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Article

Utah’s New Golden Link

Transit-oriented Development Connects Communities

By Candace M. Little

September 1, 2009


It was one man, Leland Stanford, who officially joined the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad by connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads with a ceremonial golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869. That day also connected the East and the West and the beginning of a whole new kind of development and advancement for Utah. Today, another kind of rail is spreading. One that, instead of building deep connections to places outside the state, is connecting communities and cities within Utah and is revolutionizing the state’s future development. TRAX stops and FrontRunner hubs are popping up across the state and with them, new residential, retail and office space. In some locations, these transportation stations are the center of the community, while in others, they blend in with the neighborhood. The Utah Transit Authority (UTA), private developers and cities across the state have banded together to maximize the business development and residential potential of each location. This type of development around transit is called transit-oriented development, or TOD. UTA’s FrontRunner will eventually reach Provo and current TRAX projects will connect Salt Lake City to the airport, West Valley, Draper, West Jordan and Daybreak. UTA is also implementing other transit systems like Bus Rapid Transit, which is an enhanced bus system that operates on bus lanes or other transit ways. These transportation systems are also spurring development across the state. But Utah is not alone in its TOD efforts. According to a recent report “Capturing the Value of Transit,” by the Center for Transit-oriented Development, a national nonprofit organization that provides support to market-based TOD, this is a growing trend across the nation and world—and a valuable one, too. “Over the past decade, it has become increasingly clear that the presence of transit can increase property values and result in valuable development opportunities,” the report says. “In this era of constrained transit funding and widespread demand for new and expanded transit systems, policy makers, transit planners and elected officials are increasingly interested in harnessing a portion of the value that transit confers to surrounding properties to fund transit infrastructure or related improvements in station areas.” The report also suggests many economic, social and environmental benefits to TOD. Ryan McFarland, UTA’s TOD director, couldn’t agree more. He says TOD is a wise use of Utah tax dollars because it helps capitalize the major transit investment that Utah and UTA have made. “If we’ve decided to tax ourselves to build a $2.5 billion project—let’s capitalize on that. Let’s live there, work there and shop there…not just have a parking lot,” he says. “That is a better investment of tax payer dollars.” In addition to capitalizing on the use of tax dollars, McFarland says TOD also adds value to Utah by creating a sense of place and by allowing more options for transit. Close to Home Through an Art in Transit program, UTA is working with Utah’s cities to hire local and professional artists to design statues and other public art for its light rail projects. The program’s purpose is to showcase elements of community identity, history and values. McFarland says some cities take it a step further, like Farmington, which wanted to give its light rail stop a Lagoon Park look since many riders use the stop to go to the theme park. Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey says Ogden has also made extra effort to make its FrontRunner stop welcoming. “We view our stop as one that people will be coming into from other cities along the Wasatch Front, especially Salt Lake City,” he says. “So, we have developed our station with tourists in mind.” Godfrey says the Ogden intermodal hub is “by far the most beautiful and well planned out of any.” The art focuses on a high adventure recreation theme. “We are the only city with a Welcome Center,” Godfrey says. “It’s historic and cool at the same time.” While some may argue that constructing light rail transportation may actually damage the sense of place that already exists with its rail corridors, McFarland says UTA uses existing rail corridors, for the most part. He says it is more of a revitalization of the old rail, rather than new rail corridors being laid through old neighborhoods. Aside from the physical influence of transit rails and stops, light rail also brings along other developments such as park and ride lots, office space and condominiums. In many instances, TOD creates a positive living environment for those who work, live, visit or recreate near a transportation hub. UTA is working toward creating a sense of place and community while new developments spring up, and in some instances, hopes to bring new life to older areas in the state. Salt Lake City’s Downtown Alliance is on a mission to keep Salt Lake vibrant and to guide Utah’s capital to new heights. It includes efforts to make Salt Lake a better place to work, live and do business. Carla Wiese, Downtown Alliance economic development director, says TOD is a big part of accomplishing that mission. “Transportation, like TRAX in Salt Lake City, has definitely impacted lives,” Wiese says. “It has spurred urban living; it connects University of Utah students to the city center, businesses to other businesses and employees to employers.” Wiese also says TRAX encourages pedestrian-friendly streets and eco-friendly living, which helps keep Salt Lake a vibrant place to visit and live. The largest development downtown is the City Creek Center, with 20 acres of mixed-use land (including more than 750 residential units) across three blocks of the heart of downtown. “Physically, it will be open to the street and the city, with attractive landscaping and water features in expanded open spaces,” the Downtown Rising Website reports. Construction will be completed with high-grade finishes in 2012. Transit makes open spaces and pedestrian use areas more practical, encouraging the use of TRAX and foot traffic in the City Creek Center. There are two TRAX stops planned within the City Creek Center development. Wiese says another large TOD in Salt Lake City is University Boulevard, the light rail corridor beginning on 400 South downtown and connecting to the University of Utah, Research Park and the Foothill Cultural District. Salt Lake Community College’s downtown location is also on University Boulevard, which gives developers additional reason to build housing, business and entertainment venues along the line. In the past few years, more than 900 condominiums have been under construction, the largest increase in inventory since the 1980s. In addition to the City Creek Center, other downtown areas are developing new buildings and renovating old. The Gateway, O.C. Tanner’s renovation of the old post office and planetarium building for its new flagship store and construction of a new high-rise office building, 222 South Main, are a few examples. Avoid the Jam TRAX and FrontRunner give Utahns more transportation and lifestyle choices they haven’t had before, says McFarland. People across the state now have the choice to live in a condo next to a transit station and never drive a car to work, to the movies, to the doctor or to school. Empty nesters can choose to sell their big home and move into a smaller unit downtown. CEOs can choose to live 30 miles away from downtown and work on their laptop and Smartphone as FrontRunner brings them into the city each day for work. Or they can live inside the city and take transit to their job in a suburban area. To some, there may be a perception that density equals slum and blight. While TOD does offer more choices, it does bring density. But McFarland says people are getting past the social concept that only poor people ride trains and live downtown. He points to examples in major U.S. and international cities, such as New York and London, where it’s clear that suited men and Bluetooth-adorned women boarding transit systems are not on their way to the homeless shelter, but to work. “Some people would prefer train, others prefer cars. It’s about choices and more people are changing what they choose,” McFarland says. Aside from choosing to live in a different place, or commute to work a different way, choosing rail transit is also choosing a more sustainable, environmentally sound way of life. “There’s a changing paradigm across the whole country—people are realizing that urban sprawl is not sustainable,” McFarland says. “There is a movement toward this transportation living. We’re not suggesting that they have to sell their cars and only use TRAX, but we do consider this an opportunity for people to consider another lifestyle.” FrontRunner currently operates a two-way line from Salt Lake to Ogden with seven stops along the way. About 5,900 people board FrontRunner every day. These early adopters are mostly boarding during the peak commuting times, taking advantage of the new lifestyle option. If You Build It… There is value in using light rail from Salt Lake southbound, but Godfrey also sees increasing value for commuters heading north. “The value will be measured and captured most directly by how many new visitors the FrontRunner brings to Ogden,” he says. “Over time, I think we will see new businesses moving to Ogden because they will come to understand what a great community this is and that exposure in some cases will have originated with their traveling on the FrontRunner to Ogden. Every time we give someone a tour from outside the area they leave blown away with what’s happening here.” UTA ensures a light rail system will pay off before construction begins by doing studies of the projected area and researching alternative transportation options across the world. Planning is a crucial part of TOD, and McFarland says a good example of planning for a return in value is RioTinto, parent company of Daybreak. Daybreak’s Scott Kaufmann, vice president of commercial development, says Daybreak is different than any other TOD project in the nation because the development is going up without a dense population already in place. There are a little more than 2,000 homes sold in Daybreak, a few local businesses and eBay is getting ready to move in. So instead of rail corridor being laid down next to store fronts, it’s being laid in front of a field with a sign reading, “this is the future home of….” Even though it is a different kind of TOD, Kaufmann says to a place like Daybreak, TRAX makes sense. “Part of our mission is sustainable development and our decisions are made through that filter. TOD is a really strong example of where that all comes together.” One of the TRAX stops is positioned next to a building site for a new University of Utah health care facility. Kaufman says it isn’t just for Daybreak citizens, but it will supply jobs for many outside of Daybreak and will be a connection to Salt Lake and the University of Utah Campus. Among many things at Daybreak, there are parks, ponds and open space. The community includes neighborhoods with houses, town homes, and condos are under development. There is also a charter school, a barbershop and a shopping area and TRAX connects it all together. Kaufmann says Daybreak has worked extensively with Envision Utah to bring national transportation trends to Utah and has found that transportation is valuable to people only if it improves their way of life, or allows them to live their life in a more ideal way. “What people value is open space, pedestrian zones, a sense of community, closeness and sustainability,” Kaufmann says. “And part of the reason TRAX was a good option for us is because it helps us accomplish that in Daybreak.” Of course McFarland says that it’s not just a good option Daybreak citizens, but for many people across the state.
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