October 30, 2012 - From the November, 2012 issue

Leinberger and Becker Hail Smart Growth at Rail~Volution Conference

Rail~Volution, a national, bi-partisan conference dedicated to the creation of livable communities with transit, was hosted this October in Los Angeles. TPR presents the following speeches by Chris Leinberger and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, addressing transit-oriented development from the perspectives of a real estate developer and politician, respectively. Leinberger, President of LOCUS, a network of developers and investors advocating for walkable urban development, exposes the economic, social, and environmental repercussions of suburban sprawl, while highlighting the benefits of dense, urban infrastructure. Becker describes successful efforts to establish multi-modal transportation in Salt Lake City.


Chris Leinberger

"Keep in mind that the market catalyst for the great recession was the 40-50-60 percent price collapse of the drivable, suburban-fringe housing market. The walkable, urban housing market just went flat and now it’s rising again. Many times, places that used to be slums 20 to 30 years ago, as compared to the golf-coursed communities out on the fringe. Today, they’ve switched places as far as the sales-value-per-square-foot. Places that you used to avoid are now the highest priced housing and office space in the entire region." -Chris Leinberger

Chris Leinberger: I’m Chris Leinberger with LOCUS. We’re a group of real estate developers doing transit-oriented development and trying to change federal and state policy to make the right thing easy. This is opposed to what it is today, which is, the wrong thing is easy and the right thing is hard. We’re in the middle of a complete structural change of how we build in this country, and the last time we were in a structural change such as this was back in the 1950s. I liken things to about 1958, just as Lucy in I Love Lucy had left Manhattan to move out to the suburbs, encouraging a lot of other folks to move out to the suburbs too. Well, it’s coming back the other way, folks.

We have a long way to go though, because we’re talking about 35 percent of the asset base of the country. It’s the largest asset class in the economy, and we only add 2 percent to the built environment in a good year. So it’s going to take us decades to catch up to the kind of demand that we’re talking about here. I want to talk about five things that I think are the important reasons why we’re sitting here.

One, the consumer market wants it, and we’re not giving the market what it wants. I’m not going to go too much into it because others have discussed this today. The numbers are in; the market wants high-density, walkable, urban development, ideally, transit-served.

Number two is economic. Keep in mind that the market catalyst for the great recession was the 40-50-60 percent price collapse of the drivable, suburban-fringe housing market. The walkable, urban housing market just went flat and now it’s rising again. Many times, places that used to be slums 20 to 30 years ago, as compared to the golf-coursed communities out on the fringe. Today, they’ve switched places as far as the sales-value-per-square-foot. Places that you used to avoid are now the highest priced housing and office space in the entire region.

Number three is fiscal. Local jurisdictions are, we all know, going bankrupt. The underlying reason is that the infrastructure they are responsible for maintaining, much less building, is too expensive. Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Chris Nelson of the University of Utah have done a lot of good work on this—understanding that for driveable, suburban infrastructure, all 15 categories of infrastructure cost anywhere from 10 to 20 times more as far as the supportable-square-footage than walkable, urban infrastructure. It’s very simple: a sewer line costs X amount of money, whether you use it at one housing-unit-per-acre or whether you use it at forty housing-units-per-acre. That fixed cost is spread over many more units, and that’s why it’s so much more efficient to build walkable urban places.

Number four is social. We’ve been building this country by ‘growing towards the favored quarter’; the favored, 90-degree arc coming out of downtown.  If you know three things about any metropolitan area in this country, you can figure out how it’s grown in the late 20th century. Number one, where is the white, upper-middle income housing concentration? They always concentrate. Number two, where is the local, minority housing concentration? It tends to be on the other side of town. Number three, where are the freeways? If you know that, you know the favored quarter, the 90-degree arc coming out of downtown and going toward the white, upper-middle income housing concentration, just continues to grow further and further out. If you live on the wrong side of town, you can’t get to new jobs from there.

The fifth reason, and this is probably most important to me, is the environment. The built environment is responsible for over 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—about 40 percent based upon our buildings and 30 percent based upon the cars that we use to get between them. Now we also know, just very recently, that if you move somebody from a driveable, suburban location to a walkable, urban location, you’re going to cut their household greenhouse gas emissions by 50-75 percent. That just mathematically makes it the primary way we’re going to address climate change. It’s something that I’ve referred to as demand mitigation. All the discussion back in Washington over the last few years—in fact you may remember two or three years ago it was actually legal to talk about climate change, it isn’t now—all the discussion was about supply-side efficiency. The number one way we are going to address climate change is through demand mitigation.

So, to wrap up talking about how we do this, as a developer, I care about how to get these things built. We now have a much better sense of how to do this, and again, keep in mind, we’re in 1958 as far as structure. We’re just learning this stuff, but there are three things that are crucial to moving forward.

First is the intention to fundamentally change how we build our metropolitan region. It’s only about 10 percent of the current land use that is going to be densified, is going to be more intensely used. The other 90 percent, that which is driveable, suburban land, isn’t going to change much at all. About 1 percent of that total land-use is where we are going to create our wealth. It’s known as Regionally Significant Walkable Urban Places. The other 8-9 percent will be local serving places, basically bedroom communities that are walkable and hopefully transit-served.

Number two, what we’ve been seeing, particularly in Washington DC out in the suburbs, is NIMBY opposition turned into YIMBY support…Yes, In My BackYard. We’ve seen it around Tysons Corner, Virginia and around White Flint, Maryland. I’ve not seen it any place else. When folks see examples of great urbanism, they say, “I want that in my backyard; I don’t want eight to ten lanes of traffic and god-ugly strip retail in my backyard. I’d like to triple the density and put in transit to turn White Flint into a great, walkable, urban place, sort of like Bethesda.” Because they’ve seen Bethesda, which is a great walkable urban place, and they want that kind of development in their backyard.

Finally, something that I’ve not heard much discussion about is place-management, which is crucial…it’s a whole new industry. When I teach my graduate students about looking at different job opportunities, place-management is a huge new sector. These regionally significant, walkable, urban places all have to be managed, generally by business improvement districts.

So it’s a very exciting time, and we’re still learning how to do it. But boy have we come a long way, though we still have much more to go. Thank you.

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Mayor Ralph Becker: I’m going to give a very different perspective than what you’ve heard. In the political world we deal with different dynamics, and I’m going to talk a bit about the role of politics in providing a vision and keeping that in front of folks. I’m going to talk about communication and how important that is, and the challenges of implementation. I’m also going to talk a little about some of the details that lead to success, again, from a political, elected-official perspective, which is quite different than the technical perspective.

When I first ran for office six years ago, I was both running for office to be successful in the campaign, and also trying to prepare myself to be the mayor. In doing that—in part because of my policy and planning background—I laid out a very detailed agenda. In fact, when we started putting up ads, they started calling me Blueprint Man. It gave us an enormous benefit that I think few politicians realize—we had a very clear agenda when we came into office that I was confident reflected the overall views and objectives of the community. It also was particularly helpful because in this job, we are continually overwhelmed by the daily activities that are thrown at us, and if we don’t have some kind of a vision and specific direction, our aims will never be achieved.

In my second year, we kind of repeated that. I had the benefits of a few years experience on the job, and we pulled everyone in the community together to help shape that vision, which we titled the ‘livability agenda’. It covers a wide range of topics, and we are moving pretty quickly through it, so it has served us well. It includes economic challenges we face, and how we can be resilient. It focuses much more on locally-driven business enterprises; it focuses on our environmental and sustainability initiatives, and energy; it focuses on education—not normally an area that the mayor gets involved in—although it’s increasingly true; it focuses on social justice and opportunities for everybody; and our artistic and cultural life centered around our downtown cultural core.

One of those six principles we called Salt Lake City in Motion. In Salt Lake, we’ve had a remarkable success story in transit. I’d like to say—and you can correct me if I’m wrong—that we’ve had the largest urban rail effort in the country. We have been doing what Mayor Villaraigosa of LA talked about, but fortunately, we do not have his challenges. We now have a commuter rail line going north 50 miles; we have a commuter rail line opening up in December going south 50 miles. We have the advantage of having mountains on one side and lakes and mountains on the other side that create an appropriate rail corridor for our geography. We are opening a new rail project every quarter, including an airport line from Downtown that will be opening in the spring. By the end of next year, we have a return to what was once over 140 miles of streetcar in Salt Lake City with a streetcar opening.

Certainly, our transportation mobility systems need to be multi-modal. Our streetcar line under construction is truly multi-modal. It’s a streetcar in an old railroad corridor and includes greenway and a tremendous amount of development that has turned its back on this corridor for many decades. It will include a critical linkage for us, connecting the trail system we have around the foothills of our valley to the Jordan River with a bike and pedestrian corridor.

This demonstrates the importance, again, of vision. Last year we asked if the people of Salt Lake City would support a tax increase to build out a streetcar system again. They voted two to one in favor. People are excited about the streetcar coming back, and certainly having multi-modal infrastructure means having bikes everywhere. I came into office just as the recession was hitting hardest. In our first budget, two months into my term, we doubled our investment in bikeways. We have been continuing to increase that. Over a one-year period we increased bike use by 27 percent.

The second point I want to talk about really relates to communication, and I can tell you this is a major challenge for elected officials and any one else working in this area. Everybody loves bike lanes; everybody loves streetcars. But implementing them is almost the flipside of that. Every project we undertake on any street, people say, “Don’t do it!” It may not be the majority, but it is certainly a vocal reaction when we make changes in our streets. “Don’t reduce our lanes, it’s going to increase congestion; don’t add bike lanes, we don’t want to see those bikers in front of our homes.” It is a real challenge to overcome that, and I view it as a political test for us at the local level.

We try to keep the larger vision in front of people, making sure we have good public involvement, making sure we are listening to people and adapting as we are transforming these streets. We don’t sacrifice the whole principle of complete streets, and this enables us to go forward in a way that doesn’t surmount a critical mass of opposition to the changes we’re making. We’ve done that over and over again since I’ve been in office. Another side benefit of that communication—with the Sugar House Streetcar Line, a large group has now formed to support the streetcar system and push back against those who have been resisting. We’re also seeing, since the announcement last October and groundbreaking this spring, over $450 million of investment around that streetcar line in Salt Lake. We share it with South Salt Lake, and they are doing something similar.

We’re also experimenting with a lot of bikeways, and we’re measuring responses. At the wide streets that we have in Salt Lake, we see this as an opportunity to very quickly have segregated bike paths, and people are welcoming that. Along North Temple, we have redone an arterial coming into Salt Lake (that has been really neglected over quite a period of time) with a complete street effort. This is where our airport light rail line is situated. We power the station with solar energy thanks to the Grand Power Company. We have vehicular traffic, but we also have on-street bike lanes. We have a shared 10-foot-wide path on the street, and we have completely redone the zoning along this transit corridor, and are following up now with a transit line. Over time we can really provide that mix of uses for our residents, many of who are ahead of us in terms of driving towards the community vision that we want.  

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