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Riding Rails to Big Rewards

Development booms around Utah’s rapid transit stations

May 4, 2007 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Federal Transportation Agency
  The Salt Lake region’s popular rapid rail system is spurring new, residential and commercial “transit oriented development” within walking distance of its many transit stations.

MURRAY CITY, Utah—Transit advocates looking for rapid rail success stories can find quite a few of them in the American West, including in this city of 50,000 along the Wasatch Front, the spectacular mountain range overlooking the Salt Lake Valley. Murray City is reaping big economic rewards from a regional rapid rail system that is one of the country’s most ambitious new public transportation projects.

The success story started in 1999, when Salt Lake City and its closest suburbs built the original 19-mile, 23-station TRAX light rail system. Ridership has steadily increased since then: TRAX now hauls more than 55,000 riders a day, well ahead of its original projections. Voters, pleased with the results, have passed several sales tax increases to expand the system.

The $2.5 billion in new revenue will finance 26 more miles of light rail, 88 miles of heavy commuter rail line, and nearly 40 additional station stops. That adds up to more rapid transit construction than any region except Denver, which is constructing a 151-mile system.

TRAX’s booming success demonstrates just how many people in regions long hooked on cars and wide open spaces are now looking for new ways to get around. So do similar success stories across the nation: A host of other metropolitan regions, among them Minneapolis, Denver, Dallas, Sacramento, St. Louis, Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle and Portland, Ore., have also invested billions of dollars in commuter rail systems over the last decade.

And, as in other regions, the success of a commuter rail here is spurring dozens of opportunities for developers to design and build transit-centered home and business districts—so-called "transit oriented developments." They are popping up all along the Front, where 2 million people now live. Developers, instead of fretting over lost opportunities to build more suburban tracts, are working to keep up with new demand for housing in town centers, where residents can be just an easy walk away from modern, efficient, and convenient public transit.

Builders See Opportunity
Here in Murray City, south of Salt Lake City, local developers like Hamlet Homes are riding the region’s move toward downtown development. The company began collaborating two years ago with the city to turn industrial land along Fireclay Avenue into a dense neighborhood of townhouses, condominiums, and offices. They recently finalized details of an ambitious new project, known as Birkhill at Fireclay.

The 30-acre, $140 million project by one of this region’s largest builders, who intends to break ground in June, is impressive: It includes 420 units of housing and 200,000 sq. ft. of retail and office space. But the project is just the first development in a 97-acre transit-oriented district that the city established around the Murray North station.

Keith Snarr, the director of the city’s economic development office, helped negotiate the agreement with Hamlet. Mr. Snarr said he is convinced that fast-rising energy and land costs, static incomes, and the region’s swift population growth are producing a market for neighborhood on land that has served as Murray’s industrial backyard.

"The project is right in the center of Murray, which is in the center of the Salt Lake Valley," he said. "People can go where they want and won’t have to get in a car. It may not be the lifestyle for everybody, but there are a lot of people around here now that understand what it means to be urban, and find this attractive."

Gloria Ohland, vice president for communications at Reconnecting America, a national transit research group based in Oakland, Calif., pointed to what she said is the most powerful force encouraging new developments like Birkhill at Fireclay.

"The basic reason that transit-oriented development is working in Utah and other places is largely demographic," Ms. Ohland said. "American households are older, smaller, and more diverse. Singles are 41 percent of the population. People who are single, and couples that have no children. Those are the people who gravitate to cities."

Not Easy, But Worth It
But even as a new tide of people head their way, the region’s transit-focused builders say there are plenty of impediments. For example, assembling land parcels large enough to be attractive is a difficult trick in city and town centers. It took Hamlet Homes more than two years to assemble the 30 acres for Birkhill at Fireclay.

Zoning regulations are another big obstacle. Most communities, including Murray City, had to rewrite zoning regulations that used to keep homes and businesses far apart. The new ordinances encourage space-saving development patterns that put homes and businesses close together and near the transit stop, prompting people to park their cars and walk.

Murray City passed its transit development ordinance in 2005, more than five years after TRAX started rolling. The new ordinance encourages narrower streets, trees, and pocket parks, and will produce a new district that, while not as compactly built as a classic American city, will not look anything like typical, single-use, suburban subdivisions.

Michael Brodsky, the chairman of Hamlet Homes, which he founded in 1995, said that strong market response to his downtown-style projects compensates for the difficulties involved in building them. His first such project was Inverness Square, a $24 million, 120-unit project a half-mile from the 53rd Street TRAX station.The development, started in 2005, is nearly completed and the two- and three-bedroom town homes, priced to start at around $170,000, are sold out.

Last October, the company began Waverly Station, its second transit-oriented development, on 10 acres alongside the Meadowbrook TRAX station. The $42 million project includes 47 condominiums, 131 town homes, and 14,000 sq. ft. of retail and office space. Hamlet just completed the first phase of the project and sold 41 of the 1,500 to 1,900 square-foot, two and three-bedroom town homes for between $190,000 and $255,000.

"We’re the first out of the chute with this kind of product and it’s been well received," said Mr. Brodsky. "The fact that we are building close to the light rail station is an important amenity. It is part of the package that also includes a combination of affordability and accessibility to a more urban setting. All three of our transit-oriented developments are within five miles of Salt Lake City. Our buyers can take the train downtown."

Young Buyers Go For It
That’s a selling point with buyers. Mary Ann Downs, a 22-year-old interior designer, moved into her $193,000 three-bedroom home at Waverly Station in February. Ms. Downs is happy to be near the TRAX system—she plans to use it this spring when the light rail connects to the new commuter line—and she also likes her neighbors.

One of them is David Bailey, 28, who works for a jewelry dealer. He bought a two-bedroom home for $205,000. He said access to the TRAX line, which he rides to basketball and football games downtown, played a part in his decision to buy. "I really feel as gas prices go up, homes near public transportation will increase in value," he said.

Developers think the same thing. North of Salt Lake City, Centercal Properties just closed on a $2.13 million purchase of 70 acres near the new commuter rail station in Farmington, one of nine stops on a 44-mile, $611 million line to Pleasantview that should open in the spring of 2008.

Centercal, which is based in Portland, Ore., earned a national reputation in transit- oriented design with its Gresham Station project, a 130-acre, $400 million, mixed-use district composed of stores, offices, housing, and schools that it began in 1999 along the MAX light rail system east of the city. Gresham Station today produces $3 million in tax revenue for the City of Gresham, has generated 200 jobs, and houses 1,600 residents.

Company president Fred Bruning said Centercal will bring the same principles of compact, transit-focused design to its new $120 million Station Park project, which will lie just across the Farmington rail station’s parking lot. It will consist of 700,000 sq. ft. of retailing, 300,000 sq. ft. of office space, and 250 residential units in rental apartments and town homes. Farmington, a bedroom community of 14,000 residents 13 miles north of Salt Lake City, updated its zoning to allow for mixing housing, offices, and retail.

A rendering of Station Park on the company’s Web site shows a district designed for seeing and being seen. Three-story buildings, with shops on the ground floor and offices and homes on the floors above, surround a large public square with a fountain, broad sidewalks, and a garden. The project mixes European-like urbanity with the outdoor suburban lifestyle malls that have appeared recently across America.

"Compared to what is already there in Farmington, this is a lot of density," said Mr. Bruning. "You have to take it in steps and develop density as the market becomes available. We design our projects in such a way that density can increase over time. If it’s designed well, it has a shelf life for decades."

That’s exactly what Mr. Snarr, Murray City’s development director, plans for The Birkhill at Fireclay, and other projects he’s recruiting to the district around the Murray North station.

"People want to live in a place that’s a little more cosmopolitan," said Mr. Snarr. "They gain a lot. They save money on gas and housing costs. They reduce their stress because they don’t have to drive as much. And they get a chance to know their neighbors. It adds up for me."

Keith Schneider, a journalist, is editor and director of new program development at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. Read Keith’s blog at http://www.modeshift.org/. A version of this article was published in the Earth Day, April 22, 2007 edition of The New York Times.

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