Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

City of Albany BRT TOD Planning

This is another in our series of expert blogs on TOD highlighting work and research that experts and advocates are doing in the field. William Lawrence has over 30 years experience in the real estate industry, working for both public and private sectors. His areas of specialization include market research and project feasibility, public/private venture structuring, large scale development, redevelopment financing, fiscal impact studies, transit oriented development planning, and multidisciplinary predevelopment project management.

TRA recently completed a market analysis and feasibility testing for a transit oriented development (TOD) overlay/zoning ordinance amendment and guidebook for the City of Albany, NY, a project lead by The Cecil Group, Boston. Interestingly, the City of Albany has one active Bus Rapid Transit Line running from downtown to Schenectady. The Capital Region Transit Authority is proposing two other BRT lines emanating roughly from the same point downtown to other points west. The first line has had great success attracting riders. The question put to the consulting team was how can the BRT lines promote development within the city?

Some highlights from the market assessment:

The Capital District is comprised of four counties—Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer, and Saratoga- with a combined population of around 850,000. From 2000 to 2010 the Capital region grew almost 44,000 persons or around 1,500 households/year. The three major cities of Albany, Troy and Schenectady dominate the four-county area, although only about a quarter of the population resides within the three cities. In other words, the residents live mainly in the suburbs and the automobile is the dominant means of transportation.

Over the same period, the U.S. Census reports that the City of Albany grew by about 2,200 persons, comprising 400 new households, to around 98,000 persons. That translates to 41,000 households, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. And there are around 129,000 jobs in the city or 3.1 jobs for every household. Our market experience around the country suggests that TOD is most appealing in urban locations where the jobs-to-household ratio is over 1:1. So Albany has an enormous competitive advantage, other things being equal. The problem is that other things are not equal, as explained below.

The BRT lines that are being evaluated run from the eastern edge of Albany to the northwest and generally connect Schenectady with Albany and the SUNY/nanotechnology campuses to downtown. Both termini of the BRT lines have existing, larger-scale residential or employment uses currently.

Since the three BRT lines as proposed are relatively close together, the demographics in a quarter or half mile radius are not materially different. Differences in mixes of use and density, therefore, are most important in understanding potential TOD development schemes at the nodes along the BRT routes. The TOD Overlay/Zoning Ordinance Amendment and Guidebook examines in great detail how those various prototypical development nodes could be expanded, and encouraged.

This market analysis and feasibility test looks at the marketplace along the BRT corridors and points out the “enablers and challenges” relating to making TOD work. Generally, because Albany has experienced limited growth in the last decade as noted above, new development projects have been concentrated to a few areas around a limited number of industries— medical, education, and technology. While it is difficult to generalize, here are some overall conclusions by use:

Office: The main employer in the City of Albany is the State of New York. It is downsizing and “restacking” its existing offices. The one bright spot is the new Nanotechnology Campus to the northwestern part of the City. Another positive aspect, private businesses have added new jobs at about the level to cover the public sector losses.

Residential: Albany has a very low vacancy rate overall, because not much new development has been forthcoming in the last decade and because of the jobs/housing imbalance. Existing older stock within Albany is relatively inexpensive compared to other second tier metropolitan areas. But property tax rates in the City are among the highest in the region. Like other metropolitan areas, the major attraction is downtown living, convenience to entertainment and cultural attractions, and greater building amenities, that allow developers to charge higher rents than seen prior in most downtown locations.

Retail: Some downtown retail exists for convenience shopping to those working there. Most larger national brand chains are in the suburban malls in neighboring communities to Albany. We believe eventually that there may be an opportunity for an “urban life style center” of over 100,000 square feet, anchored by national brands that would appeal to the downtown residents and employees alike.

TOD integration with transit will most likely be enabled with the following attributes at the most attractive sites:

  • Physical amenities for both residents and employees
  • Attractive and safe surroundings, conducive to walking
  • Local services are available nearby
  • Other reasons exist to be there, that is, adjacent or nearby destinations
  • At a minimum, local-serving convenience retail, and larger-scale retail is desirable
  • Market momentum and developer interest.

Albany BRT has some unique qualifiers--potentially different from other transit modes, which, if actualized, would lead to more BRT ridership and therefore TOD potential along the lines:

  • BRT is perceived as faster than other travel modes available in that travel corridor
  • The two ends of the BRT line have larger-scale development, making for trips in both directions at peak, and more demand potential from both directions for in-fill along the entire BRT line
  • A full mix of retail is located along the BRT line, particularly at the BRT stops, so residents can obtain local services without getting in their cars or not compelled to walk too far
  • Other transit lines that provide access to other employment or residential centers (like to the medical complex to the south) coordinate schedules in order to facilitate timely transfers
  • Other larger sites and/or sites with surplus parking are available in order to minimize project assembly or parking structure costs, respectively.

In the downtown area around Clinton and Broadway, a new residential apartment project has just been completed and another is proposed—a very encouraging indication that, after this long hiatus in residential construction, the development community is responding to the documented pent-up demand for residential product downtown. Hopefully other mixed-use products of larger-scale will materialize as well—all benefiting from BRT serving this downtown hub and all the other areas along the BRT corridors. And BRT will provide better linkages to the new nano-tech employment center and university campus on the other side of the City—the potential for a “reverse commute.” If Cleveland’s BRT Health Line is any indication of economic benefit, many locations along the BRT routes should see new development over time that probably would not have occurred otherwise.

* * *

For more information, contact Bill Lawrence