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Developing station locations

A concept that is both an effect and a factor of globalization is the time-space compression (Harvey, 1989) allowed by innovations in transport and communication technologies. In the transport domain, progress has to be mostly ascribed to infrastructure with limited entry points such as motorways, air routes and, most recently, high-speed rail links. This has meant a relative valorization of the most accessible connection points, or nodes, including selected station areas. At the same time, it has meant a relative degradation of the simple cut-across, or inadequately connected spaces (for these impacts of high-speed rail links see Troin, 1995). Accessibility is, however, not the only criterion. The station is also a specific sector of the urban space with unique characteristics. Within the emerging network geography outlined above, many railway stations hold, at least potentially, a favourable position. Typically, the stations were erected in the course of the last century at the limits of the city. Today, those sites may be in the midst of revitalizing metropolitan cores or densifying and diversifying peripheries. Often they include large and unfragmented portions of disused or underused land (most notably because of the relocation of annexed freight yards). All these processes mean that, in several cases, both the characteristics of station areas as nodes (that is, the quality of connections) and as places (that is, the value of adjacent land uses) make them possible anchors for forming or consolidating metropolitan activity concentrations (Bertolini, 1996b).

The position of railway station areas in the property market is further reinforced by planning policies promoting concentration of activities around public transportation nodes, in an effort to reduce dependence on the automobile. While the Dutch ABC location policy (Ministry of Housing etc., 1991b) is perhaps the most explicit example of this effort in Europe, public-transport-oriented development is high on the agenda everywhere. Furthermore, the shift of European railways from the public to the private sector, in whatever form, has meant a ubiquitous rise in interest in the exploitation of the companies' property assets. Land and buildings next to stations that were seen only as instrumental to transport operations are now regarded as potential sources of profit and crosssubsidization of less profitable transportation activities.

As a result of a complex of factors, the transportation node is thus becoming a magnet for more than transport-linked activities. Offices and shops are in all development plans, but sport, recreational and cultural facilities, exhibition and convention centres, hotels, government buildings, housing and—to a lesser extent—light industry may also be present. It has even been suggested that stations could become the centres of an emerging European 24-hour urban economy. However, this emerging multifunctionality often appears to be superficial—a mere spectacle of urban diversity. As will be shown in the case studies, the high cost of development, coupled with limited public subsidies, is in favour of short-term, high-return property approaches, where offices tend to dominate.

The accessibility issue

Crucial to the evaluation of the property development potential of a railway station location is an assessment of the relative role of its accessibility. The Euralille venture, as pointed out earlier, is founded on the hypothesis that under the double impact of the Channel Tunnel and the extension of the TGV network, Lille will acquire a number of typically modern activities (Simon, 1993, p. 110). Similar arguments are voiced elsewhere (see the case studies). The critical point in all these contentions is the idea that an increase or decrease in physical accessibility would have a direct, and proportionate, economic impact. However, accessibility remains a highly problematic notion. As it lacks a clear definition, there is no unequivocal way of measuring it. Most importantly, its relationships with urban development are all but straightforward.

While some progress on definitions and measures has been made (see, for instance, Banister and Edwards, 1995, unpublished; Townroe, 1995), our understanding of the link between transport and urban development remains weak, as concluded in a recent review of the state of the art (Banister, 1995). Empirical evidence shows ambiguous relationships. There are both positive and negative effects of accessibility, while other factors often play a more decisive role. The following examples of the impact of the HST illustrate this point in the case of railway station locations.

In reviewing studies of the station area development effects of high-speed rail in Japan and France, Sands (1993) summarizes their most important conclusions. In Japan, at the regional level, the introduction of the Shinkansen high-speed line appears to have redistributed, rather than generated, growth towards stations. At the station level, major differences emerged. Three new peripheral stations opened with the introduction of the Shinkansen line in 1964. There were no significant development impacts when high-speed trains stopped in existing intercity rail stations. The marginal increase in passengers attributable to the high-speed line was an important explanation. Instead, where a new station was built near the existing city centre, and was provided with a good link to the existing station, development within the city shifted towards the new station. The frequency and level of train services, the quality of connections with the existing city centre, and land speculation pressures as opposed to proactive, long-range planning practices have been the crucial discriminants between successful and less successful examples.

Also, in France, the studies reviewed by Sands (1993) suggest a shifting of spatial focus rather than autonomous economic growth at the regional level. On the TGV South-East line (opened in 1981-1983), significant station area development was observed only at Lyon Part Dieu. The area, a doubling of the spatially constrained traditional CBD of Lyon, was already under development at the time of the opening of the TGV station. However, the TGV had apparently reinforced the dynamics of what has become the city's most sought-after office location. On the TGV Atlantic line (opened in 1989) there were signs that development initiatives had been successful in Le Mans and Nantes. Next to the TGV, other important explanatory factors were the quality of other transport connections, the proximity of the existing city centre, proactive public-private development partnerships, and the state of the local economy. The failure to attract development at TGV stations such as Le Creusot, Vendome or Macon showed, on the contrary, how the TGV alone is not enough.

These and similar points are restated in other literature reviews (e.g. Troin, 1995). The TGV, just like the Shinkansen, appears to be essentially a catalyst of development when other conditions are in place. Those conditions include lively local economies and property markets, availability of land or buildings, excellent connection to local and regional transport networks, and strong public investment and leadership. The important conclusion is that a combination of factors shou be taken into account when discussing the case studies.

Strengths and weaknesses of station locations: an open issue

The preceding sections have considered both the potentials for and some prerequisites of railway station area development from a property perspective. Let us now try to narrow the discussion by focusing on the location's balance of strengths and weaknesses. This will not lead to definitive conclusions. Whatever their potential, the market feasibility of station development plans remains a controversial point. We provide a sense of this debate by summarizing the issues at stake in the Netherlands (Provincie Zuid Holland, 1991; MBO, 1993; Bongenaar, 1994; Cüsters, 1994; Rutten and Cüsters, 1994; NSC, 1994; NIROV/ Sectie SEIROV, 1995). Some of the problems brought up in this discussion are peculiar to the Dutch context, but most are typical of station location development elsewhere in Europe (for instance, several similar points are raised for the Swiss case in CEAT, 1993), and may therefore be instructive. Striking national peculiarities, when applicable, will be highlighted.

According to most developers, investors, and independent property consultants operating in the Netherlands, railway station areas have some strengths and many weaknesses. These areas can be developed only if various conditions are met. The main strengths are their excellent accessibility by public transport, the associated high flows of people, the proximity of the historic city centre (in most cases), and public policy in support of development.

More extensive is the list of recurring shortcomings. A crucial one is the typically high development costs and comparatively low revenues, which mean that a financial deficit is structural (as in other European countries, with the possible exception of very central locations under favourable market conditions, as for instance in central London and Paris during the 1980s property boom). Generally, initial ambitions (such as multifunctionality and open spaces) are not checked against financial-economic feasibility, nor are they translated into hard programme demands/requisites. The inevitable result is downsizing in the course of the process (there are a few exceptions in Europe, for instance Euralille and Zentrum Zürich Nord). A solid foundation of the programme in market surveys is often absent (again, Euralille and Zentrum Zürich Nord are more positive examples). Partly as a consequence there is a strong orientation towards office development, and inadequate differentiation in developments around different stations (with a few exceptions elsewhere). Insufficiencies in urban design quality, access and car parking as well as environmental constraints pose great limits to (re) development. As a result of all this, the price-quality relationship of the location is not competitive, particularly with respect to locations on the urban periphery (more true in the Dutch polycentric urban system than in other contexts). In trying to reverse this situation, there is too little harmonization with developments elsewhere in the region, and no clear political priorities (in contrast with, for instance, several French cases). Finally, there are a whole series of destructive difficulties (ranging from insufficient coordination to uncertainties about intentions of some parties and fragmented landownership) connected to the multiplicity of actors that characterizes station development in the Netherlands, as in other countries.

The list of conditions considered necessary to realize the development potential of station locations in the Netherlands is equally long. Most importantly, enough car parking and good accessibility by car are also to be guaranteed, while public transport must drastically improve its standards. A broader functional mix is required, including offices, but also shops, public services, and housing. This mix must be complementary rather than concurrent to that of the city centre and of peripheral locations. The functional programme must be grounded in feasibility studies and market surveys, reflecting the acknowledgement that each location is different, and that not every station area is a development area. Furthermore, the implementation strategy must entail an answer to the question of how the mix of profitable and non-profitable elements is achieved, and how the latter are financed. In any case, substantial public investment seems unavoidable, while land for development must be made available at the right time, and constraints have to be imposed on development in competing locations. Finally, from an urban design point of view, better integration between buildings, public spaces and transport infrastructure is needed. The attractiveness and security of the open spaces must increase. And a good, short and 'natural' link to the city—or other adjoining —centre is desirable.

The remarkable conclusion of analysts in the Netherlands is that

Station areas are from a financial, property and investment perspective in first instance unattractive development locations. Their redevelopment into successful, potentially attractive investment locations is only possible through an enormous effort of municipalities, a restrictive investment and location policy and financial support from the national government. (Wolting, 1995, p. 2).

That conclusion should be put in perspective, and not only because of the peculiarities of the highly regulated, risk-averse Dutch property markets (on this subject see Needham et al., 1993). According to a more recent, leading review of the now recovering Dutch property market (Kloosterman and Venema, 1997), railway station areas were actually the most sought-after office locations! The problem, here as elsewhere, is that appraisals have to be more specific, both in space and in time, and that a complex of factors has to be accounted for, including but going beyond accessibility and touching on development processes and evolving institutional contexts. Before considering these points, we shall combine the various lines of argument pursued so far in an integrated transport-property development perspective.

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