Denver’s New Approach to TOD

As Denver moves forward with a $7.4 billion expansion of its rail system, the city is looking to rectify what some see as a flaw in the original concept.  The flaw being how to encourage the development of dense, walkable villages around stations so people don’t have to drive to use the system.

“After the system opened in 1994, planners built parking lots and garages around many of its stations to cater to commuters. That strategy put parking on land that would have been ideal for stores, apartment buildings and squares catering to riders living adjacent to the stops.  As a result, there has been little of that kind of development around the stations to change the area’s car-dependent culture, and riders commute to the stations from up to 20 miles away.

In the continuing expansion of the Denver rail system—which will add up to 122 miles of light rail and commuter rail lines to the existing 35 miles within the next 10 years—land adjacent to stations will be earmarked in some cases for village-type developments.  Parking lots can be as far as half a mile away from stations in this these types of projects. And, in some cases, planners are requiring less parking than under previous guidelines. The assumption is that people who live and work within walking distance of a station won’t need as much parking.

“Maybe you lose some [riders] on the front end by taking some spaces away,” says Bill Sirois, senior planning manager at the Regional Transportation District in Denver. “But you enable something else to happen with…development.”

Still, some of Denver’s peer cities already have embraced this approach. San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, and the TriMet mass-transit system in Portland, Oregon, long have favored relegating park-and-ride service to their farthest flung stations in the suburbs. Meanwhile, they encourage dense clusters of apartments, condominiums and offices adjacent to their urban rail stops. The twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, have taken a similar approach recently.

Yet cutting back on parking spaces isn’t always practical. For that approach to work, basic services such as grocery stores and parks must be within walking distance of the system’s rail stops. And other transit options, like bus service, must be available. That isn’t always the case in fast-growing cities. “You can’t just eliminate the parking [spaces] unless there is an alternative for people to get there,” said Jeff Ordway, property-development manager for San Francisco’s BART district.

The rail expansion, called FasTracks, is forecast to be complete by 2022. Work is under way on its first 52.4 miles, which includes 26 stops. To foster commercial and residential development around the stops, the district enacted guidelines in 2010 that eliminated its requirement that all parking spaces be within 1,000 feet of each station.  The agency also allows developers to pay for land near rail stops in installments now rather than all upfront. It also will consider contributing its land as an equity investment in projects built adjacent to its rail stops.

No new development has begun under these guidelines on the rail lines under construction. But two suburbs—Westminster and Arvada—on the expansion route have agreed with the transit system to jointly build garages set back from rail stops to foster commercial and residential development in between.”

~Denver Rethinks the Modern Commuter, Kris Hudson, Wall Street Journal