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Rezoning Near Train Stations Essential to Transit-Oriented Development

Communities that block multifamily housing from being built near train stations are contributing to the host of problems New Jersey faces

Train station
Credit: NJ State League of Municipalities

Local zoning that prohibits multifamily development near train stations in the New Jersey and Connecticut suburbs outside Manhattan is the main roadblock to expanding transit-oriented development that could accommodate 250,000 homes and help solve the dearth of affordable housing in the tri-state area, according to a new report.

“Untapped Potential,” issued Tuesday by the Regional Plan Association in anticipation of the release of the group’s fourth regional plan for the metropolitan area, envisions more mixed-use developments near train stations — even on land currently used for parking — as a solution for a host of the problems the congested region faces. Such development would provide more housing, reduce traffic, boost the economy, and potentially reduce the stress felt by those forced to commute long distances to work or to work longer hours or multiple jobs to cover their housing costs.

“Two of the most commonly heard concerns in our region is that traffic is unbearable and homes are too expensive to buy or rent,” the report begins. “The answer to these two problems seems simple: build neighborhoods with less expensive homes where cars are needed less.”

Transit villages

The report acknowledges the success of several transit-oriented developments in the region and cites New Jersey’s transit village program as a model — 33 communities have received this designation, meaning they have committed to redeveloping the area around their transit facilities into compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. But RPA says too few municipalities with train stations in the three states currently allow the construction of the kinds of higher-density, mixed-use developments that are needed.

“The main obstacle is simple, local, and solvable — change zoning to allow for the creation of new homes and walkable neighborhoods. A significant number of municipalities today don’t allow for good TOD or even prohibit multifamily development completely, especially in whiter and wealthier suburbs. And even in the ones where vision is in place for better transit-oriented development, some still don’t have the underlying zoning rules to make it happen,” according to the report.

About half of the rail stations serving New York City that have access to sewers capable of supporting TOD are in municipalities that do not permit at least moderate multifamily development within a half-mile of a station, RPA found in analyzing infrastructure and zoning around the stations. About a quarter do not allow for any multifamily housing at all.

Prisoner of its own success

"Our region is struggling under the weight of its own success — with housing prices at an all-time high and space at a premium,” said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association. “More transit-oriented development is a real answer to our concurrent housing and commuting crises. As technology emerges that will free space within some of New York's most accessible suburbs, now is the time to consider our suburban planning holistically — and fully commit to a transit-oriented development strategy throughout the region.”

In places where the area around many train stations is already built up, the report suggests that areas where commuters now park their cars might be better used to house mixed-use developments that can provide affordable housing and economic development. While some would complain there are not currently enough parking spaces at some NJ Transit stations, the RPA contends that there will be less need for large parking lots within the next three decades as “the vast majority of auto trips in the region will be made in on-demand, shared and autonomous vehicles.” The report also suggests ways to best incorporate parking into a mixed-use development, preferably by placing it underground or behind buildings, so as not to detract from storefronts.

The association made a number of recommendations to foster smart development that will solve traffic and housing problems in the region. These include:

  • Allow for and encourage multifamily and mixed-use development near all train stations, to create walkable, transit-oriented communities.

  • Make infrastructure funding contingent on enacting new zoning laws to better coordinate infrastructure with growth and provide planning grants and technical assistance to help municipalities with their zoning and planning needs.

  • Reform federal financing mechanisms to make it easier for mixed-use developments to get needed funding.

Affordable housing

The report also talks about the need to incorporate affordable housing into new developments. It complements New Jersey’s mandates, embodied in the state Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel rulings and the Fair Housing Act, although a lack of interest by the current administration in Trenton had left affordable housing rules in limbo until recently, when the courts got involved again in setting municipal quotas.

RPA’s report is just the latest to call for changes in development patterns.

Last month, The Fund for New Jersey issued its “Crossroads NJ” housing report, which urged the incoming administration to do more to ensure communities provide more affordable homes in walkable communities.

And last September, New Jersey Future issued its own report that found millennials, baby boomers, and others want to live in vibrant neighborhoods that include shops, entertainment and transportation options, and their homes. But New Jersey does not have enough of these.

“You don't actually need a transit station to reap a lot of the benefits of compact, walkable development,” said Tim Evans, New Jersey Future’s research director. “The transit station is a bonus for people who work in New York or another transit-accessible employment destination, which could possibly allow such households to reduce the number of vehicles they own. But compact, walkable towns without transit stations can still allow for diverse housing options, and can require fewer and shorter car trips by putting a diversity of destinations near each other, reducing the distances to travel among them.”

He added that allowing people to live near transit, and in mixed-use environments more generally, can reduce households' transportation expenses, which are usually the second-biggest component of household costs after housing. And putting affordable housing near transit can give lower-income workers wider access to jobs and “much greater opportunity to participate in the economy.”

New Jersey Future largely agrees with the RPA’s recommendations and has made similar ones in the past, Evans said, with one caveat: Not all TOD needs to be high density; even allowing two-family dwellings and homes with accessory units near transit can significantly increase housing supply and affordability.

“The basic idea is to find ways to fit new people into already-developed places but with housing options that are more affordable,” Evans said. “And it is especially important to increase densities near transit stations — these stations represent assets that are owned by the whole state, so their benefits should be made available to as many people as possible … and the way you do this is by maximizing the number of people who can walk to the station. Otherwise, if a municipality has nothing but big single-family homes in its train station neighborhood, it has basically appropriated a statewide resource to benefit only a small handful of residents.”

At least some of these ideas may be welcome over the next four years. Gov.-elect Phil Murphy has said that he planned to promote tax incentives for transit-oriented development, use affordable housing funds to build homes for the low- and moderate-income and coordinate smart growth and sustainable development across all levels of government.

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