The southeastern portion of the El Toro property is designated for TOD in Irvine's Plan.
Peter Larsen of the Register looks at the concept in this pair of September 4, 2002 articles.
Light rail spurs heavy debate
Growth Some say success of 'transit village' planned for part of El Toro could be hindered if Irvine council keeps CenterLine away.
IRVINE – The idea behind the "transit village" that Irvine officials want developed on 213 acres at El Toro is simple: Cluster 1,500 homes by the train station and some residents are certain to leave their SUVs at home and ride the rails to work or shop or play.
Others might be persuaded to use their feet - these neighborhoods are intended to be as pedestrian-friendly as a traditional downtown - or ride buses to shops or cafes or offices within the project.
The design of the transit village remains years off - after Irvine annexes the former Marine base and the Navy sells it - but a vote by the City Council next week could affect its future success. The council is expected to support shortening the CenterLine light-rail route so it doesn't reach the train depot, thereby appeasing residents of Woodbridge and Oak Creek. But lack of light rail at the station may put a hex on the transit village, according to some people who design or study such projects.
"A lot of developers are going to say, 'We're not going to design this for light rail if we don't know when or if light rail is going to be introduced,'" said Gerald Autler, an urban planner in Berkeley and co-author of a recent study on why transit-oriented developments succeed or fail.
Others are more optimistic that the concept will work, even without an immediate connection of light rail.
"There's no question that 20 years from now, light rail will be reality in Orange County, and certainly it will be connecting to Spectrum as well," said Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, adding that regardless of the route, light rail will eventually reach the village.
"All of the elements seem to be there, it's just a question of pulling it together," he said.
Agran ticked off existing features he believes bode well for the plan: The train station already serves Metrolink and Amtrak commuters, more than 50,000 people work nearby and the Irvine Spectrum Center is a bustling entertainment complex.
"A lot of people who come to work here every day would probably just as soon live here and be a little less dependent on their automobiles and a little more dependent on transit," Agran said. As Orange County grows, homes near mass transit could make sense to a lot of people.
"I think it's absolutely the future of Orange County," said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, chairman of the Orange County Transportation Authority, who believes Irvine is wrong to shorten the route. "How wonderful to live in a place where you don't need to use your car if you don't want to," said Sara Catz, a former OCTA board member.
Irvine will use its planning and zoning powers to influence the way the transit village is designed.
Planners and transit officials point to the redevelopment of downtown Brea - clustered cottages, homes above storefronts, a street scene of shops and restaurants - as what they envision here. Just add transit. "If you're trying to get a mind's-eye view, I think it's that," said Irvine planner Glenn Worthington.
Even if light rail doesn't reach the project soon - or ever - it could be a worthy way to develop the land, said Marlon Boarnet, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of California, Irvine.
"If you wanted to talk about a moderate-density residential development that would try to leverage the job opportunities in the Spectrum, the entertainment and shopping opportunities in the Spectrum, I'd probably imagine that kind of development as a sound use of the land," he said.
The idea to cluster homes, shopping and jobs near transit emerged in the early 1990s.
Architects and planners such as Peter Calthorpe in Berkeley championed it as part of New Urbanism, a drive to make new neighborhoods work and feel like more traditional ones.
Timothy Rood, a principal at Calthorpe Associates, outlined a few tenets of transit-oriented development: It needs a major road to lead to the neighborhood center. It needs a mix of uses - different ways to get to work, places to shop, opportunities for civic activities. It needs a wide range of housing choices - apartments, condominiums and houses - with high density near the transit center.
And it needs plenty of transit - light rail especially, Rood said. "Light rail has a much greater frequency of service than heavy rail," he said. "In a way, it's almost not worth it to try to reshape activity patterns around something that only goes someplace a few times a day."
Metrolink currently serves about 900 passengers a day at the station that would serve the transit village.
When such developments work, Rood said, the benefits are great: Fewer car trips. Less pollution. Improved quality of life. Even property values are higher, some studies have shown.
Cities along BART lines in the San Francisco Bay area have encouraged transit villages, as have communities served by the San Diego trolley lines.
In Orange County, the idea is just emerging. Buena Park is encouraging a small transit village near its future Metrolink station.
Autler, of Berkeley, said success can be hard to come by.
"You can pack all the density you want within a quarter-mile of a transit station, but if that doesn't have the impact of really giving people choices so that they drive less and own fewer vehicles, we would even say it's not really transit-oriented development," Autler said.
Several stumbling blocks can lessen success, he said. Do the trains go where people want to go? Is the schedule good? Does the design encourage people to walk to the station? Is it safe? Is it pleasant? Is there street life?
Studies show most people will walk a quarter- to a half-mile to use transit, and the design of the pedestrian routes can be crucial to making that happen, Autler said.
"If the pedestrian experience is bad, they might not walk 200 feet,'' he said. "If it's good, they might walk three-quarters of a mile." Like Rood, Autler said the success of the Irvine plan might be lessened without light rail. Yet light rail seems unlikely to get to El Toro anytime soon, which Spitzer, the OCTA chairman, described as a deep disappointment.
"There's no way a smart developer will invest in a particular parcel and build attached condominiums or condos over storefronts - something that's more transit-oriented - unless they have some guarantee that a rail line will be running in front of their property," he said.
To some critics, though, light rail is not the answer to the county's transit needs.
"Transit-oriented development is just the code word for superdense, high-rise development," said Irvine Councilman Greg Smith, who opposes any development of light rail in Orange County. "What they're saying is, 'We want to change the way everybody lives so we can bring a train here.'
"The thing that concerns me, when you look at transit-oriented development in places where it's been tried, is that they expect people won't have cars," he said. "It turns out that people have cars anyway, and it has a lot of bad impacts on the streets around it."
Smith said he opposes light rail because he does not believe Irvine and the rest of Orange County are developed densely enough to support it. He said he backs mass transit - such as Metrolink, for those who need to commute to downtown Los Angeles, or different kinds of bus service - but believes light rail is wrong.
A transit village like the one Irvine officials are backing at El Toro could have some value, Smith said, "as long as it took into account all the transportation alternatives and didn't force people into one mode of transportation."
Other transit-oriented developments.
Most transit villages built in California and elsewhere are smaller than the 213 acres earmarked
for that purpose at El Toro and are built with higher residential densities. A few of the projects mentioned
by Irvine officials and others as examples of what might be built at El Toro:
The Crossings in Mountain View: The dying shopping center was transformed into a transit village by Calthorpe Associates in 1998. About 300 houses and apartments clustered around the commuter train station sold out almost instantly. Information: www.calthorpe.com, click on "projects" and then "neighborhood."
Orenco Station in Hillsboro, Ore.: The 190-acre site was originally zoned for an industrial park. After it was picked as a stop on the light- rail line being built in and around Portland, it was rezoned for residential, retail and office uses. Now it has more than 2,000 apartments, lofts, town houses and homes. Information: www.orencostation.com.
Fruitvale Transit Village in Oakland: This station, which is under construction, is typical of the kind of transit-village development seen along Bay Area Rapid Transit lines. The 15 to 24 acres around the BART station will include child care, a library, a senior center, shops and 50 rental units. Information: www. unitycouncil.org/html/ftv.html