Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Property Rights, Transit , and Urban Design

Property rights activists in Denver are fighting hard to curtail the eminent domain abilities of the Regional Transit District. While I do personally believe that the government shouldn't be able to just take your property and redevelop it at random, I also believe that there are certain urban design considerations that should be allowed when land must be taken for transit. At issue here is what happens after RTD takes land and builds a parking garage which is an allowed transit use. The second part is the ability to wrap that parking garage with retail which is what property owners do not want their land taken for, what they call economic development. This taking for economic development was the subject of the recent supreme court case Kelo vs City of New London.

Now this is a very thin line drawn in the sand, but what is the difference between pure economic development and good urban design? I don't think RTD is trying to take the property to build a casino or shopping mall. I do think they should be able to do as much with the land as they can to make it pedestrian friendly and a part of the surrounding neighborhood. No one wants a hulking parking garage on their street face or as a next door neighbor and RTD should be doing as much as it can to get a return on their investment, which in transit is ridership and revenue.
In order to get a return on investment, they need to create an environment that supports transit usage from modes other than the automobile and trip reductions.

In my dream world I wish that transit authorities had real estate departments that could buy up key pieces of land at fair market price (not through eminent domain) and lease them after the line is built when value has been created. I've actually wondered at times if a non-profit entity could be set up that raises money for the transit agency's capital projects. At one time the way streetcar companies made money off of land was by building lines to it. In Hong Kong and Japan, the rail lines make money off of developing property more than operating the trains, but they operate in a symbiotic way generating ridership and demand as well as an efficient means of transport.

I'm not sure how this is going to end up, and I'm not sure how you can legislate the difference between economic development and proper urban design issues, but there must be some way to strike a balance between ugly and nothing.


Steve said...

But if transit gets all that money, that wouldn't be very American, would it? Why should a non-private entity like a transit agency make its own money? That's just crazy talk.


M1EK said...

The parking garage is not the transit - and thus the eminent domain isn't valid, in my opinion.

serial catowner said...

Well, actually, the parking lot is integral to the ridership- the park n' ride concept. The parking is just as essential to the success of the service as the platforms the passengers stand on to wait for the train.

And the fact is, the landowners do receive their fair market value when land is condemned and purchased under eminent domain. All of the highways you see around you were built on land taken under eminent domain and if you were interested you would have no problem finding many court cases where landowners have disputed the amount offered them by the state and gone to court.

I know this because I sat on a jury in an eminent domain case for a highway. Probably every road built or widened generates a few of these cases.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I think M1ke gets at an interesting point that I was trying to discuss which is, what is the limit. Sure park and ride lots are are an integral part of transit use in the outlying areas where burbanits are going to park, but is it really part of the transit? I personally think that it is but then where do we draw the line? SC, your comment made me think of how much property tax we've lost on highways over the last 50 years. I wonder if the costs outweighed the benefits. I have a feeling that cost benefit analysis for roads doesn't take into account that loss, specifically in urban road expansions. I could be wrong though.

Cap'n Transit said...

I agree with M1ek here. Park-and-rides are at best a short term fix. They're not the answer to sprawl.

M1EK said...

The theory that we don't have to care because people get fair market value is ludicrous - market value is often depressed for decades because of supposedly imminent construction plans. For instance, if they end up condemning additional properties along Mopac in Austin, those were already devalued by the last ten years of talking about freeway expansions to the point where a substantial number of people wouldn't be able to afford to even stay in central Austin with what they got.

Brandon said...

I'm working on an article on this, hopefully I can get it published locally.

What I would like to see happen is RTD buys the land, without eminent domain, and the land owner retains the development rights. That way if something can later be done with the property, the previous land owner is entitled to a portion of the profits.

I'm not sure that it can be legislated that ED requires the previous owner to retain private development rights. If the current legislation does pass, I hope that RTD looks in to negotiating purchases without ED that will still allow the land to be developed. The last thing we need is all this land that can never be developed, but will always sit as a parking structure. Or worse, surface parking, without these development deals, RTD may not have the money for structures.