Potential of Transit-Oriented Development Examined

New study claims such development would address Rhode Island’s housing shortage and grow jobs

By ecoRI News staff

A recently published study estimates the capacity for accommodating up to 73,000 new housing units and 25,000 new jobs in transit-oriented development areas in five cities and towns across Rhode Island. Transit-oriented development is a type of community development that includes a mixture of housing, office, retail and/or other amenities integrated into a walkable neighborhood and located within a half-mile of high-quality public transportation.

The year-long study was conducted by 40 graduate students in the Roger Williams University School of Architecture under the direction of professor Ginette Wessel and in collaboration with Grow Smart Rhode Island, HousingWorks RI, and planners in the five communities studied. Independent transit consultants Roger Leaf and Peter Brassard also provided extensive pro bono counsel to the effort. The estimates for accommodating housing and jobs are based on the highest of three density scenarios outlined by the students.

In 2016, HousingWorks RI published a report detailing Rhode Island’s housing shortage and projecting the need for up to 40,000 new housing units by 2025, based on only modest population growth and the continued decline in average household size.

“Due to a variety of building constraints, permits for new housing in Rhode Island are being granted at the rate of about 750 per year, less than a quarter of the rate needed to meet the demand,” said Brenda Clement, executive director of HousingWorksRI, a housing policy research organization at Roger Williams University.

The recent report, Evaluating the Potential for Transit Oriented Development in Rhode Island, examined the opportunities, constraints, and challenges of transit-oriented development (TOD) at specific sites along Rhode Island’s rail corridors and/or high-frequency bus routes in Woonsocket, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Westerly, and Newport. The cities of Pawtucket, Central Falls, Providence, and Warwick have already conducted professional TOD analyses, made necessary zoning changes, and are in various stages of implementation.

“The study quantifies the long-term TOD growth potential in the five cities and towns that our students analyzed, consistent with local comprehensive community plans, and includes a set of state and local recommendations to realize that potential,” Wessel said.

Among the municipal level recommendations are TOD district visioning and planning, infrastructure investment, and zoning reform to allow greater density and mix of uses. At the state level, the focus is on assistance with infrastructure needs and improving Rhode Island’s transit system with increased frequency and faster trip times. The TOD analysis comes as the state’s first long-range transit master plan called TransitForwardRI 2040 is underway.

Last year the General Assembly approved the framework for a Municipal Infrastructure Grant Program but it hasn’t yet been funded.

“We think the timing is right in Rhode Island to double down on TOD as a proven strategy for growing our economy and new housing opportunities in a sustainable way. Prioritizing TOD will capitalize on our compactness and density and respond to the strong market demand for walkable urban neighborhoods,” said Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island. “Our neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut are aggressively setting the table for attracting private TOD investment.”

With significant amenities and development infrastructure already in place, including several modes of public transportation, downtown Providence is currently dominating TOD activity in Rhode Island, according to Grow Smart.

City Centre Warwick, the 100-acre district surrounding T.F. Green Airport and the InterLink intermodal center, has seen more modest development, but is constrained by significantly lower levels of transit service at this time.

In Pawtucket/Central Falls, the Conant Thread TOD District will see a new bus hub and commuter rail stop open in 2020 and 2022, respectively.

Grow Smart said this report should be “viewed as a high-powered student product informed by outside transit experts, but not a substitute for professionally prepared plans developed on behalf of the municipalities that were studied.”

The primary purpose of the study was to quantify order-of-magnitude projected outcomes and to generate interest and discussion on the part of local and state decision-makers, according to Grow Smart. The next step would be to engage professional consultants to prepare and refine plans for implementation.