Blank Canvas: How to derive the greatest value from transport hubs?

One problem, three engineers, no constraints

May 2018

The challenge

“Transport hubs play a key role in their communities as places to gather, pass through, arrive and depart. I’d like to know how they can best be used for development. Historically, in the UK, we don’t like stacking different uses on top of each other. I’d like to know how we can do this efficiently — both in the short term to create an efficient building, and in the long term, with different refurbishment cycles and ownership strata.”

Joanna Axon / development director / U+I


Get the public sector to set the stage
Mark Briggs / director of development finance / WSP / US

California High Speed Rail is a perfect example of how we can use development as an economic catalyst. It’s the largest public infrastructure project ever to go ahead in the US, and it’s a socioeconomic as well as a transport programme that is going to change California forever.

The line will eventually run all the way from San Diego through Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento. There are 25 stations and the high-speed rail authority has allocated US$7 million for several jurisdictions to make a station area plan, taking the area within roughly half a mile and looking at how they can best capitalize. The plans will vary tremendously from city to city, as California has very different economic areas. You’ve got LA, a city of 4 million in a region of 11 million. And then you’ve got Hanford in the Central Valley area, which has a population of 55,000.

We’ve been working on a bill that has just been introduced to the legislature, which will require that within a half-mile radius of the stations, the city and county property taxes, the local and state sales taxes and the hotel tax are committed to implementing the plan. Add up those five funding sources and all of a sudden you have a significant and sustainable annual revenue that could be used for anything from building the stations to gap financing for private projects, or to issue tax-exempt bonds that can be used to accelerate development. Of those funds, 20% will be set aside for affordable housing for the local workforce.

It’s one thing to develop a plan, but you need the resources to put it into action. To get the most value out of a transport investment, certainly you’ve got to start significant planning around the stations, understanding the benefits and drawbacks for each one. But people will be encouraged to pursue those plans vigorously if they know there’s a funding source to help implement them. There are a zillion plans sitting on shelves because there was never a finance plan.

“There are a zillion plans sitting on shelves because there was never a finance plan”

Without money, nothing happens. Very often what the private sector can afford to pay for the land or air rights is less than what it costs for land acquisition, relocation, demolition, remediation, off-site improvements — all of those things that have to happen before the private sector can come in. So, the public sector needs to be in a position to be able to write down the land to make it economically viable.

The private sector can’t be expected to do everything, but it is stepping up in a huge way. In San Francisco, the publicly funded Salesforce Transit Center, which opens in June, is the length of a city block with four levels of transport connections, including tunnels ready for when high-speed rail arrives in 2027, and a 5.4 acre park on top. Next to it will be three huge buildings with ramps to feed into the transit centre. The recently opened Salesforce Tower has 61 storeys of offices; its future neighbour will have 170 housing units, a 220-room hotel, 251,000ft2 of offices and 9,000ft2 of retail. That’s 6 million ft2 of new development, all happening in advance.

In places like San Francisco, the private sector didn’t need any encouragement. It’s very different in the Central Valley, an area that has always been depressed. In our projections, we’ve assumed that not a lot is going to happen in advance. But we know from experience that as soon as everything is locked down and the rails are built and the testing has begun, and they know it’s a reality, the development community will want to start doing their projects. When you have something that’s as much of an incentive as high-speed rail, all the public sector has to do is say “we will be your partner”.


Build high — there’s nothing you can’t put over a railway
Bill Price
/ director of strategic growth / WSP / UK

Transport certainly presents a big opportunity. We analyzed the potential for building homes in London over publicly owned train tracks and came up with the figure of 250,000. That’s quite conservative — just 10% of the whole land area developed up to 12 storeys, with 100m2 as the unit of a home.

Densifying the city gives people the opportunity to live near their work, and to cycle or walk or use public transport. But obtaining a piece of land close to a railway station is extremely difficult, so why not use land that is in public ownership and build over the transport hub itself? There’s nothing you can’t put over a railway. There are technical issues to do with noise and vibration, but they can be overcome through engineering.

Overbuild schemes are more viable in larger, prosperous cities. Land values have to be at a certain level because decking over a railway is more expensive than a regular foundation on a brownfield site and it can often take longer as you’re dealing with an operational railway.

Housing is a very hot topic in London right now but there’s no reason you couldn’t build offices or anything else. It doesn’t even have to be a building. In Paris, there is a project to create public space with tennis courts, gardens and trees over the Periphérique motorway.

The idea of stacking different uses reminds me of a paper we wrote about exploiting the air rights above social infrastructure.

“In the history of the world, only four buildings taller than 150m have been demolished on purpose”

If you have an old library or police station that’s not fit for purpose, why not do a deal where you demolish and put a new, taller building on the site, with a replacement facility at ground level and homes or offices on top? In New York, you’ll often find a university, school or courthouse on the lower floors of a high-rise building.

Mixed-use does make maintenance more difficult, but if you have one management company, it can work. If you plan for different refurbishment cycles at the design stage, a building site in one area doesn’t disturb the others. You might include an extra goods lift, for example, or a way of creating a temporary corridor to an escape stairs.

In the history of the world, only four buildings taller than 150m have been demolished on purpose. You could say that buildings taller than that will be there forever because it costs so much and takes so long to demolish them — especially in urban settings and over a transport hub — so we will just have to find ways of refreshing them.


Make it safe and stress-free — get rid of the cars
Andrea Utas
/ regional development strategist / WSP / Sweden

Developing a public transport hub has a great impact on the surrounding real estate values, especially for housing. From one point of view that’s good, but from a social perspective, there’s a risk that some groups can be pushed out.

You might expect greater public transport capacity to have a positive impact for lower income groups, and development around transport hubs to create jobs. But high prices create a potential conflict. You would have to look at the total benefit from a much wider perspective — you have to zoom out and compare the benefits generated close to the hub with the wider region.

To get the greatest social benefit from a transport development, stacking uses is exactly what you want to do. The most socially sustainable place is the most varied, in function but also in price and types of job. Incorporating ecosystem services means we can experience green, clean, quiet places. But there’s obviously a goal conflict with shopping, trade and transport. So you try to create as many functions as possible in order to bring a little bit of value to one spot, compensating for something that’s decreasing value elsewhere on the site.

“Ideally surfaces would be softer, more undulating, and varied in height and shape, rather than straight lines”

The worst-case scenario is a very polluted place that makes people feel stressed and unsafe. Some groups would be less able to use the space — women, children and older people are more exposed because they experience danger in public spaces to a larger extent. If the hub includes motorized vehicles, the noise, pollution and traffic hazards could make the area less attractive. So with a blank piece of paper, I’d say get rid of the cars and put them somewhere else.

The utopian ideal would be a place that’s safe and inspiring for children, because if it’s good for them, it’s good for everyone. Their experience of interacting with the environment is very different to ours because they can’t select their inputs. They are more sensitive.

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Children need larger areas and bigger safety buffers. You need to create a distance from the traffic. They need quiet, greater variation and interactiveness because children play, they look around and touch, they want to explore, whereas adults go from A to B as fast as possible. So ideally you would have a softer, more undulating surface, varied in height and shape, rather than straight lines. There would be places where you could overlook, and places to hide and feel safe.

We haven’t really planned cities from the perspective of just being in the space and experiencing it. I think if we incorporated these things a bit more, we would have more inspiring, visually attractive places where we would actually want to stop and sit and chat to other people.

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