Transit station: New business hub?Commission hears about challenges, opportunities
A Minneapolis-based urban planner extolled the virtues of development that can spring up around transit stations last week to Red Rock Corridor Commission members — and also warned of the challenges cities can face in making that development successful.
The commission has begun the process of master planning each proposed stop along the Red Rock commuter rail line’s run from St. Paul to Hastings, including stops in Newport and Cottage Grove.
On Thursday, commissioners listened to Thomas Dobbs of urban planning and architecture firm Hay-Dobbs talk about the delicate balance between transit and development that has to be struck around each of those stations, and how rail has to be sold to the public.
Officials hope each stop becomes more than just a place for commuters to board a train — Cottage Grove and Newport would like to see commercial and higher-density residential growth sprout up around the stations.
The goal, Dobbs said, is to “create more livable, pedestrian-friendly communities” with a transit facility at its core.
But commuter rail stations, by their very nature, must prioritize parking and development. Because most commuters will drive to the facility, transit-oriented development is forced to accommodate a high volume of vehicles, he said.
That means planners are forced to find a balance between the availability of parking spaces near the station, and pedestrian friendly development, also adjacent to where commuters will disembark from the platform.
“That’s really a challenge, because you do have a high number of automobiles compared to other modes of transportation,” he said.
And for a transit-oriented development to be successful, Dobbs said, the densest development of commercial and mixed-use growth needs to be nearest the station.
The old Knox Lumber site in Newport, near the confluence of Interstate 494 and Highway 61, is malleable enough to succeed, said Myra Peterson, a Washington County commissioner and chair of the Red Rock Corridor Commission.
“The Newport site is basically a blank slate,” she said Thursday.
In Newport, it was the allure of that potential development, and the corresponding boost it would deliver to the city’s stretched tax base, that pushed city leaders to settle on the old Knox site as Newport’s stop on the way to or from St. Paul.
However, Newport officials have been cautious about the site.
Dobbs advised during his presentation Thursday, “transit alone doesn’t drive development.” Economic factors in the area also play a role.
Newport City Council member Corb Hopkins, the city’s liaison to the rail corridor commission, said officials can’t be too pie-in-the-sky about planning for the site. Manageable short- and long-term goals for cultivating the area around a future Newport transit facility, which county officials say will be ready for bus commuters by 2012, need to be set, he said.
“I really believe we can come up with a decent, workable plan,” Hopkins said in an interview. “Not a 50-year dream.”
He added: “We need to listen to a lot of people. That’s why (station area planning) is going to take 18 months.”