Can transit-oriented development work along Wasatch Front?

Great Recession likely to blame for lack of success at some sites

Published: Sunday, April 10 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

Partially developed land sits empty near the North Murray UTA TRAX station on Fireclay Avenue. Transit officials believe land near station can be successfully developed.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

SANDY — A large wooden sign advertising one-, two- and three-bedroom lofts, condos and townhomes used to face the parking lot at Sandy Civic Center station.

It greeted commuters each morning as they parked their cars and boarded TRAX trains headed for Salt Lake City. When the workday was done and commuters returned to their cars, that same sign informed them, "You could be home now."

Today, that sign is gone, along with possibility that Belmont Station will ever be home to anyone other than rodents, spiders and insects. The partially completed project was abandoned about three years ago when the developer's financing fell through.

Eight miles to the north, just a short walk from the Murray North TRAX station, there's little activity at Hamlet Homes' residential and commercial development, Birkhill at Fireclay.

The project's street-level commercial leasing space sits vacant, aside from the developer's sales office and The Planning Center, a consulting firm for community and environmental planning and design.

Critics of transit-oriented development often point to the two projects as evidence that the new urbanism trend of building communities where people can work, live and play, with easy access to transit, just doesn't work along the Wasatch Front.

But professional planners and transit experts say that's neither true nor fair.

"It's kind of like judging a kid's college potential based on his performance in kindergarten," said Reid Ewing, a professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah. "It's got a lot of developing and growing to do before you can tell whether it's going to be successful."

Though most of them have been slowed — and in some cases stalled — by the Great Recession, several transit-oriented developments are in the works along the Utah Transit Authority's light- and commuter-rail lines.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is creating the state's most high-profile transit-oriented development (TOD) — the $1.5 billion, 23-acre City Creek Center project.

Unlike other TODs under construction along the Wasatch Front, City Creek Center has been able to weather the recession because it has the financial backing of LDS Church, said John Taylor, director of corporate services for Commerce Real Estate Solutions.

"It's an anomaly," Taylor said. "We're seeing huge development and all this new retail space in Salt Lake that you're not seeing anywhere else in the country. That's because (City Creek Center) has a sponsor that didn't need to get a loan."

Elsewhere, Farmington's 800,000-square-foot, mixed-use development Station Park is starting to take shape at the junction of I-15 and U.S. 89. Other TODs are in various stages of planning or development in Salt Lake City, Provo, Orem, Ogden, Clearfield, Layton, Sandy, Draper, Midvale, South Salt Lake and West Jordan — among others.

One of the main reasons they're moving forward, Taylor said, is TODs seem to have the support of banks, credit unions and other lenders.

"Those are the projects that people think they have the best opportunity of getting funding for, so those are the ones they're looking at," he said.

But they're not developing as quickly as builders and transit experts projected they would. Some point fingers at the economy, saying such developments would be thriving now if lenders hadn't gotten cold feet.

Others cite poor planning on specific projects, saying developers have tried to force uses — whether residential, retail, office or a mix of all three — in areas where they're not wanted or needed, simply because there's a TRAX or FrontRunner stop there.

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