An overflow crowd of more than 300 architects, developers, planners and city officials gathered in downtown Los Angeles last month to hear creative ideas for new "transit villages"--handsome mixes of housing, shops and public spaces--at stations on the local rail transit system.
Architectural symposiums are notorious for pretty pictures, for spinning out visionary development plans that are never built. Yet a convergence of changes in air quality regulations and transit investment, as well as changing housing markets, make "transit villages" an imaginative idea whose time has come.
At the center of this approach is the concentration of development, particularly higher-density housing, within a quarter-mile radius of transit stations, and concomitantly, the discouraging of density development elsewhere in the area.
Pioneering developments along these lines are under way along the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in Northern California. Transit-based housing is rising near several stations: Pleasant Hill, where more than 1,600 units have been built; El Cerrito del Norte, where nearly 600 new condominium/apartment units are scheduled for completion by 1994, and Hayward, where a decaying area is being transformed by 1,200 housing units, neighborhood stores and a public plaza.
The new transit-based housing is being driven partly by local governments and the region's Air Quality Management District. Surveys show dramatically higher BART ridership among people living within one-quarter of a mile of BART stations than among the general public. While BART is regularly used by only 8% of East Bay commuters, BART ridership among residents of the new transit-based housing developments tops 32%.
Further, these commuters walk to the station. For the AQMD, this is critical. In terms of air pollution, the automobile engine "cold start" contributes the majority. The commuter driving one-half mile to BART causes almost equal pollution as the commuter driving 10 or 15 miles to work.
A strong new housing market is assisting BART's transit-village movement. A 135-unit development opened last August near the El Cerrito del Norte station. Initially, the developer wondered who would want to live near rail. The answer: singles, students at nearby UC Berkeley and "empty-nesters." After six months, Del Norte Place is 90% leased.
In Los Angeles, the market for living near transit remains to be demonstrated. Yet the same forces propelling this market in the Bay Area are present in Los Angeles: the high cost of automobile insurance, the difficulty of building housing elsewhere and, most of all, the traffic--gridlock, gridlock, gridlock.
Living near a station, using rail transit for commuting and some recreational purposes (while keeping a car for use from time to time) is likely to be an increasingly attractive alternative in 1990s Los Angeles as it already is in the San Francisco area.