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TOD Opportunities

San Francisco ranks at the top in walkable urbanism on countless surveys. In the Brookings' survey I released in December of 2007 (Footloose and Fancy Free; A Field Survey of Walkable Urban Places in the Top 30 US Metropolitan Areas,, it ranked #3. In the recently released version 2.0 of Walk Score (, the city of San Francisco (as opposed to the metropolitan area I ranked) ranked #1. Yet take a ride on the CalTrans commuter train from downtown San Francisco south through the mid-peninsula and pay attention to the development around the many stations...or should I say lack of development. Yes, 19th century suburban towns like Menlo Park and Palo Alto have impressive development around the stations but most are vastly under-developed and in some cases, entirely undeveloped, surrounded by dirt, not even park and ride lots.   Start by looking at the existing rail passenger stations you have in your metropolitan area; Amtrak, commuter, heavy or light and trolley/streetcar. A landmark study by the Center for Transit-oriented Development (CTOD) in 2004, "Hidden in Plain Site; Capturing the demand for Housing Near Transit", is the place to start (go to for the study and a recent update). I actually find the study conservative in its demand projections of how much housing, as well as commercial development, will also concentrate at TOD locations.  Then, determine which of the nearby rail transit locations have an overlay zoning district that makes it legal to do high density, mixed-use development. If the zoning does not exist, you have to be prepared to get the local jurisdiction to put one in place, working with local property owners, the business community and smart growth advocates. Finally, having a Main Street program or, better yet, a business improvement district (BID) in place is crucial to the success of the redevelopment of the TOD district.   Then, draw a radius 1500 to 3000 from the rail station and begin to look for opportunities to control land for future redevelopment. The timing of when you put the land under control is crucial. There is a classical "risk/return" relationship in the timing equation. Putting it under control before the zoning and the management infrastructure is in place means you will probably get it at the most favorable price and terms. But then again, you may fail in getting the zoning and management in place. Putting it under control after the zoning and management is in place generally means the property owner has "visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads" regarding the price.  It is important to note that there probably is or will be a "right-side" and a "wrong-side" of the tracks, the creation of a developable and not-so-developable side of the tracks. However, if the station is underground like some subways stations are, there tends to be no distinction and development can go in a 360 degree radius. The tracks themselves will be a barrier, much as a freeway is a barrier, to pedestrian movement and development potential. This is a major reason why, given the will and foresight, stations and tracks in a TOD should be underground if at all possible; it increases the development and tax revenue potential literally by a factor of two, which will pay for putting it under ground.   Many more opportunities exist than rail stations. Many metro areas do not have rail transit which will be the great infrastructure challenge this country faces. However, if your metro area has rail transit this is where to focus your development efforts over the next generation.  It will be the most sustainable from an environmental, fiscal and financial perspective. ---------- Christopher B. Leinberger is a land use strategist, developer, teacher, consultant and author, helping to make progressive development profitable. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream from Island Press.