Nearly two decades ago, when he was a Meriden city councilman, Mike Rohde went to a program at Yale on transit-oriented development, or TOD, the notion of building homes and businesses around transit stops.
There he heard officials from shoreline towns talk about the importance of housing near their railroad stations, something that “was not on the radar screen” at home because nearly everyone in the central Connecticut corridor commuted by car, he recalled in a recent interview.
He also learned that Meriden would be an ideal site for TOD.
Rohde would go on to become mayor of the Silver City from 2008 to 2013, and help usher in one of the most ambitious TOD projects in the state. And Meriden is not alone.
Dozens of communities — Windsor, Windsor Locks, Wallingford, Branford, Stamford, Norwalk, New Britain, Westport and others — have TOD studies or projects underway.
Officials hope the trend toward TOD will lessen traffic congestion, reduce pollution and create dense and lively town centers that can attract bright young workers, the ones the General Electrics and Aetnas say they want.
“Transit-oriented development is key to our state’s economic future,” said Garrett Eucalitto, under-secretary for transportation, conservation and development at the state’s Office of Policy and Management.
But this being Connecticut, where land use decisions are made locally, in each of the state’s 169 cities and towns, progress on TOD is moving unevenly. Some towns embrace it; some don’t.
The idea of settlement around transportation nodes is hardly new; much of civilization grew around ports and inland trade routes. In this country, the first wave of suburbanization was along streetcar lines out of older cities. Hartford at peak had 150 miles of trolley lines to its “streetcar suburbs.”
The coming of the automobile radically changed this semi-orderly growth pattern, especially in the years after World War II. With jobs, cars and VA mortgages, families — well, mostly white families — could live anywhere, and millions did, leaving cities and moving to new housing tracts in the suburbs. Most lived happily ever after.
But by the 1990s or thereabouts came a belated realization of a downside to the age of suburban sprawl. Acre after acre of subdivisions and strip malls promoted driving and thus fuel consumption and pollution; diminished open lands; demanded more infrastructure; increased the cost of services; isolated the poor and elderly; and limited housing variety.
Also, times and tastes were changing. Families got smaller. Many Millennials prefered renting apartments in (interesting and active) cities and using transit, rather than buying homes in the suburbs and driving to them. Retiring Boomers looking to downsize wanted walkable communities. Planners such as Peter Calthorpe began to popularize the idea of mixed-use development around transit stops.
The idea has been embraced in cities across the country: Minneapolis, Chicago, Charlotte, Washington, D.C., and many smaller communities, such as Canton and Concord, Mass. New Jersey has nearly three dozen “transit villages,” communities that have committed to redeveloping the areas around their transit hubs into compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. Towns that qualify for the program, begun in 1999 under Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to combat sprawl, are eligible for technical assistance and funding from the state.
There is no fixed template for TOD; each project is different. Some are new developments around transit stops; some infill and upgrade existing infrastructure. According to a National League of Cities white paper on TOD issued in March and other sources, successful projects are characterized by:
- A mix of uses, usually with a strong residential component, with moderate to high density.
- Pedestrian orientation and connectivity among the residences, businesses and transit stops.
- Transportation choices and reduced parking.
- High-quality design.
The rule of thumb, according to the league, is that TOD occurs within a quarter-mile of a transit stop, a five- to seven-minute walk. Other authorities expand the development zone to a half-mile from the station.
The benefits of TOD development, according to several studies (see, for example, this), include:
- Reduction in traffic congestion and pollution, which, combined with more walking, aids public health. Forty percent of Connecticut’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector, according to state figures.
- Less transportation expense for residents, creating more disposable income for the local economy.
- Less public expense, after the initial investments, because compact development generally has fewer infrastructure demands than sprawl development.
- The creation of active communities that can, over time, attract new businesses and other amenities. In towns top-heavy with single-family housing, TOD can change the mix and offer housing for teachers, public safety officers and other workers.
For decades, as Mike Rohde learned, the only transit-oriented development worth mentioning in Connecticut was along what is now the Metro North New Haven Line, which carried a record 40.4 million passengers in 2016. Stamford took particular advantage of its rail connection to New York City, garnering corporate headquarters and major residential developments near its train station.
There wasn’t much TOD in the rest of the state because there wasn’t much T. That began to change with the coming of Shore Line East rail service from New London to New Haven; CTfastrak, the bus rapid transit link from New Britain to Hartford; and the New Haven–Hartford–Springfield commuter rail service, scheduled to begin in May, state officials just announced.
Using a variety of funding sources, a few towns began studying development around their stations. The state hadn’t been deeply involved in TOD, but that changed with the election of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2010 and his appointment of James Redeker as commissioner of the state Department of Transportation.
As mayor of Stamford from 1995 to 2009, Malloy pushed for better rail transit and transit-oriented development to improve the city’s economy and counter the mind-numbing traffic congestion on I-95. As governor he planned to make a major investment in transportation, and wanted TOD as part of the mix.
Redeker got the picture.
For decades the DOT was mostly run by highway engineers, who mostly built highways. That was fine as far as it went, but the transit systems languished. Redeker, an engineer and a transit guy, had spent three decades at New Jersey Transit and the New Jersey Department of Transportation and worked on the transit village initiative.
He came in 2008 as head of the DOT’s bureau of public transportation and was named commissioner by Malloy in 2011. Almost immediately he directed Tom Maziarz, head of the DOT’s bureau of policy and planning, to begin crafting a TOD program.
Over the winter of 2011-2012, at the urging of Malloy and Redeker, five state agencies — DOT, the Office of Policy and Management, and the departments of Energy and Environmental Protection, Housing, and Economic and Community Development — formed a TOD working group. State agencies did not have a deep history of working together; the point of this one was to, indeed, join forces on funding, permitting and other issues to get TOD projects moving.
What they needed was a project. One presented itself, midway between Hartford and New Haven.
Meriden (finally) rising
Downtown Meriden had been stuck in the mud, figuratively and often literally, for a long time. The center of town is in a bowl-like depression, through which flows a large brook, called Harbor Brook, fed by two smaller brooks. Since the mid-19th century, it had flooded during bad storms.
Floods caused countless millions of dollars worth of damage to the silver-plating factories that once stood in the town center and to the shopping mall that replaced some of the factories in an area that was perhaps over-optimistically called The Hub. Flood control efforts had failed; the most recent had Harbor Brook buried in a culvert that was too small. The result was a soggy brownfield, an embarrassing eyesore.
In the late 1990s Rohde and other officials realized they weren’t going anywhere until they solved the flooding problem. Commissions were formed, studies begun.
In 2007 the city and its consultants produced a remarkable plan. They would take down the decrepit buildings in the 14.4-acre Hub site, exhume the brook, remediate the damaged soil and create a park in the center of town, a park in the shape of a bowl that would become a holding pond should a bad storm hit, so the rest of downtown would not flood.
The state’s TOD working group heard about the flood control project, realized with commuter rail coming through on the New Haven–Hartford line it could also be a TOD site, and embraced it.
The city and state forged what all say was a very effective partnership and got the many pieces — permits, bridge and culvert widenings, grants, etc. — to fall into place.
“We had already started, and they saw we had a good vision,” said Meriden public works director Bob Bass. “They (state agencies) wanted to help Meriden and learn what they could to help other cities. We all had a common goal.”
The park, named Meriden Green, opened a year ago. It is lovely, has won several design awards and feels like it’s always been there. One can stop on the artful pedestrian bridge over the brook and watch ducks swim by.
And, with the new transit station almost ready to open, there are several TOD developments going up around the park, in easy walking distance to the new station. One mixed-use building with 64 apartments has been finished, as has a new parking garage, and hundreds more units of housing are in the pipeline. Road improvements and a bike/pedestrian trail are coming, and a decrepit housing project is being taken down.
“In eight years you won’t recognize downtown Meriden,” said former city planner Dominick Caruso.
The state working group did learn how to help other towns. They have awarded more than $20 million in grants in two rounds of funding since 2011 for TOD and smart-growth projects, typically helping towns not served by transit strengthen their downtown areas. The deadline for a third round of funding was in early July, and 44 communities applied, mostly for TOD projects.
Some of the TOD projects already in the works include:
- The former Montgomery Mill, once a textile mill located on a strip of land across the Windsor Locks Canal from the center of Windsor Locks, is being renovated into 160 apartments. Amtrak had moved its stop out of downtown decades ago, but a new station is being brought back to the town center, so residents of the new apartments can commute to Hartford or Springfield when the service begins next year. First Selectman J. Christopher Kervick said he expects the project to close in the fall: “It’s a go.” He said the project is already generating interest from business owners and new residents. “It’s really generated a positive vibe,” he said, a sense of momentum the town hasn’t felt in a long time.
- A 186-unit development adjoining the Old Saybrook train station has just opened. The project is called “Post and Main” — it is located near the juncture of Boston Post Road and Main Street — and affords residents Amtrak and Shore Line East service east or west and bus service to the north, as well as walks to restaurants and other businesses. Town planner Christine Nelson said the town is widening sidewalks and tidying the streetscape to make the walk more inviting.
- New Britain is making a major push for TOD around its downtown CTfastrak stop, with longer-term plans to develop transit villages around its two other stops. Mayor Erin Stewart said the city started early, did a TOD plan, changed zoning around the stations, applied for grants and invested its own money. Now there are four major projects coming in downtown, including Columbus Commons, a 160-unit apartment complex on the site of the former police station. Also, Stewart said the city has been approached by a developer interested in building housing near the East Street station, which serves Central Connecticut State University. “It goes to show there is excitement,” she said.
Meriden public works director Bass called his city’s TOD project a “giant jigsaw puzzle,” and indeed there are many pieces or aspects that officials have to think about in executing a TOD project, including:
- The transit service has to be good. For example, there’s been no TOD along the Metro-North Waterbury branch line because it is a single-track line without the signals or sidings to allow more than one train at a time, like something out of the late 19th century. But the state is investing $72 million in a new signaling system and passing sidings that will allow improved service. At least two towns along the line, Ansonia and Derby, are exploring TOD development.
- The assembly of building sites can be a challenge; some stations are in the center of older cities surrounded by small lots with different owners. Some owners have unrealistic expectations. New Britain Mayor Stewart said she has a couple of owners who think they’ve hit the jackpot and are holding empty buildings hoping for a big payout. “It doesn’t work that way,” she said, adding that she is looking around the country to see if there’s some kind of tax or penalty that might bring the owners to the table.
- Towns have to get the zoning right. Most communities that embrace TOD create overlay zones around stations to encourage mixed-use development. West Hartford was slow to do this, and got a Cumberland Farms gas station right across the street from its Flatbush Avenue CTfastrak stop. “Cue the sad trombone,” said real estate blogger Kyle Bergquist. A gas station is antithetical to TOD. However, the town is getting a 54-unit apartment complex adjacent to its other CTfastrak stop, at New Park Avenue and Kane Street, and plans improvements to the area to draw more development, said planner Todd Dumais.
- TOD should be built for people who will use transit. This point was made by Massachusetts Transportation Commissioner Stephanie Pollock in a talk in Hartford a couple of years ago. She observed that building housing near transit for people who drive to everything rather misses the point.
- Towns must get the parking right. A railroad station surrounded by acres of surface parking is not transit-oriented development, or any other kind of development: “A parking lot is a development opportunity,” said Francisco Gomes, a senior project engineer with Fitzgerald & Halliday who has worked on TOD studies in several communities in the Northeast. Yet, many transit riders need places to park their cars. So towns either need to build garages — “structured parking” — or manage the parking so it doesn’t stifle development. Some communities are talking about using Uber or similar services — or bike sharing — to get commuters the “last mile” to the station. Many towns also must adjust (often outdated) parking requirements for apartments built near transit — the idea being that residents who use transit won’t need as many cars.
There also are obstacles distinctive to Connecticut. The state’s sluggish economy is keeping some developers on the sidelines. There is a market, though not a robust one, for apartments, but some towns aren’t interested in apartments, said Gomes.
And, because land use decisions are made locally, that ends the discussion. The state can offer incentives, but cannot make towns build transit-oriented development.
This can create a challenge to regional corridor development. For example, while New Britain has enthusiastically pursued TOD, neighboring Newington has pretty much passed on it. The state doesn’t have major regional transit agencies, such as Boston’s MBTA, that could initiate and pay for TOD projects.
In 2015 Malloy proposed the creation of the Connecticut Transit Corridor Development Authority, an 11-member body that would work with towns and regional planners to spur development in the transportation corridors.
But the first iteration of the bill gave the agency powers of eminent domain. This caused an uproar. Officials said this was simply a restatement of power the DOT already had, and took the language out of the bill to make town participation voluntary, but the genie was out of the bottle.
Critics and conspiracy theorists screamed about state and federal takeover of local authority. They invoked the fiasco in New London’s Fort Trumbull neighborhood a decade earlier, when some people were forced from their homes for a project that was never built. The bill was defeated.
Finally, in many states, cities and counties pay some of the cost of the transit service, so they have an incentive to get their money back by driving tax-paying development around transit stations. Here the state pays for the transit, so that particular incentive is missing.
Nonetheless, an increasing number of town leaders see the economic and environmental advantages of TOD and are pushing ahead with projects. In a state looking for successes, this could be one. “We’re getting good stuff,” said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments.