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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Mythical Benefits of Transit Oriented Development

Page 1
The Mythical World of
Development Steele Park in Washington
County, Oregon
by Michael L.Barton, Ph.D.
September 2003
Page 2
About the Author
Michael L. Barton, Ph.D., is an academic advisor with Cascade Policy Institute.
The author would like to thank Mark Ferris, Jamie Voytko and Kurt T. Weber for review-
ing the manuscript, and John A. Charles for research assistance and editorial comments.
Any errors remain the responsibility of the author.
About Cascade Policy Institute
Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s premier policy research center.
Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster indi-
vidual liberty, personal responsibility and economic opportunity. To that end the Insti-
tute publishes policy studies,provides public speakers,organizes community forums and
sponsors educational programs. Focusing on state and local issues, Cascade offers prac-
tical, innovative solutions for policy makers, the media and concerned citizens.
Cascade Policy Institute is a tax-exempt educational organization as defined under IRS
code 501(c)(3). Cascade neither solicits nor accepts government funding, and is sup-
ported by individual, foundation, and corporate contributions. Nothing appearing in
this document is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of Cascade or its
donors, or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before any legislative
body. The views expressed herein are the author’s own.
Copyright © 2003 by Cascade Policy Institute. All rights reserved.
Page 3
About the Author................................................................................................ii
Acknowledgments ..............................................................................................ii
About Cascade Policy Institute ..........................................................................ii
Introduction........................................................................................................ 1
Steele Park: TriMet’s First Single Family TOD.................................................. 1
Cars, Parking and Light Rail .............................................................................. 2
Density and Fire Safety Concerns ..................................................................... 4
Public Subsidies and the Wall ............................................................................ 5
The Planners’ Dream of Density Dissipates...................................................... 6
Steele Park and its Neighbors ............................................................................ 6
Conclusion.......................................................................................................... 7
Notes.................................................................................................................... 8
Page 4
Page 5
During the past decade, Portland-area plan-
ners haveembraced Transit-Oriented Devel-
opment (TOD) as the region’sdominant land
use/transportation strategy. They assert that
TOD, especially based on light rail, will re-
duce traffic congestion, increase transit use,
and make neighborhoods more livable.
Transit-oriented development is generally
defined as compact,mixed-use development
that concentrates retail, housing and jobs in
neighborhoods well-served by public tran-
sit. TOD has become so important to local
planners that it is now the primary justifica-
tionfor expansion of Portland’s light rail sys-
tem. Rail advocates concede that light rail is
not worth the cost if it is built only as a tran-
sit system.
Dozens of TODs have been constructed in
the Portland region since 1990, with several
winning national acclaim.Most havereceived
public subsidies, on the assumption that the
public benefits of TOD outweigh the costs.
However, little is known about how transit-
oriented projects actually perform in terms
of transit use and any correlated reduction
in auto dependency. The purpose of this pa-
per—the second in a series of CascadePolicy
Institute TOD case studies—is to help fill in
that gap.
Steele Park:TriMet’s First
Single Family TOD
Most Transit-Oriented Developments feature
mid-rise or high-rise apartments, lofts or
condominiums, built at 30 units per acre or
more. Portland-area government planners
envisioned Steele Park to be the showcase
project demonstrating that Transit-Oriented
Development (TOD) could also work with
detached,single family homes.The first phase
was built in 1996, two years before the
Westside light rail line opened. Developers
Steve Prince and Carl Spitznagle originally
planned a 44-lot subdivision on a 9.1-acre
parcel, located in unincorporated Washing-
ton County just north of the intersection of
Baseline Road and 170
SW Avenue. At its
nearest point the sitelies 1,300 feetfrom what
is now Elmonica Station of the light rail line.
Because of its proximity to light rail, county
planners approached Prince and Spitznagle
with an offer to help transform the planned
development into one deemed more transit
County planners wanted much higher den-
sity for the project and offered several incen-
tives for the developers to change their
concept. Calthorpe Associates—a nationally
prominent design firm specializing in
TOD—was brought in to develop a revised
site plan, draft a “context”plan to assess how
this higher-density development might fit in
with its neighbors, analyze the salability of
the homes in existing markets, and develop
design guidelines for the proposed housing
types and street sections.
The county paid
$15,000 for these services.
The county offered to obtain a federal Con-
gestion Mitigation and Air Quality – Transit
Oriented Developments (CMAQ-TOD)
grant for $300,000 to build a wall buffering
the development from adjacent streets (see
Figures 1 and 5). Help was also offered with
the permits for wetlands mitigation.
The result was a new plan for 74 individual
homes and 18 units in a multi-family develop-
ment on an adjacent lot of 0.6 acre. The 74
homes were built, but the 0.6-acre lot remains
a field of grass and weeds (see Figure 1).
Steele Park homes are on small lots and built
close to the sidewalk.They all havesmall front
government plan-
ners envisioned
Steele Park to be
the showcase
project demon-
strating that
(TOD) could also
work with de-
tached, single
family homes.
Page 6
porches,a standard facet of the so-called New
Urbanism philosophy that attempts to pro-
mote “community” by moving the private
realm of the individual home closer to the
public streetscape.
The planning process took between one
and a half and two years versus the usual
six months for a standard suburban sub-
division. In ordinary circumstances this
delay could have been fatal, but because it
came during a period of rapid increases in
property values, the cost of delay was com-
pensated for by the increased profits on the
sale of the units. Prince described the pro-
cess of getting approval as “slow, but the
people at the county were amenable, very
good people.”
Cars, Parking and Light Rail
Steele Park was planned to discourage car
ownership and use.The roads are narrow and
parking is scarce. Public parking is only al-
lowed on one side of each street in the devel-
opment.The plan tried toencourage one-car
families, an idea Prince said was “very unre-
For personal investment reasons on the part
of the two developers, half of the two- and
three-bedroom units wereoriginally sold for
ownership and the other half marketed as
rentals.HomeownersI spoke with and Karen
Smith, the agent for the units initially desig-
nated as rentals, agreed that at least half of
the units originally sold are now occupied by
renters. Steele Park is thus mainly a rental
development and this makes meeting other
goals, e.g. limiting car use, more difficult,
because renters tend to bring in additional
roommates to split rent payments and each
tenant usually has a car.
The rental agreements limit cars to two for
the two-bedroom and three for the three-
bedroom units. This limit is much higher
than the original goal of one-car per unit and
Smith admits this limit is not met nor en-
forced. The rental units are often occupied
by more than one family, which further ex-
acerbates the parking problem. In fact
homeowners and Smith agree that a kind of
war is being waged in Steele Park between
the renters and homeowners. The issues in
dispute, such as parking and home mainte-
nance, are probably common to develop-
ments shared by those with differing
incentives to maintain the properties, but
everyone agrees that the problems are aggra-
vated by the limited parking and close prox-
imity of neighbors.
In much of the literature regarding Transit-
OrientedDevelopment thereis an explicit or
implicit expectation that people will change
their behavior to conform to the worldview
of planners. The notion, simply put, is that
by providing access to transit,forcing reduc-
tions in living space and restricting parking,
planners will “get people out of their cars.”
Leaving aside the question of whether it
should be the business of government plan-
ners to work against the free choices of resi-
Figure 1 - Washington County planners haven’t
gotten the density they planned for in Steele Park
because the highest density section, the 18-unit
multi-family development on a 0.6-acre lot (above
right), was never built. That lot has been sold and is
no longer part of Steele Park, which is seen in the
In much of the lit-
erature regarding
there is an explicit
or implicit expec-
tation that people
will change their
behavior to con-
form to the
worldview of
Page 7
dents,it is clear that the effort has proven in-
effective in Steele Park. Because of the
crowded conditions,people respond bypark-
ing in their neighbors’ spots, in no-parking
areas and on the streets of adjacent commu-
nities where developers were allowed to pro-
vide adequate road space.
Portland advocates of TOD go to great
lengths to deny or understate this reality.For
instance,in its flyer Density in Your Backyard,
the planning advocacy group 1000 Friends
of Oregon argues that:
Transit-oriented developments
throughout the region also supply a
mix of transit service, higher density
housing, and neighborhood services.
Such development offsets increases in
automobile trips per household be-
cause people can walk, bicycle or ride
the bus to a park or grocery store.
Figure 2 shows a view ofSteele Park takenfrom
this flyer.Itshows fivetidyhomes lined up close
together on small lots, and a total of one car.
This projects the desiredimage of Transit-Ori-
ented Development: people will not need cars
when transit options are provided. A nearly
identical photo appears in TriMet’s profile of
Steele Park in the agency’s 1999 edition of The
Community Building Sourcebook.
The reality of TODs is shown in Figures 3
and 4, both were taken on an average after-
noon. The residents of Steele Park are typi-
cal suburban renters and homeowners who
need and enjoy their automobiles. Because
they lack adequate parking they leave their
cars in any open spot, legal or not.
I did a traffic survey on Wednesday morn-
ing, April 17,2002 for two hours starting at
6:25 a.m. The weather was partly overcast
with no rain and a temperature in the mid-
40s.I was positioned toobserveall trips leav-
ing Steele Park from the main exit on 170
SW Avenue just north of Baseline Road and
from the main pedestrian exit at the corner
of 170
and Baseline. Of the 73 trips out of
the 74-unit subdivision 11 went to the Max
light rail station. There were seven pedestri-
ans of whom four went to Max,one bicyclist
going elsewhere, and two of 14 multi-occu-
pant cars and five of 51 single-occupant cars
went to Max. Table 1 below summarizes the
A total of 92 people left Steele Park in these
73 trips and four of them walked totake light
Figure 2 - The Promise: Steele Park homes as shown
in the 1000 Friends of Oregon brochure, Density in
Your Backyard. (Photo courtesy of 1000 Friends of
Figure 3 - The Reality: A goal of government planners
was for Steele Park residents to be one-car families.
The above photo, taken on a typical afternoon—with
cars parked in driveways and in the street—shows
that there is often a big difference between what
people want and the ideas government planners
want to impose on them.
The residents of
Steele Park are
typical suburban
renters and
homeowners who
need and enjoy
their automobiles.
Because they lack
adequate parking
they leave their
cars in any open
spot, legal or not.
Page 8
rail. These data may understate the number
of people not going to Max because there is a
backway out of the subdivision,which heads
east, away from the Elmonica Station.
Density and Fire Safety
Nationallyrecognized fire codes call for 20 feet
of“clear road access”within 50 yards ofa build-
ing. The roads in Steele Park are 24 feet wide
with parking allowed on one side.Thus,when
cars are parked in the street, there is less than
20 feet ofclear roadaccess.JeffGrunewald,Fire
Marshall for Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue,
agreed to the narrow streets with parking lim-
its but sayspolice rarelyenforce the parking lim-
Grunewald subsequently worked on a
project for reducing streetwidths leading to is-
suance ofthe NeighborhoodStreetDesign Guide-
lines by the Oregon Department of Land Use
and Conservation.This guide calls for the pro-
vision of “adequate parking” so that on-street
parking is not the typical primary source of
parking.The objective is to havespace between
parked cars so that thereare queuing opportu-
Also,parking near intersections onnar-
row streets should not be permitted because it
can interfere with the turning movements of
large vehicles.
Fire Marshall Grunewald readily agreed that
Steele Park does not meet even these relaxed
requirements (see Figure 4).
Surprisingly,the State Fire Marshall does not
have the last word when it comes to review-
ing proposed subdivision plans for fire safety.
The question of authority was clarified in
1997 whenORS 92.044 was amended tostate
that standards for the width of streets estab-
lished by local governments shall “supersede
and prevail over any specifications and stan-
dards for roads and streets set forth in a uni-
form fire code adopted by the State Fire
Marshal, a municipal fire department or a
county firefighting agency.”
This change came about as a result of liabil-
ity concerns by the State Fire Marshall and
the OregonFire Chiefs Association (OFCA).
The OCFA wrote in a June 26, 1997 letter to
Metro, the Portland-area regional govern-
ment,“Planners are promoting and approv-
ing development that we may not be able to
The letter noted that legal opin-
ions at the time differed on where liability
would fall in the event emergency vehicles
were denied access in a development where
nationally recognized standards for fire de-
partment access had been ignored, and pro-
posed ceding authority to local planning
departments. According to Grunewald the
OFCA endorsed this proposal because local
Figure 4 - Another typical late-afternoon street scene
in Steele Park. Contrary to government planners’
desires, residents continue to drive cars. Here,
because of planned narrow streets, parking is
restricted to one side of the road—so cars often
impinge on the corners where there is supposed to
be a no-parking zone for fire access.
Max Other
4 3
0 1
2 12
5 46
11 62
Multi-occupant Car
Single-occupant Car
Table 1 - Trips out of Steele Park, mode and
Surprisingly, the
State Fire Marshall
does not havethe
last wordwhen it
comes to reviewing
proposed subdivi-
sion plans for fire
Page 9
planners were overriding their recommen-
dations anyway.
Public Subsidies and the Wall
TriMet’s1999 Community Building Sourcebook
described Steele Park’sfinancing this way:“The
project is privately financed with the exception
of a $300,000 CMAQ-TOD grant....”
out, however, public subsidies for the project
totaled some $463,000,plus the $15,000 cost of
the Calthorpe contract,and none ofthe money
came directly from a federal Congestion Man-
agement and Air Quality grant.
The original purpose of the $300,000 grant
was to fund the construction of a wall around
the project as an inducement to the develop-
ers to go with the high-density design pro-
ducing 74 homes rather than their original
plan for 44 larger homes on larger lots. Un-
fortunately the plan called for the wall to be
built on the developer’s land rather than on
public land, and that made it ineligible for
the CMAQ-TOD grant, which had already
been approved. Forging ahead, Washington
County arranged to use unrestricted county
funds for the wall and entered into two In-
tergovernmental Agreements (IGAs) to ex-
ecute the deal.
One IGA with the Portland Development
Commission promised Washington County
“a$300,000 federal Congestion Management
and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant for bike and
pedestrian facilities on 185
from Blantonto
Kinnaman … in exchange for the County’s
pedestrian-oriented improvements at 170
and Baseline.”
This exchange did not ulti-
mately work out and the CMAQ grant money
eventually was used for bike and pedestrian
improvements to Cedar Hills Boulevard.
The County paid the $12,000 administration
fee for this grant, an additional cost of the
money exchange.
A separate IGA with TriMet provided up to
$200,000 from the County’s Traffic Impact
Fee fund for TriMet to use in Tualatin in ex-
change for a like amount of TriMet general
funds, which could be legally used to build a
wall on private property.
This sort of money laundering—swapping
restricted-use funds between government
agencies—seems to be commonplace in
today’s planning bureaucracy.
In several
phone conversations, TriMet and Portland
Development Commission staff members
promised to provide their reasons for enter-
ing into these IGAs but failed to do so.
Aside from the arcane financing scheme, it’s
not clear what the purpose of the wall was
and what it had to do with Transit-Oriented
Development.Because government planners
obtained the CMAQ grant to help pay for it,
they presumably thought it would help re-
duce congestion or air pollution (otherwise
it would not have qualified for CMAQ fund-
ing).But Mark Ferris,a planner who worked
with the developers to design Steele Park,
wrote, “the wall was strictly decorative.”
MarkBrown,a principal planner with Wash-
ington County, told an Oregonian reporter,
“it’s [sic] primary purpose was to be an ar-
chitectural feature for the neighborhood.”
However,many of the earlyresidents of Steele
Park apparently thought the wall had been
built as a sound barrier, and complained it
wasn’t working. In 1997 The Oregonian re-
ported that occupants of 32 of the
subdivision’s then-completed 49 homes sub-
mitted a petition to the County, asking it “to
beef up the wall for several reasons, includ-
ing child safety, crime prevention, sound re-
duction, increased personal privacy and its
effect on future resale prices.”
According to
the article, Steve Prince acknowledged that
he might have told some residents a sound
This sort of
money launder-
funds between
government agen-
cies—seems to be
commonplace in
today’s planning
Page 10
barrier would be built. Prince told me the
article was “not accurate” but he did not
specify in what regard. The wall is shown in
Figures 1 and 5.
Washington County declined to make any
improvements to the wall and today it re-
mains ornamental. A homeowner I spoke
with, who lives just across the wall from
Baseline Road, describes it as “useless” for
noise reduction.
The Planners’ Dream of Density
Washington County planners haven’t gotten
the density they had planned for in Steele
Park because the highest density section of
the development, the 18-unit multi-family
development on a 0.6-acre lot, was never
built. In fact it isn’t even part of the Steele
Park development anymore.
Steve Prince sold the lot to Emerald Develop-
ment Company of Beaverton, which attached
the lot to its yet-unbuilt Meridian Village project
just west of Steele Park (see Figure 6).
Emerald Development got the zoning
changed for the 0.6-acre lot and plans a
mixed-use facility with three commercial
outlets and 12 condominiums.
Development Co.managerHabib Matin said
he was pleased to have negotiated 50 park-
ing spaces after “a back and forth battle with
the City.” This victory may be short-lived,
however, because the approval for Emerald’s
plan has expired and it has to start the regu-
latory process anew.
Steele Park and its Neighbors
A walk through Steele Park reveals a crowded
but pleasant neighborhood with lots of cars
and lots of kids.Because the houses are small
most residents seem to use their garages for
storage and I saw no car actually parked in a
garage.Parking is restrictedto one side of the
road and parked cars often impinge on the
corners where there is a no-parking zone for
fire access. Residents share a concern over
safety and agree that the narrowing of street
widths at the corners fails to control speeds;
coupled with the presence of parked cars on
the corners, owners and renters alike worry
over the safety of their children with drivers
taking the sharp corners at high speed.
The developments adjacent toSteele Park fea-
turelarger homes on larger lots and the own-
ers and occupants seem unhappy with their
more crowded neighbors. One man had
moved two blocks out of Steele Park because
Figure 5 - Part of the Steele Park decorative wall that
many residents thought would be a sound barrier.
Figure 6 - Site of unbuilt Meridian Village.
The developments
adjacent to Steele
Park feature larger
homes on larger
lots and the owners
and occupants
seem unhappy
with their more
crowded neigh-
Page 11
of its “undesirable character.”Another home-
owner, whose house is right next to Steele
Park,complains of residents parking in front
of his home and refers to the development as
a “ghetto.” Because one of the goals of the
planning process is the creation of livable
communities this animosity raises the issue
of how high-density, limited-parking devel-
opments can coexist with more traditional
Steele Park is a pleasant little neighborhood.
New residents are planting shrubs and making
home improvements,and neighbors seemcon-
cerned about eachother.The problems the resi-
dents havewith parking would just be their own
problems (except for the fire safety concerns)
and their unhappiness with the decorativewall
would be their own unhappiness except for the
fact that several local governments stepped in
and created this neighborhood with these prob-
lems because of a philosophy of Transit-Ori-
ented Development.
In comparing the stated objectives of TOD
with the reality of Steele Park, it’s apparent
that the objectives are not being met. Most
residents don’t use light rail regularly, and
those who do tend to drive the quarter mile
to TriMet’s free Park-n-Ride lot. Local roads
receive more traffic from the Steele Park de-
velopment than they would have under the
original, medium-density design, and con-
sequently it’s impossible to argue that TOD
has resulted in improved air quality. The at-
tempt to use $300,000 in federal Congestion
Mitigation and Air Quality funds for the
decorative wall led to high transaction costs
due to the complexity of the Intergovern-
mental Agreements required to swap funds,
and the wall itself ultimately proved useless
for noise reduction or any other environmen-
tal benefit.
TOD advocates claim that light rail is a cata-
lyst for real estate development, but the ex-
perience at Steele Park suggests that
developers havetobe inducedand/or coerced
to build at higher densities through the use
of public subsidies and land-use regulation.
Even then, land near light rail frequently lies
vacant because it is not economically feasible
to build the kinds of projects desired by gov-
ernment planners.
Bill Avery, principle planner with the Wash-
ington County Department of Land Use &
Transportation, called Steele Park a “long-
range fiasco,” citing the look of the project,
the high ratio of renters to owners, the dis-
like of the adjacent neighborhoods and “op-
position from the Fire Marshall.”
Perhaps the most notable assessment ofSteele
Park has come, in a subdued fashion, from
TriMet. In 1999 TriMet published the Com-
munity Building Sourcebookas a one-stop in-
formation source about transit, land-use
planning and TOD. Chapter Three included
profiles of more than 20 Transit-Oriented
Developments,one of which was Steele Park.
TriMet described Steele Park as the first Port-
land-area TOD to feature detached, single-
family homes.
In December 2002 TriMet published a new
edition of the Community Building
Sourcebook. Although Transit-Oriented De-
velopment is still heavily promoted,the Steele
Park profile has been deleted.
TOD advocates
claim that light
rail is a catalyst
for real estate
development, but
the experience at
Steele Park sug-
gests that
developers have to
be induced and/or
coerced to build at
higher densities
through the use of
public subsidies
and land-use
Page 12
The first Cascade TOD case study was John
A.Charles,MPA,and Michael Barton,Ph.D.,
The Mythical World of Transit Oriented De-
velopment: Light Rail and the Orenco Neigh-
borhood, Hillsboro, Oregon (Portland, OR:
Cascade Policy Institute, April 2003),
Professional Services Agreement between
Calthorpe Associates and Washington
County, March 28, 1994, Attachment “A”.
Steven Prince, personal communication
with author, May 2002.
1000 Friends of Oregon, “Density in Your
Community Building Sourcebook (Portland,
OR: TriMet, 1999), pp. 3-7.
Brent Hunsberger,“NarrowStreets Increase
Fire Officials’Worries,”The Oregonian, Sept.
7, 1998, p. B2.
“Queuing”refers to using the gaps between
parked cars to accommodate two-way traf-
fic along a narrow street.
Neighborhood Street Design Guidelines (Sa-
lem,OR: Oregon Dept.of Land Use and Con-
servation, Nov. 2000), p. 11.
Ibid., p. 5.
Letter from Oregon Fire Chiefs Associa-
tion to Metro (regional government, OR),
June 26, 1997.
Community Building Sourcebook, p.3-7.
Washington County [Oregon] Board of
Commissioners Agenda, Aug. 6, 1996.
Joe Younkins,Washington County Capital
Project Management, personal communica-
tion to author.
See, e.g., Charles and Barton, pp. 21-22.
MarkFerris,personal communication with
John A. Charles, Cascade Policy Institute
(Portland, OR), July 9, 2003.
Alex Pulaski, “Residents Dissatisfied with
County’s Buffer,” The Oregonian, March 3,
1997, p. B4.
Habib Matin, Manager of Emerald Devel-
opment Co., personal communication with
author, October 2002.
Ph.D., April 18, 2002.
Community Building Sourcebook(Portland,
OR: TriMet, Dec. 2002).
Page 13
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813 SW Alder, Suite 450
Portland, Oregon 97205
(503) 242-0900
fax (503) 242-3822

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