Metro eases into land development, aiming to connect transit, housing and jobs

The Metropolitan Transit Authority spent decades building a network of parking lots where drivers could leave their cars and trucks and drive to work. Now officials are wondering if these lots would be an attractive spot for developers who might view these commuters as potential customers.

Subway officials are asking for proposals for a traffic-centric design, where developers can submit proposals to synchronize transit centers and bus depots with new homes and businesses.

“This is about bringing quality of life to areas bordering transit centers and park-and-ride areas,” said Metro Chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran.

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Metro’s interest spans properties it owns as well as properties it leases from private developers. A number of park and ride lots are traditional bus stops, with parking available in a commercial lot typically used by a grocery or department store that does not see high volume during the workday.

The agency is starting slowly, having made some progress with a 2015 study evaluating potential uses around park-and-ride locations. The board established a subcommittee in August tasked with co-development and land use, which met for the first time on September 14. Employees, meanwhile, made a request for information to the developers, the first step in seeing if anyone had any ideas for using subway spaces.

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“I like the approach that we’re asking the market to come to us,” said Diann Lewter, the Metro board member appointed to chair the new committee.

Though the possibilities are just beginning to emerge — a first round of proposals is due by the end of the month, followed by months of analysis and public meetings — some board members said they were keen to move forward.

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“I’m really excited to get it working as soon as possible,” said Lewter.

However, in one case, Metro won’t wait. The board on Thursday authorized negotiations to begin to move its Missouri City park and ride near the Fort Bend Tollway and Texas 6 from one commercial development to another owned by the same developer. The proposed move will bring Metro much more parking and place the transit station at the heart of a proposed mixed-use residential/retail development.

Metropolitan Transit Authority bus drivers return to their vehicles after disembarking the bus at the Missouri City Park and Ride stop near the Fort Bend Tollway and Texas 6 on Wednesday, September 21, 2022, in Missouri City .

Metropolitan Transit Authority bus drivers return to their vehicles after disembarking the bus at the Missouri City Park and Ride stop near the Fort Bend Tollway and Texas 6 on Wednesday, September 21, 2022, in Missouri City .

Marie D. De Jesús/Photographer

If Metro can find private partners to better use or build on its land while maintaining its use for transit, the agency can create more value than just concrete lots and better connect its transit centers to the surrounding area.

Although economics will always play a role, Ramabhadran said that is not Metro’s main calculation.

“The driving factor is value to the region, which goes well beyond sales,” he said.

The move toward more development, however, is on the minds of some Metro board members.

“The first is Mission Creep. This bothers me a lot,” said board member Bob Fry, noting that Metro specializes in maintaining high-occupancy transit and tolls along roads in the region. “Let’s not lose sight of what we are here for is mobility.”

Fry, a former mayor of West University Place, urged officials to think long-term when using land for commercial or residential purposes. He cited a decision by a former West U mayor who sold land in the 1950s, narrowing the city from publicly owned land, with leaders wishing they had room to expand.

“I told myself I would try never to do anything that a mayor would regret 40 years later,” he said.

Metro is lagging behind many of its peers in establishing policies that aim for mass transit-centric development and utilizing agency-owned space. Dallas Area Rapid Transit in the North Texas Metroplex has had a TOD policy since 1989.

However, critics point out that despite all of DART’s attempts to shift residential and retail space toward its 93-mile light rail lines, ridership has not benefited. A station in the developed enclave of Las Colinas, which aims to bring urban design to a suburban setting, is among the agency’s lowest in terms of daily drivers.

“Dallas Light Rail and TODs are just a way of moving money from taxpayers to developers,” transit spending critic Randal O’Toole wrote last year.

Other areas fared significantly better. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has long sought offerings that bring transit stations to central shopping and residential areas. Asia and Latin America are also dotted with transit stations built into everything from shopping malls to government centers.

Houston isn’t nearly as dense overall, but increased growth in certain locations makes larger stops possible. Development has already taken place in many places where Metro picks up passengers, some of which have become mini-cities in their own right. For example, at Interstate 10 and the Grand Parkway, Metro partnered with NewQuest Properties on a 1,650-space parking garage that opened in February 2017, with more room for commuters during the day and enough parking at night for a nearby movie theater.

That dual use could become more common, even on Metro-owned land, officials said, as Houston looks to become a more dense but still sprawling region.

“Is a concrete parking lot the best single use of this lot?” said Ramabhadran.

Houston’s development, on the other hand, is a mix of turning those concrete lots into something more and spreading homes and businesses further from the heart of the city.

“Certainly we are seeing developments that include mixed use in them,” said Aimee Bertrand, executive vice president and CEO of the Greater Houston Builders’ Association.

At the same time, however, housing construction remains stronger in places like Waller and Brazoria counties, where new housing can replace open fields, but is also well outside of Metro’s 1,200-square-mile service area, which includes most but not all of Harris County.

“I think transportation is always part of the conversation,” Bertrand said. “Nobody wants to build a settlement where people can’t come to work.”

Transit may play a larger role in some developments along major highways, where homes and businesses could be packaged together to offer a village setting just steps from a highway, officials said, a developer could offer local residents promise of a convenient Buses attract access to major job centers such as Uptown, downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

Metro already sits on highly desirable land in the medical center. Located across from Fannin of MD Anderson Cancer Center and across from Pressler of UT Health’s Health Science Center, the transit center has sparked interest in major projects, all poised to maintain their bus service.

However, when Metro was approached with an unsolicited offer in 2018 that later resulted in a competing offer, Metro chose to leave things as they were, as neither project would improve transit access for existing passengers. Instead, both projects had the potential to encourage hundreds of daily vehicle trips to the overcrowded medical center.

“Although both proposals provided estimated revenue streams and various amenities, the potential issues surrounding customer experience were the driving factor in … the decision not to proceed with this request,” Metro officials wrote in a summary to break off the discussions.

However, as land becomes scarce in key locations, Metro may need to reconsider at least its current use of sprawling, flat parking lots.

“When you build structured parking lots, you free up a lot of land that can be used for workers’ housing,” said Barry Goodman, a former Metro president who now consults with Houston-area governments on transportation issues through his company The Goodman Corporation.

Structures also often give Metro more space as their daytime peak usage complements commercial usage at night. Just like with the Grand Parkway, Metro’s planned park-and-ride move in Missouri City will place it in a planned garage. The commuter bus stop is now a one-way bus stop in front of the Kroger on the southwest corner of the Fort Bend Tollway and Texas 6 in the first phase of Fort Bend Town Center.

New Park & ​​Ride location in downtown Fort Bend

New Park & ​​Ride location in downtown Fort Bend

employee graphic

The proposed new site moves into the third phase of the city center on an unoccupied piece of land at the southeast corner of the tollway interchange. NewQuest is also the developer of downtown Fort Bend.

As the agency moves forward, board members said they want to be cautious about future deals, particularly ones that could tie Metro to renting space in something that hasn’t been developed yet. If proposed homes and businesses don’t materialize, Metro could end up renting parking spaces where people don’t go.

“There must be clear branches for the agency,” said board member Roberto Trevino.

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