Department of Development should collaborate to ensure every single job training site is within mile of fixed guideway stations and a mile of bus routes.

REQUIRE CLEVELAND EMPLOYERS TO OFFER PRE-TAX TRANSIT BENEFITS. The federal pre-tax transit benefit allows employees to purchase transit passes before federal income and payroll taxes are deducted. Following model legislation in place in San Francisco and under consideration in Berkeley, Chicago, and New York state, Cuyahoga County should encourage the use of this program across the county and require certain businesses with quality access to transit to offer this benefit to their employees.

CONSTRUCT THE BLUE LINE EXTENSION AND TOD AT WARRENSVILLE/VAN AKEN. An extension of the Blue Line to the Outerbelt would bring transit to a major employment center and increase job access for households living along the entire system. Shaker Heights' proposed multimodal center would also create additional jobs near transit. This new alignment and development will create economic development felt along the entire GCRTA fixed guideway system.

CREATE A COALITION OF TRANSIT AGENCIES FOR A ROBUST REGIONAL SYSTEM. Transit agencies in Greater Cleveland operate on a county-by-county basis and are funded primarily by county sales tax, which limits interregional connections, even though many employees commute to their jobs across county lines. GCRTA, Lorain County Transit, and other providers should agree to share capital equipment, vehicles, and labor to create an economy of scale that expands regional connectivity and allows robust transit service to survive even in trying economic times.

See the BUILT Cleveland report from CNT here.

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