Sunday, August 26, 2007

FasTracks, Englewood City Center, Union Station

The conference got into full swing today, beginning with an introduction from RTD Board Member Lee Kemp and followed by a field trip to Englewood Station, where Harold Stitt gave an overview of the transformation of the Cinderella City shopping center into a mixed-use development and civic center. Following the field trip a poster session in the mezzanine of Union Station offered some insight into what is going on throughout the Denver region to connect transportation investments and land use.

Lee Kemp talked about the crafting of the regional transit vision that resulted in the passage of FasTracks program through a sales tax inititive in 2004 and what it will take to implement the ambitious 12-year, 131-mile rail and bus regional transit expansion plan. Creating a tangible vision, engaging with cities, decision-makers, and the general populace, and sticking with the basics of the plan so that each jurisdiction can be sure to benefit were key ingredients in his recipe for success. So far, rising construction costs have not derailed the program, as each corridor is promised the original budget outlay from the sales tax initiative. The recently opened Southeast Line is 14% over projected ridership already, and RTD seems to be capturing some unanticipated mid-day trips on the line.

At the same time, in response to a question about park-and-ride management and access modes to the stations, Mr. Kemp responded that commuters from the broader region, outside of the FasTracks counties, are using park-and-ride lots, and, because the lots are free, these users are not paying their fair share of the system costs. This made me think about the broader regional issues that go into the coordination of land use and transportation. If the 8-county region in Denver is not large enough to capture the full extent of the "region", what additional policy changes are needed at the state level to limit growth ever outwards towards the Rockies, and, at the same time, what local and regional programs can focus growth into areas that can be better served by transit? Or, should the sales tax boundaries just be moved outward?

The tour of Englewood City Center was an interesting look at a first phase transit-oriented development (TOD) project in the region. Starting over 10 years ago, a dying mall, Cinderella City, was transformed through a public-private partnership into a mix of residential, retail, and civic uses. Three-part engagement among the City, the developers, and the community developed a vision for the reuse of the site, and, after some fits and starts, a completed project including 438 residential units, a Civic Center with city offices, council chambers, and a library, and retail uses, including a Wal-Mart emerged. What exists today is not perfect: there was little street life on a Sunday afternoon, pedestrian crossings throughout the development are hard to find, and the Wal-Mart feels little different than any other, despite a public access easement through the large surface parking lot. Still, there are the makings of success: the Civic Center and public parks provide the opportunity for the whole community to interact, I saw several people walking with Wal-Mart bags to the LRT station, and it was a somewhat muggy Sunday afternoon, what kind of street life did I want? It's not as if there were nobody out and around.

On balance, though, Englewood City Center left me the impression that it is neither fully here, nor fully there. I imagine it can capture a good portion of the commute trips from nearby residents, but for after work activities, these residents will still often feel a need to drive. The local-serving retail is a nice amenity, but the scale of the Wal-Mart makes it feel like an island that will have trouble thriving. There are a lot of reasons for people to bike and walk to the station, but the amount of no-cost park-and-ride capacity means that there are also good reasons not to. What the next stage of the TOD process brings will be of critical importance to the overall project. What happens when RTD no longer needs as much station parking? What happens when Wal-Mart goes the way of the previous retail that brought this change about in the first place? And what happens as a critical mass of residents begin to support the kind of street-level retail that can create a full service neighborhood (restaurants, small shops and food stores, etc)? Where will they locate? When is the next conference?

Finally, the poster session at Union Station gave us an opportunity to understand where the region stands with respect to transit expansion (RTD), regional land use planning (DRCOG), downtown revitalization, TOD market analysis, and more. It also gave us a chance to get a unique angle on the historic station and the great civic room that anchors transit in the region. The efforts throughout the region are remarkable, and transportation and land use coordination seems to have taken on an air of inevitability such that the discussion can now center on what tools can help realize the vision, not whether or not such coordination should be attempted at all.

So much to keep us busy over the next two days.


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