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What Happens When You Build Things Near Transit? An Unsurprising Case Study

A few weeks ago, I spoke to an older couple who, over the course of our conversation, mentioned that they had both attended the University of Minnesota. I am not a Gopher alum, but I did live near to the campus for a couple of years, on a little stub of 4th Street SE near the Surly Brewery. I quickly realized that, when I tried to tell them where I had lived, we had absolutely no common frame of reference. Several neighborhoods in the Twin Cites have changed dramatically in the past several decades, most notably the Mill District and the North Loop. But no neighborhood has changed as radically in just the past several years as the area just north of Tower Hill Park, just south of the railyards, and just east of the Prospect Park light rail station.

This area, which has been rechristened “Towerside,” was just a handful of low-slung buildings when the Green Line light rail’s opened in 2014, stopping at the nearby Prospect Park Station. At the corner, there was a coffee shop where I filled out a lot of applications for graduate school, there was a gym, and a day care. On 4th Street, there was a consortium of always-busy auto-body shops, and a few recently-cleared parcels. The area was far from abandoned, but it was not anything approaching the kind of urban neighborhood you might expect adjacent to a rapid transit station. Given its proximity to the University, the Dinkytown Greenway, Tower Hill Park, and the LRT, there could not have been a more obvious target for redevelopment.

That process of reinvention is now in full swing, with significant changes already built and even more significant changes coming soon. The results have transformed the physical landscape of the area and have heavily impacted trasnportation.

What’s Happened So Far:

To date, three residential buildings have been completed. In early 2018, a big apartment building called The Link was completed at the corner lot. The Link is one building with two distinct volumes. Along University Avenue, it rises to 13 stories, with a Fresh Thyme grocery story underneath. That such an ambitious development was the first to arrive speaks to the clear attraction of this area. It also allowed Towerside to bypass a lot of earlier stages of neighborhood development. A major full-service grocery store is often one of the last tenants to move into a redeveloped area, and also one of the most important amenities that a neighborhood can have. By contrast, it was only after more than a decade of redevelopment did a Trader Joes arrive in the Mill District.

In 2019, two more buildings opened on 4th Street. First came The Green On Fourth, a large five-and-six story apartment building. Second came The Louis, a smaller five-story apartment building. Both projects opened with a number of units renting at below market rates. Combined, these three buildings have brought 649 units of housing to the nascent neighborhood, 129 of which are affordable.

In 2020, two more buildings are joining them. The Pillars of Prospect Park rises up to ten stories along Malcolm Ave. This complex offers an eclectic inter-generational mix of senior living, memory care and assisted living, and student housing. Meanwhile, on 29th Ave, 4th Street Lofts offers more standard student housing options.

And there is still more to come. The first phase of an ambitious scheme to redevelop and refurbish the area just north of the University Transitway, known as Malcolm Yards, is getting started. That project is planned to have market rate housing with a different concept of food market. Also in the area, closer to the Surly Brewery (another key neighborhood amenity), a climbing gym and a distillery are proposed. Two more obvious parcels for redevelopment; the Teamsters Local building at 3001 University, and the Ruffridge-Johnson Service Center at 2 Malcolm Ave, remain unclaimed. Between the three projects just being completed or just starting out, another 737 units of housing are soon to arrive.

How It Fits In To The Bigger Picture:

Given the rapid transformation of these handful of blocks, they represent a perfect case study of the concept of “transit-oriented development” (TOD). The idea is simple; where good transit service exists, there also exists an opportunity to build developments that make good use of that service. Unfortunately, the idea of TOD has frequently been misapplied. Planning agencies have sometimes built transit exclusively for the purpose of attracting development, instead of building transit where people already need it. This is better described as “development-oriented transit” (DOT). Also common is when developers build near transit, but they hedge by also including massive parking structures for cars, and few ground-level amenities for pedestrians and riders. This is more appropriately termed “transit-adjacent development” (TAD).

The example of the Prospect Park Station and the Towerside District demonstrates all three concepts. When the station was first constructed, it was more of an adventure into development-oriented transit than a response to real travel needs at that moment. Because the development potential of its surroundings was so clear and the marginal cost of the station itself as part of the larger project was relatively minor, planners bet the success of this particular station on future development. As for that development itself, the overall record is somewhat mixed. There are elements of transit-orientation and elements of transit-adjacency in these projects. Of the 649 housing units and a grocery story constructed before 2020, there are 457 dedicated for residents (though sold separately—$150/mo for The Link), a solid, if unspectacular ratio of 0.70. More disappointingly, an additional 133 spaces are allocated for patrons of Fresh Thyme and other future retail outlets in the The Link. This number was likely needed to secure that marquee tenant, but it is hardly an endorsement in the light rail service. Most telling of all, the principle entrances to the grocery store face towards the interior parking lot, not University Avenue or the LRT station, a real-life demonstration of the line between “oriented” and “adjacent.”

Future developments will add to the mixed record. Of the 737 housing units in the pipeline, 590 parking spaces are planned. A large number of these will come from the Malcolm Yards development, which envisions a shared underground parking facility for residents and visitors to its market. Again, in the process of executing a big mixed use vision, the potential of becoming a truly “transit-oriented” development is hedged.

What’s Been The Effect:

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Numbers come from Metro Transit’s publicly-released Boardings and Alightings data, which is from Q3 of every year. Full size version here.

Despite these caveats, the overall effect of building a lot of housing near transit, with only a moderate amount of car parking, has been largely a success. We can see the effect most clearly by looking at the weekly ridership for the Prospect Park Station. From 2014 to 2017, ridership increased only slightly, perhaps influenced by the steadily-growing use of the line and the opening of the Surly Brewery.

However, between the periods of data collection for 2017 and 2018, The Link and its new grocery store opened, and ridership skyrocketed over 60%. Shortly before data collection began for 2019, The Green on Fourth and The Louis opened. It is probable that neither building was fully leased by the time that these numbers were taken. All the same, the new residents likely made an impact, as ridership again jumped.

Assuming a full lease-up from those two buildings and the smooth opening of The Pillars of Prospect Park and the 4th Street Lofts, another big jump was almost certain for 2020, at least until a global pandemic came and likely completely upended almost all 2020 transit data.

Whatever happens to the numbers in the near term, the lesson is clear and unsurprising. Development near transit, as well as the lack of development of new infrastructure for cars, will lead to an increase in transit ridership.

Lessons To Learn:

The experience of the Towerside District has taught a lot of lessons that are already known, but nice to reinforce. It shows that transit can enable high density development, given the right conditions. While significant stretches of the Green Line corridor remain mostly unchanged since the opening of light rail service, certain areas, including Towerside, the Raymond Avenue area, and Midway, are undergoing big changes. The Green Line has been a highly successful transit route because it was designed to serve areas with strong existing transit demand. But a nice side effect has been that it has also catalyzed the underdeveloped areas that sit near or in between these nodes. Transit should not be planned exclusively for the purpose of creating development (DOT), but that can be a nice side effect.

The Towerside District also demonstrates certain values of planning. While the redevelopment in the area looks nothing like the atmospheric watercolors that were once produced for it, the values of a high density, transit-oriented community have persisted. Plans, the saying goes, are useless, but planning is invaluable. Because the nearby neighbors of Prospect Park took a proactive approach to the industrial area to their north, establishing a vision that they, the city, and the market could support, it had an influence on what has come since.

It will be interesting to compare what happens with Towerside and the Prospect Park Station over time with what happens to other stations along the Green Line that are a bit behind in terms of redevelopment. Ridership has increased by over 20% at the Raymond Avenue Station since 2014, which has seen a number of new buildings, and for which three new residential projects are under construction or proposed. It has increased just over 15% at the Snelling Avenue Station over that same stretch, with the biggest jump corresponding to the launch of the connecting A Line. Two apartment buildings are under construction nearby, and the Allianz Field superblock may soon rumble to life.

A further comparison will be to the Royalston Station area, which has been the focus of planning efforts and a rebranding as The Root District—a similar process as occurred at Towerside. While the Green Line extension serves several stations that are unlikely to see significant redevelopment for decades (Bassett Creek Valley, Bryn Mawr, and City West Stations look like obvious duds), the most likely to change swiftly is just across 7th Street. But far removed from any neighborhood amenities, it will be critical that the early developments in the site start providing their own versions right away.

We’ll see!

Alex Schieferdecker

About Alex Schieferdecker

Alex Schieferdecker is from New York City, lived in Minnesota for six years, and now lives in Philadelphia. He is still unhealthily invested in Twin Cities politics and development. Please help. His twitter handle is @alexschief.

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3 thoughts on “What Happens When You Build Things Near Transit? An Unsurprising Case Study

  1. Scott

    Thanks Alex, You always do such a nice job on your articles.

    You are spot on with the “development oriented transit” (DOT) and “transit adjacent development” (TAD) concepts. IMO they make up the vast majority of such development and transit projects in the MSP region. I still can’t believe that the Gold Line DOT project is moving forward at a cost of $400 million+ to serve maybe around 10,000 riders per day. Yet, most places with high existing ridership (i.e. Lake St., Chicago Ave, Nicollet/ Central, etc.) can’t even get ABRT routes funded. 🙁

  2. Mike

    Nice article – I think it’s worth acknowleding that all transit is not created equal. The attractiveness of living steps from a light rail train station is much higher than living across from a bus station.

  3. Ian R Buck

    I didn’t realize that even the Surly facility was a new addition to the area! Sounds like there was hardly any reason for anyone to go to that area before 2014.

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