Transit spurs development

Rail stations are a lure for commercial, government and residential projects
August 11, 2010

From Baltimore to Portland, Ore., light-rail transit systems are helping to stimulate new nonresidential and residential construction. The development of new light-rail systems is being aided by the federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, commonly known as TEA-21. It provides funding for feasibility studies for new systems and additions, as well as for actual construction.

During the last decade, good planning, design and coordination with related development have resulted in successful projects, according Stephen Hamwey, a principal with the Watertown, Mass.-based interdisciplinary design firm Sasaki Associates who directs the firm's transportation-related projects.

Hamwey says increased attention to urban design issues has made transit systems more integral to the surrounding neighborhoods. For example, the mile-long Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) transitway mall links districts within the downtown core and forms an open space corridor. It is unified with trees, special streetscape treatments and a public arts program. The location of each transit station is marked by a public square, while the blocks between stations define the transitway, local access and pedestrian zones.

Mockingbird Station, a residential, retail and office development in Dallas, is one of the mixed-use, transportation-related developments being closely watched by developers and transportation officials. Hamwey cites it as a carefully planned project that was not the product of a "build it and they will come" philosophy. The $100 million development was officially launched last summer with the completion of a pedestrian bridge that connects the project with the Mockingbird light-rail station, which opened two years ago.

Kenneth Hughes, co-owner of Mockingbird Station's developer, UC Urban, has a background in retail center development. After being nearly wiped out by the real estate collapse of the late 1980s, he returned to speculative development in 1997 by purchasing a vacant 290,000-sq.-ft. warehouse next to an abandoned rail line that became part of Dallas' light-rail system. He later acquired an adjacent 10-story office building and its parking structure.

The warehouse was gutted and converted into 211 rental apartments. Mockingbird Station also includes 200,000 square feet of retail space. It was incorporated into the base of the former warehouse, the first two levels of the parking structure (the previous location of a branch bank) and two new buildings. One new structure houses an eight-screen movie theater and the other contains two restaurants. Mockingbird Station provides parking for 1,600 vehicles, with all but 200 of the spaces either below grade or in structured parking.

The Los Angeles office of Baltimore-based A/E RTKL Associates was Mockingbird Station's design architect and Selzer Associates of Dallas was the architect of record. C.D. Henderson Inc. of Dallas was the general contractor. The 10-acre site is located alongside Central Expressway at its intersection with Mockingbird Lane, a major thoroughfare.

Hughes says Mockingbird Station is a more complicated and riskier development than any other with which he has been associated. He concedes that the concept might not work in car-dependent Dallas, but adds, "If somebody doesn't try it, we'll never know." Initial response has been positive. The apartments and the retail space are each more than 90 percent leased and the office building is virtually full. Although a planned hotel was recently put on hold, Hughes hopes to build additional office and retail space on the opposite side of the tracks, on what is now a commuter parking lot.

A boost for adaptive reuse

The proximity of a former Sears, Roebuck and Co. warehouse to another Dallas light-rail station, as well as to the central business district and the Dallas Convention Center, were key factors that prompted developer Matthews Southwest to convert the 1.4 million-sq.-ft. facility into South Side on Lamar. The development consists of 455 apartments, and represents an investment of more than $200 million, according to Pete Coughlin, its development coordinator. The light-rail station, one of the first to open when the system began operations in 1996, is two blocks away.

A study by the University of North Texas Center for Economic Development indicated that more than $922 million of private investment has financed developments along the initial 20-mile DART light-rail system.

The value of properties adjoining the light-rail stations grew at a 25 percent greater rate than similar properties not served by the rail system, according to the survey.

DART continues to expand into the suburbs. A station in Richardson is scheduled to open this summer at the 27-acre Urban Center, where a $34 million Marriott Renaissance Hotel was completed last spring.

Rocky Mountain pioneer

The city of Englewood, Colo., has introduced transit-oriented development to the Denver area. In 1998, Englewood and the Regional Transit District contracted for a master plan for the redevelopment of a 55-acre parcel into the Englewood CityCenter. The transit station, which opened in July 2000, serves as its gateway.

A 1960s-era regional shopping mall and parking garage previously occupied the site. The mall's structures were demolished except for a 140,000-sq.-ft. former department store that was converted into the Englewood Civic Center. This building now houses city offices on the third floor, courtrooms and the City Council chambers on the second floor and the city library on the first floor. Denver-based David Owen Tryba Architects was architect for the transit station and the Civic Center. Other elements of the development include free-standing Office Depot and Wal-Mart stores and an 80,000-sq.-ft. retail/office building. Atlanta-based Trammel Crow Residential is also constructing 430 apartments.

Riding the rails to Hollywood

Toronto-based developer TrizecHahn leased 1.35 acres of Metropolitan Transit Authority land to construct its recently opened Hollywood and Highland development in Hollywood, Calif. An MTA station that opened last year is incorporated into the 1.2 million-sq.-ft. development, which includes the Kodak Theater where future Academy Awards ceremonies will be held.

"The ability to deliver more than 9 million visitors a year to Hollywood was a vital component of our development," says TrizecHahn President Lee Wagman. Architect was New York City-based Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn for all elements of the project except the theater and the hotel. The station was designed by a collaboration of Los Angeles-based Dworsky Associates (now Cannon Dworsky) and artist Sheila Klein. St. Louis-based McCarthy was general contractor for both Hollywood and Highland as well as the transit station.

The City of Mountain View, Calif., located 10 miles north of San Jose, grants a 40 percent increase in floor area ratio (FAR) to projects constructed in a transit overlay zone that take advantage of this adjacency. This benefit was available for the new 425,000-sq.-ft. corporate headquarters of Veritas Software Corp., which was designed by St. Louis-based A/E Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK) and constructed by Foster City, Calif.-based Rudolph & Sletten. Design goals included the orientation of the complex's five buildings to an adjacent transit station. HOK President William Valentine observes that facilities for functions such as dining, physical fitness and conferences typically are located in the interior of a corporate campus. But at Veritas, they were placed closer to the rail station, which is across the street from the campus.

Mountain View's policy is indicative of the growing acceptance of rail transit in the San Francisco Bay area, Valentine notes. "If someone had told me 10 years ago that Silicon Valley would have a viable, heavily used transit system, I'd have laughed," he adds.

In the Portland, Ore., area, an 18-mile westward expansion of light-rail service into a relatively undeveloped area put 20 stations at locations where new development has been encouraged. More than 6,000 residential units have been developed within half a mile of the stations. Developments include Orenco Station, a $170 million, 1,834-unit development that is designed to encourage walking and the use of mass transit. The community has 68 acres of for-sale housing, a "Town Center" area of buildings that contain 21,000 square feet of shops on the first level and apartments above, and an adjacent 50-acre mixed-use commercial development. Portland-based Fletcher Farr Ayotte was the neighborhood retail architect, and Benner Stange Architects of Lake Oswego, Ore., was architect for the shopping center.

Tri-Met, the transportation agency that serves three counties in the Portland area, completed an extension of its light-rail system to Portland International Airport last fall. The project was underwritten by a public/private venture that utilized private capital to help pay for the rail line in conjunction with a real estate development. San Francisco-based Bechtel Enterprises contributed $28.2 million of the project's $125 million cost in exchange for the opportunity to develop the 120-acre Cascade Station project at the airport entrance. The buildout of the $400 million development is expected in 15 years.

An adjacent light-rail station in Wellston, Mo., provides accessible public transportation for users of an educational training center that was created by the St. Louis County Economic Development Council through the adaptive reuse of a former Wagner Electric Co. manufacturing facility.

The U.S. Department of Transportation provided a $764,000 grant to the Bi-State Development Agency, whose light-rail system began operating in 1993, for streetscape improvements in the station area.

On the East Coast, the Maryland Transit Administration and Baltimore County have developed a master plan for a mixed-use development adjacent to a heavy rail station in Owings Mills, Md. The project will be constructed on a site that now contains 47 acres of parking. A community college center and a city library are also to be included in the plan. Negotiations are being held with the selected developer, Berwyn, Pa.-based LCOR, Inc.

Rail transit systems obviously find greater acceptance in major cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago. Sasaki's Hamwey says the public needs to be convinced that these systems also have benefits for lower-density areas. Sasaki, for example, is working with officials in Charlotte, N.C., to establish development guidelines in conjunction with a light-rail system expected to begin operations there in 2005. The system will use existing railroad right-of-way in a corridor now served by buses, thereby helping to improve air quality, he says.

The acceptance of Dallas' light-rail system by upper middle-class riders disproves the perception that such persons will not use public transportation, Hamwey says. He notes that a light-rail system in Houston was recently approved following years of rejection. Conversely, Kansas City residents last fall turned down a proposal for a 24-mile-long light rail plan.