Can transit-oriented development work along Wasatch Front?

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

Published: Saturday, Oct. 10 2015 7:14 a.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) 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.

A UTA TRAX train nears the Sandy Civic Center stop, which developers had hoped to erect townhomes and condos. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) A UTA TRAX train nears the Sandy Civic Center stop, which developers had hoped to erect townhomes and condos. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

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.

Being forced to stop and consider those decisions, Taylor says, is "a healthy part of the slowdown in the economy."

To some extent, UTA officials agree with that assessment.

"There's no question that the economy really did slow down the idea of transit-oriented development," said Ryan McFarland, UTA's transit economic development manager. "But that's OK, because it gave us an opportunity to really get out there and plan. … Planning is critical. There are ways to make transit-oriented development successful."

UTA has entered into agreements to partner in two TODs — a shopping center/office development on 31 acres near the future TRAX stop at 3200 W. 8650 South, West Jordan; and a 4-acre development at 3900 S. West Temple, where plans call for construction of a 60,000-square-foot Salt Lake Community College office and classroom building.

The transit authority also plans to partner in three other TODs — a massive 60-plus acre project in Clearfield featuring 3,500 residential units, 143,000 square feet of retail space and 107,000 square feet for office use; a 48-acre mixed-use development near the Sandy Civic Center TRAX station; and residential and retail projects adjacent to the planned Sugar House streetcar line.

Action by the Utah Legislature in 2010 authorized UTA to enter into agreements with developers as a limited partner on up to five projects. Under SB272, the transit authority can contribute portions of land it owns around transit stations to a developer's project in exchange for a say in how to develop the land and a share of the profits.

"We really do want to see our stations become destinations," McFarland said. "Rather than selling our land off to a used-car lot, which really doesn't do a lot for transit, we'd really like to see destinations established at each one of these stations."

UTA officials say each "destination" will be different from the next. Not every site will be The Gateway — Salt Lake City's hub for shopping, dining and entertainment, easily accessed via TRAX.

"We won't have a Gateway-style magnitude at each location," McFarland said. "But they'll be destinations in their own right."

Station Park in Farmington, for example, will have a Harmons grocery store, as well as a 15-screen Cinemark theater and a variety of restaurants.

Perhaps as important as what each station has to offer is the ability to easily access other "destinations" along the light- and commuter-rail network, Ewing said.

When talking to students in his land-use and transportation class about what makes transit-oriented developments successful, the U. professor refers what are known as the "D variables."

One of the "D variables" is "destination accessibility," which takes into account how many attractions or jobs are accessible from a given site within 30 minutes.

Currently, the "destinations" using rail lines along the Wasatch Front are limited to downtown Salt Lake City and the University of Utah, Reid said.

"That's not awful, but it's not good," he said.

By 2015, that network will be expanded by 70 miles of rail along five lines, including an extension of FrontRunner from Salt Lake City to Provo. People will be able to take TRAX to Salt Lake City International Airport and several other areas of Salt Lake County.

"As the system becomes more complete, like adding the North Temple line (to the airport), you'll be able to reach more destinations, so destination accessibility will improve," Reid said.

The other "D variables" needed for a successful TOD, according to Reid, are "density," meaning more apartments and townhomes; "diversity" in the types of land uses, such as residential, retail and office; a "design" that is geared toward pedestrians; and a short "distance" to and from transit.

Most transit-oriented developments planned for the Wasatch Front possess many or all of those crucial variables, which gives Reid hope that those projects will be successful.

And he said it's far too early to grade transit-oriented development along the Wasatch Front or the success of a specific project.

Take Birkhill at Fireclay, for example. Only a fraction of the project has been developed as part of Murray's 97-acre Fireclay redevelopment area.

"How can you possibly judge a development that's going to have apartments, single-family homes, lots of retail and office (space) based on a single building? It just doesn't make sense," Reid said. "My sense is that Fireclay will be a pretty good TOD."

But Fireclay, like transit-oriented developments along the Wasatch Front as a whole, needs time to grow up, he said.

"Let's wait about 10 years until more of it is built and a lot more of the (transit) system is in place," Reid said. "It's going to be a whole different ballgame."

Email: jpage@desnews.com

Twitter: jaredpage

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company