The big idea: Build around transit

What it means, and why it's a good thing:

In its simplest form, transit-oriented development means that if you want to build up neighborhoods and businesses, you have to recognize transit as a key element. Rising gas prices, a growing concern for the environment and a renewed interest in urban living has moved transit from a government priority to a priority for savvy developers.

Transit-oriented development - or TOD as it's called in planning and design circles - creates mixed-use and high-density developments that rely less on automobiles for transportation, and features pedestrian-friendly design.

Placing residential developments near transit hubs not only reduces traffic congestion and pollution but also makes neighborhoods safer, more livable and more sustainable.

How does Philadelphia stack up?

Unfortunately, decades of decentralization and neglect have left areas around many of Philadelphia's transit stops underdeveloped. Despite having one of the five largest regional rail networks in the country, the city lags behind other cities its size.

But Richard Voith, a vice president of the economic-consulting firm Econsult Corp., and an early proponent of TOD, says recent developments have put Philadelphia on the right path moving forward.

"We've put things in place, we've put leadership in place - at SEPTA and the city and the state - that actually cares about this," Voith said. "So wherever we've been, which has not been very good . . . that has changed."

Voith, who served for three years as vice chairman of SEPTA's board, points to Washington, Denver and Atlanta as examples of cities doing transit-oriented development right.

Best example:

Experts like Voith and Scott Page of Interface Studio, a local firm that has produced several TOD studies, cite the Comcast Tower and the Cira Centre as good examples of integrating transit with commercial development.

Bart Blatstein is blazing a trail with the Piazza at Schmidt's, a $150 million mixed-use complex in Northern Liberties at Germantown Avenue and 2nd Street, a short walk from the Girard station on the Market-Frankford line.

The development, which Blatstein is fond of describing as a "five-minute community" because residents can dine, work and play within five minutes of their home, is the only project of its kind in the region. Encompassing about 30 acres, including the Schmidt's Brewery development underway at 2nd and Girard and the completed mixed-use developments west of 2nd that are adjacent to the Piazza, Blatstein's Tower Investments is creating a shining example of New Urbanism not only for Philadelphia, but for every major U.S. city.

The piazza itself is 80,000 square feet of public space surrounded by first-floor restaurants, shops and artist spaces. Blatstein says the piazza will host regular concerts, open-air markets and movie nights, indie films and sporting events on a 16 by 26-foot HD LED video projection screen. A huge kickoff is planned for May 15-16.

Worst example:

There are plenty of examples of transit hubs that are all but disconnected from neighborhoods and pedestrian use throughout the city.

Bev Coleman, executive director of NeighborhoodsNow and an outspoken advocate for transit-oriented developments in middle- and low-income neighborhoods, points to the subway stop at Broad and Girard as a perfect example of what's wrong.

"On two of the corners, the north corners, you have two drive-thru fast-food restaurants," Coleman said. "Well, why do you need such an auto-oriented use at a transit hub?"

What the feds can do:

Federal stimulus dollars are already helping SEPTA make lighting and shelter improvements along the Chestnut Hill R-7 and R-8 Regional Rail lines, according to the transit agency's general manager, Joseph Casey.

But the federal government is prepared to go beyond stimulus dollars to encourage transit. On April 16, President Obama announced a plan to create 10 high-speed rail corridors across the country, including one in Pennsylvania. Initial funding will come in the form of $8 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as well as $1 billion a year for five years requested in the federal budget.

What we can do:

High-speed cross-country rail corridors are one thing, but connecting neighborhoods to train stations throughout the city and suburbs is another. Coleman and others are hoping that well-crafted city and state legislation will also provide incentives for developers to pursue pedestrian-scale developments near transit hubs.

A 2004 state law established a framework for such incentives in the form of a "transit revitalization investment district" (TRID).

Through TRID, the city and SEPTA would have to work together to establish "value capture" zones in which a portion of the tax revenues would be used for public transportation capital improvements, site development and maintenance.

One of the ways this legislation might work better, says Voith, is if state tax dollars were set aside for TRID, rather than city taxes. Thus far, no TRIDs have been established in Philadelphia, but last year, Interface Studio worked with NeighborhoodsNow on a TRID pilot project study for Market-Frankford line's 46th Street station and the Temple Regional Rail station.

Big (local) names in the field:

Dick Voith, Scott Page of Interface Studio, Beverly Coleman of NeighborhoodsNow, Bar Blatstein, Tower Investments; Alan Greenberg, executive director of Philadlephia Planning Commission; Byron Comati, director, strategic planning and analysis, SEPTA. *