Breathing new life into dormant lands along railway corridors

By Jamie Kennedy | August 19, 2020

Economic growth in the golden age of the automobile, and the generous funding to roads and low levels of taxation on cars, resulted in growth that was focused in the suburbs. As growth concentrated away from urban cores, properties adjacent to and in proximity of active rail corridors often lay dormant and underutilized.

Now, as cities face increasing pressure to meet housing, employment, and transportation demands, these lands are increasingly seen as development opportunities to create new, attractive urban amenities offering mobility and experience. It has only been comparatively recently that industrial activity has left central areas and, at the same time, planning and market forces have identified some of these sites as being appropriate for housing and mixed-use development. Today, the challenge is in balancing the needs of the municipality and the railway operators to create functional, attractive, risk-mitigated developments to fully realize the benefits of occupying and re-activating these spaces.

Jamie Kennedy, Planner and Consultant with our Urban Solutions team, provides some insights on urban development projects on land adjacent to railway corridors.

Why is urban development taking place near or around rail corridors?

De-industrialization and rapidly increasing land values within many of Canada’s major urban centers is driving the interest in acquiring and redeveloping railway adjacent properties. The conversion (re-zoning) of these sites from industrial and employment land to commercial and residential land use can significantly increase the value of a property. Another reason for this ongoing development is the need for better public transit systems. Funding for new transit infrastructure is being sought through private development firms, tasked with delivering the infrastructure as part of the adjacent development.

In the context of the Province of Ontario, the developer-led station delivery model introduced by the province’s transit agency, Metrolinx, has increased interest in rail corridor adjacent development.

While some of these properties are commanding premium prices, a consistent attraction is that they are often favorably large parcels of land, where masterplanning and/or the creation of new urban space is possible. Developers have identified these lands as viable opportunities to meet urban intensification needs. Planning policy and cities, recognizing the acute housing shortage, are often amenable if the necessary municipal planning requirements are satisfied.

What are some challenges facing developers who want to adapt these underused lands?

The primary challenges facing developers who want to adapt these lands are generally related to the complex regulatory process the development applications are subject to, in order to proceed with corridor-adjacent development. In many Canadian cities, landowners must meet multiple stakeholder interests when planning new developments within the proximity of active rail corridors. At a minimum, standard municipal planning requirements must be met. However, development plans are also subject to additional stages of peer-review and require approval from the rail operator(s).

The occasionally competing interests of the rail operator and the municipality can further complicate the process. To avoid these challenges, a collaborative planning process that involves all stakeholders at the earliest stages of the design process can significantly improve the likelihood of success.

Identification and assessment of all risks is of increasing importance in the emergence of these land-use opportunities and trends. In order to achieve a level of density that will allow developers to profitably deliver new development sites with integrated transit infrastructure, appropriately mitigated risks are essential to the approval of these projects.

The review and approval process involves developers engaging with multiple stakeholders to address different demands and interests. The impact of increasing congestion on the existing transit infrastructure and environment, due to residents moving into a new property, must also be considered.

What are the benefits of creating urban environments around rail infrastructure?

Railway operators across Canada still strongly discourage new development near active rail corridors. However, in Canada’s largest cities, increased demand for housing and reduced land supply is attracting private investment and developer interest.

In Toronto, some of the benefits of developing near active railways include the delivery of much-needed transit infrastructure. By securing funding for new stations through private development agreements, the municipality and province can continue to meet the growing travel demands of the region for future generations. Development adjacent to rail corridors can also increase the opportunity to promote sustainable travel behavior where public transit is integrated into the site.

These developments also help meet housing and employment growth targets set by the municipality, while also contributing to the realization of the longer-term goals of the regional growth plan. Underutilized spaces are being reactivated and reclaimed as part of higher quality public spaces. When done effectively, the intensification of urban areas can produce sustainable environments, resulting in mixed-use communities that meet housing, economic and social needs, anchored by mass transit systems.

What public safety requirements are involved in rail-adjacent developments?

Train derailments occur all the time. In 2018, Transport Canada recorded over 200 mainline track accidents that included derailments and collisions. When proposing any new development in proximity of an active rail corridor, a package of mitigation measures is needed to reduce the risks associated with railway operations.

Protecting people and property from rail-related activities involves the identification of risks. For example, to protect against the possibility of a train derailment, ‘deflection’ wall (or ‘crash’ walls) are used to contain trains within the rail corridor. Other factors, such as noise, vibration, and air quality, are concerns that may affect the health and well-being of future occupants of the site and can be mitigated by using specific materials in the building’s design. The application of multiple mitigation measures within the development is often necessary to ensure long-lasting protection for the development site.

How is Hatch working with the public and private sector to provide guidance on these projects?

We work closely with the public and private sectors to identify strategies to mitigate the risks associated with railway operations. The collaborative process involves engagement with and input from the rail operators and municipalities. We work with the rail operators to ensure new developments will not affect existing or future rail operations. We provide our technical expertise to municipalities and developers in assessing the feasibility of development sites in the context of rail adjacency and develop strategies to meet the necessary rail safety requirements.

Because standards and regulations for railway corridors are continuously evolving, it’s no longer appropriate to look at previous solutions for future guidance. Therefore, Hatch takes a first principle’s approach to solving these challenges. As urban planners and engineers, we’ve played an important role in guiding municipalities and railway operators towards decisions that balance, and significantly reduce the potential risks urban development has on public safety and railway operations.

How has Hatch been able to apply innovative thinking in this area?

Although we work with standard design guidelines, the technical knowledge and expertise of our multi-disciplinary teams allow us to create innovative solutions that help overcome site-specific challenges. We look at things beyond just a technical perspective. There are other factors we consider, such as strategic land use planning and how these developments can better serve urban populations in the future.

Our recent work in the Lower Junction area of Toronto is an example of strategic land use planning. Hatch is working with each of the landowners as they develop their properties in an emerging employment and residential district, anchored by strong transit connections. Together, as part of a larger city-building vision, our goal is to work with the development community to improve the way new projects are integrated with local and regional transit systems.