ULI Orange County/Inland Empire What’s New?

ULI TOD Tour: what Orange County can learn from Los Angeles   

On January 27th, I was fortunate enough to attend this year’s 4th Annual Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) tour organized by ULI OC/IE. Over 35 real estate professionals attended the tour and visited three projects in the Culver City TOD District and The Bloc redevelopment in Downtown Los Angeles.

Participants rode the Metrolink from Tustin Station to Union Station, where Nick Saponara from Metro’s Joint Development Program explained how Measure M, approved by 70% of Los Angeles County voters in November, is going to provide billions of additional long-term funds to finance the expansion of L.A.’s blossoming rail transit system as well as improvements to buses, highways, and roads. We then hopped onto the Red Line subway to Downtown’s 7th Street/Metro Center Station, where we transferred to the Expo Line light rail to Culver City.

Across the street from Culver City Station is The Platform, a mixed-use project built at the location of a former auto dealership. Developer Joey Miller with Runyon Group gave a thorough tour of the recently opened 3-4-story retail-and-restaurant (50,000 s.f.) and office (80,000 s.f.) development. The retail is upscale, which is surprisingly rare for a TOD, and Mr. Miller innovatively uses some of his interior spaces to incubate retailers before they move to outward-facing spaces. The view from the rooftop deck overlooking the nearby train station with the mountains in the distance was impressive on this clear day.

Next-door is Access Culver City, a rental apartment development by Greystar that also opened recently. Developer Perry Pound and his on-site community manager, Ishma Ali, showed the high-end project, which features rents that well exceed $4.00/s.f. on some units (impressive for Culver City). The development is rare among multifamily projects due to the large quantity (30,000 s.f.) of ground-floor retail space that was built underneath the units. Leasing of the retail is going well and will include a market.

From Access, the group crossed the street to see the adaptive reuse of the historic (1931) Helms Bakery District buildings with Angela Anthony of the developer, Walter N. Marks Realty. We saw a new bookstore, Arcana Books, which sells art-, design-, and architecture-related titles. Behind Arcana sits the Auto Parkit automated parking structure, the largest in Los Angeles, and Angela gave a preview demonstration of how a vehicle is taken away by the mechanized five-story building, which is scheduled to open to the public on March 10. The free-access structure will allow the expansion of parking-intensive restaurant space within the District.

We also got to pass through several of the home furnishing showrooms at Helms including Kohler and the cavernous HD Buttercup and Room & Board, all of which made great use of the industrial but attractive former bakery spaces. A large garage area that originally housed the iconic Helms Bakery delivery trucks showcased the original bow truss roof construction. The sprawling two-block Helms District comprises 200,000 s.f. of retail space, 15,000 s.f. of space for the trade, and 24,000 s.f. of restaurants.

At lunch in a nearby community event space, we received a presentation of the history of Culver City’s TOD District by Sol Blumenfeld of the City of Culver City followed by a presentation of Ivy Station, a large-scale mixed-use project, by Tom Wulf of Lowe Enterprises. Featuring 55,000 s.f. of retail and restaurants, a 200,000 s.f. office building, 200 apartments, and a 148-room boutique hotel, plus 1,500 parking spaces including 300 dedicated for transit use by Metro, the LEED-ND project will break ground in a few weeks.

The final stop was The Bloc, a thorough repositioning of the former Broadway Plaza/Macy’s Plaza in Downtown Los Angeles. Redeveloped by The Ratkovich Company, Milan Ratkovich and architect Marcus Luciani at Studio 111 led the presentation and tour of this massive, 1.8 million s.f. office, retail, and hotel project. The renovations exceed $400 million and include the removal of the glass roof over the former atrium, the opening-up of multiple retail access points to the surrounding streets, thereby piercing the former fortress-like 1970s structure, and extensive renovations throughout. The project comprises a 750,000 s.f. office tower, 400,000 s.f. of retail and restaurants, and a 485-room Sheraton Grand hotel, plus 1,900 parking spaces. It is located across the street from the 7th Street/Metro Center subway station, and our group had the honor of being the first to use the new, yet-to-open subterranean connection, which is the first direct underground access between a subway station and a private development in L.A.

Special thanks to Matt Shannon with Urbanus Group for his leadership and attention to detail with the planning of this year’s tour (as well as prior years’), and to John Shumway with The Concord Group for their considerable efforts to ensure that the tour went smoothly. The earphones that the attendees wore this year for the first time worked extremely well and allowed everyone to hear the speakers even from 30 feet away.

What is it and why TODs?
Transit-oriented development (TOD) seeks to maximize access to and the efficiency of mass transit and non-motorized transportation with centrally located rail or bus stations surrounded by relatively high-density commercial and residential development – encouraging mixed use and walkable communities. This makes it possible to live without complete dependence on a car for mobility and survival.

In the US and around the world, the interest in TODs is growing – and the concept is also referred to as Smart Growth, New Urbanism, and TOCs (Transit-oriented communities). Growth in traffic congestion changes in family structure (more singles, empty nesters etc.), and the desire for a quality urban and walkable lifestyle living are catalyzing the focus on transportation/development policies that incorporate the above features.

Transit-oriented development is regional planning, city revitalization, suburban renewal, and walkable neighborhoods combined. TODs reduce dependence on driving; allow residents to live, work and play in the same area; provide access to greater mobility; reduce the area’s carbon footprint and negative impact on the environment; stimulate economic competitiveness; increase transit ridership; attract/retain a relatively young work force; increase property values; provide access to better entertainment or recreational services; and revitalize urban areas.

Why does ULI OC/IE organize TOD tours (how many and where)?
Cities in Orange County are being affected by the ever-increasing burden of traffic congestion. The popularity of a private car combined with a lack of a reliable and efficient alternative mode of public transport are worsening the problem. The ULI OC/IE has been organizing annual TODs for the last 3 years to educate and inspire city officials, developers, real estate professionals, and interested stakeholders in the importance of the project type including how rail stations and TODs can catalyze further property investment while providing a much-needed lifestyle option for residents.

The ULI OC/IE District Council’s 2014 research on millennial preferences discovered that there is tremendous interest among this critical workforce segment in expanded transportation options in OC—particularly rail-based mobility. Since then, the District Council has organized tours of eight impressive mixed-use TODs in the Los Angeles and Pasadena area. Last year, the group toured the North Hollywood TOD District and the iconic Hollywood/Highland.

TODs in Los Angeles
Los Angeles has benefited from Metro’s Joint Development Program – whose mission is to develop transit-oriented development on Metro-owned properties in collaboration with qualified developers. Metro is in a unique position to advance community development goals, and to date the agency has completed 18 TOD projects. The newest one, Ivy Station, breaks ground soon in Culver City. These TOD projects are contributing to the reduction of auto use, increasing rail transit ridership by linking Metro’s transportation network with retail, commercial and housing opportunities – while attracting and retaining new riders to the Metro System.

Key Takeaways & Lesson Learned
HNTB’s America THINKS “Transit Oriented Development in America” 2016 survey also confirms ULI OC/IE research finding from 2014. Americans increasingly support transit-oriented development. They value the opportunity to more fully integrate lifestyle with mobility options, and they are rethinking priorities when deciding where to live and how to travel for work and play. Evidence of this trend includes support for changes in land use and zoning regulations in their communities and a willingness to pay more for mortgages or rent to live near transit stations, along with a growing desire to live near transit stations. Walkability is a sought-after amenity as is evidenced by the popularity of WalkScore.com.

As OC evolves naturally from a predominantly suburban county to one with sufficient land values and lifestyle diversity preferences to support the creation of urban, walkable, mixed-use districts in certain locations, the need for TODs will become critical to its growth and prosperity—and even to its relevance to many in the younger demographic segments, which have been migrating out of the county in significant numbers since at least 2000. TODs provide attractive and practical alternatives and a better quality of life to a car-dependent society in the eyes of many Millennials. The latest technologies such as Uber, Lyft, and light rail and streetcars, plus later marriage and the decrease in family size dovetail well with TODs.

Orange County is far behind Los Angeles County and other major U.S. metropolitan areas in the development of rail transit and TODs. Indeed, OC does not have any TODs that are in the same league as LA’s better such projects. Some apartments have been built near the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center, but they are not mixed-use.

Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) should consider the creation of a Joint Development Program, modeled after Metro’s, which focuses on ensuring that land use patterns in the vicinity of current and future rail stations, and potentially some bus stops, are of the higher-density, walkable, mixed-use, urban variety that provides the needed expanded lifestyle options for OC residents.

TODs provide the opportunity to retain the Millennials that are leaving, or have left, or commute to jobs in OC, by building an environment that promotes well-being and provides a good quality of life with less commute time and stress.

afeworki-headshotSalem Afeworki, LEED Green Associate, ENV SP is the Founder and Program Director of Value Sustainability, a leading provider of advisory services in sustainability, climate change and community engagement. She began her career with the United Nations and holds a BA in Communication and MSc in Environmental Management & Auditing from Universidad de Leon, Spain. She has completed multiple leadership and Sustainable Environmental Management programs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), UC Berkeley and Central European University in Hungary. Salem is a ULI young leader member and received the Emergent Leadership Award in Engineering from the ULI Orange County/Inland Empire District Council in 2016. 

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