Rail and Reinvention: Catalyzing Transit-Oriented Development in Denver

What defines good transit-oriented development? What catalyzes it? With the A Line to DIA now running, 2016 is the year that marks the end of the beginning for TOD in Denver, and the conversation is as vital as it ever will be.
Trains on RTD's C and D light-rail lines began stopping at Evans Station, tucked under the Evans Avenue bridge on largely industrial South Delaware Street, in 2000.

Back then, it was a forgotten corner of southern Denver in the Overland neighborhood, with an old garage and a Quonset hut directly across from the station and its 99 parking spaces.

It took nearly 15 years for the first significant transit-oriented investment to take root here, when Medici Communities partnered with Denver's Urban Land Conservancy to build Evans Stations Lofts on the site of that old garage. The 50-unit affordable housing complex was fully leased a mere three weeks after construction wrapped up in 2013, and priced so as to be affordable to renters earning up to 60 percent of area median income.

Evans Station Lofts offers a template for transit-oriented development in Denver.Troy Gladwell, Medici's founder and principal, has developed tax credit-based affordable housing since the 1990s. Instead of going with a cheaper brick facade atop stucco, he invested an extra $264,000 in an all-brick structure, just like an authentic warehouse built at the turn of the 20th century, not the 21st. "It gives it a sense of place," says Gladwell.

The decision offered an immediate return on investment with the quick lease-up. "We more than saved the money we spent," says Gladwell, who moved Medici's office to the ground floor from Lakewood. "There's a duty to build the best building we can, because it's going to be here for 100 years. It can be a catalyst for the surrounding area, or a detriment."

It might well be viewed as a catalyst in the 22nd century. Another developer now has plans for townhomes on the same block, apartments are planned for the old Shattuck site, two blocks north, and Declaration Brewing and Bear Creek Distillery both opened in the area in the time since the grand opening.

It's no overnight success. A decade and a half in, it's just now taking baby steps away from industrial to transit-oriented and mixed-use. But it is undeniable progress.

With the A Line to the airport a reality, TOD is an unavoidable topic of conversation in Denver -- again. How can we best leverage the multi-billion-dollar investment in light and commuter rail that is FasTracks?

"Nobody has the answer to that question," says Gladwell. "The planners think they do, but the market will decide." He's dubious of retail, and sees residential and office development as the twin pillars of TOD.

Chris Nevitt, TOD manager for the City and County of Denver, answers with a Buckminster Fuller quote -- "The best way to predict the future is to design it" -- and says higher density along transit could bring the city "reduced congestion, more amenities and a higher quality of life."

But there's no one-size-fits-all approach. "One of the virtues of our TOD Strategic Plan is that there isn't a set pattern," says Nevitt. "We have different ambitions for different stations. We don't want every transit-oriented development to look the same."

Under the city plan, there are suburban stations like Yale and Southmoor at Hampden Avenue and I-25; urban stations like Evans; urban center stations like Alameda and Belleview; and downtown stations, among which Union Station is in a class of its own.

Early movers

"In the words of Churchill, we are at the end of the beginning," Nevitt says. Twenty years after light rail came to Denver, no station in the city has been completely built out.

He highlights the first stop on the new A Line to DIA. "38th & Blake is probably the most exciting station on the system," he says. "Part of the success behind 38th & Blake is a heavily engaged community -- business, development, and the residential community." He's quick to note that "a clear majority" of the surrounding RiNo community favors high-density, mixed-use development.

Nevitt also points to another TOD standout: Denver Housing Authority's nationally lauded Mariposa project at 10th & Osage Station. "DHA's whole program is to radically increase the density without losing any affordable units," he says. "It's created a more robust and resilient community."

When complete, Mariposa will have about 900 units, more than triple that of South Lincoln Homes.Now in the fifth year and seventh phase of construction, Mariposa is more than tripling the number of units at the former South Lincoln Homes -- from 278 public-housing units to 900 -- while adding market-rate units and a host of sustainable features. In this context, "sustainable" extends beyond the environmental and also encompasses health and wellness as well as economic and social sustainability. The buildout of rental units is scheduled for completion in 2017, then DHA plans to work with a private developer to build for-sale homes on two separate parcels at the site.

Ryan Tobin, DHA's director of real estate development, describes "a holistic approach" to planning Mariposa that was augmented by extensive outreach. "We took a leap of faith in what we were going to do in terms of making this neighborhood sustainable," he says.

For all of its TOD projects, DHA's stated aim is to build opportunity for low-income residents. "We think that's where you're going to see the most impact," says Tobin. "It creates access."

Beyond Mariposa, DHA's TOD portfolio includes Benedict Park Place near 20th & Welton Station as well as the impending redevelopment of Sun Valley Homes near the Knox and Decatur-Federal stations. "From our position, we embrace the fact that we have uniquely situated properties," Tobin says.  "We focus on being a catalytic investor in these neighborhoods."

The strategy looks like it's working. At Mariposa, developers are planning a rare for-sale condo complex, Tobin notes, as additional projects followed on the heels of DHA elsewhere. "We're seeing a ton of investment on our vacant parcels that were set aside for development," he says.

Few organizations have been as active in TOD in Denver as the aforementioned Urban Land Conservancy (ULC). Besides Evans Station Lofts, the nonprofit ULC has also been involved in Mile High Vista, a mixed-use project near the Knox and Decatur-Federal stations on the W Line, Garden Court Apartments at Yale Station (developed with Mile High Development and Koelbel and Company) and Park Hill Station apartments at 40th & Colorado on the new A Line. ULC also owns land near other stations, including parcels at Sheridan and 38th & Blake stations.

Park Hill Station Apartments is the first phase of Park Hill Village West."Everything we do comes from a the perspective and lens of inclusivity and affordability," says Christi Smith, ULC's communications and operations director. "I love Union Station, but it's sad there's only one little affordable development within that multi-billion-dollar development."

As important as housing is to TOD, however, it's not the end-all, be-all, she adds. "Mile High Vista opened our eyes that there has to be more than just housing," says Smith. The development includes the 80-unit Avondale Apartments and the Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Branch Library, and there are plans for commercial space.

ULC owns 6.8 acres at 40th & Colorado with a goal of building two to three more residential developments to complement the 156 units at Park Hill Station Apartments by 2020. The finished product, dubbed Park Hill Village West, "will be a real transit-oriented community," says Smith. And ULC is also getting into last-mile connectivity with the 303 ArtWay, a paved pedestrian and bicycle trail from Holly Square to the station.

Smith might just be proudest of Evans Station Lofts. "I think Evans is a great example of changing the perspective of what affordable housing is," says Smith. "It's won so many awards. It's been recognized nationally. That's a really good example of how you do it right -- but it's just one building."

It also was a smooth development process, a mere two years from land acquisition to leasing. "If we had a bunch of Evans deals all the time, we would be so happy," Smith says. "It was a wonderful development we'd like to replicate as much as possible."

But it's rarely so simple. Smith describes a "really fresh wound" of not winning the requisite tax credits from the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority (CHFA) to finance affordable housing to be developed by Medici on 1.4 acres ULC owns adjacent to the 38th & Blake station.

"We're kind of at the mercy of CHFA," she says. "From a policy perspective, it's very frustrating." She advocates the state develop "permanent, sustainable, year-after-year models" to finance more affordable housing, "which is exactly what we need."

ULC bought the 38th & Blake parcel in 2011 for $1.7 million and planned an affordable mixed-use development with a new headquarters for the organization. Smith says the land is currently worth about $10 million, but selling it runs counter to ULC's mission. "That's the only piece of land there that has potential for anything affordable," she says. "Should we just sell this property and give up? That would be so sad."

It's a similar story at Sheridan Station at the Denver-Lakewood line where ULC first invested in land in 2007. Smith describes a vision for "multiple phases of development," with affordable housing for families and seniors as well as a potential market-rate component, that could prove "catalytic" for the surrounding area. But the plan hit a roadblock when it lost out on tax credits in 2015. "We're back to the drawing board on how we can get this first phase off the ground."

Equitable TOD

Dace West, executive director of Mile High Connects, advocates for "equitable TOD," she explains. "From a Mile High Connects perspective, we're concerned with building out stations for a mix of incomes and a mix of uses." She sees "making sure we're not creating mass displacement and gentrification" as a critical element.

Some view good TOD as "high-end apartments and Starbucks, which is not fully realizing the possibility of what we can do," West adds. "If you asked Mickey Zeppelin, you might get a different answer."

Avondale Apartments anchors the Mile High Vista development on West Colfax Avenue.(For the record, Zeppelin says affordability "needs to be accounted for" around the city's rail stations, and that good TOD is "a concentration of people in well-designed buildings that create a human scale along the street." Build too big and you diminish the vibrancy.)

While development around 38th & Blake Station might price most renters out, West says she likes the potential for 40th & Colorado Station on the A Line. "There are possibilities at all of those stations to really get it right."

But the opening of the A Line also overshadows the lack of development around some of the older stations, she adds. "We're always so focused on what's next. There'll be a time when we have to sweep back and say, 'Wait a second.'"

West points to the TOD Fund, "a financing tool to buy or preserve affordable housing" with easy access to public transit.

Established by ULC, the City and County of Denver, Enterprise Community Partners and other investors, the fund has been used to acquire $15 million in property to date, preserving or building more than 600 housing units and 120,000 square feet of commercial space. Explains Nevitt: "We put together the TOD Fund years ago precisely to bank land to prepare for the creation of FasTracks."

West's lofty goal is to get it staked with $150 million by summer 2016. "We need a permanent financing fund in the city that can be leveraged," she contends.

Such a fund is critical because it's notably difficult to connect all of TOD's financial dots. "You can't build something that someone who makes $10 or $15 an hour can afford," says Gladwell. "The math won't work out."

The CHFA-allocated tax credits often make the math work, but the competition has gotten fierce as the quantity and quality of affordable projects has increased. At the same time, Denver rents have increased. In 2000, there wasn't much demand for affordable housing in Denver because market-rate rents were relatively low. In 2016, that dynamic is just the opposite. "The good news is now we can underwrite 60 percent rents," Gladwell says. "The bad news: Rents are insane. It's sad."

"You'll never build enough affordable housing," he continues. "There are way more people who make $15 an hour than people who make $80,000 a year. It's capitalism."

A market-rate model

Nevitt says he was recently riding the light rail past Denizen, the 275-unit apartment complex that opened in the former RTD parking lot at Alameda Station in 2015, and overheard two conversations. "I heard one person say, 'I'd hate to live there, it's too close to the train.' Another person said, 'I'd love to live there.' TOD isn't one thing -- it's all kinds of things."

There are more than enough people with the latter opinion to make the math work in this instance. Dan Cohen, development manager for D4 Urban, the project's developer, says Denizen has been a hit because of its price point. It's not officially "affordable housing" with CHFA tax credits, he says, but it's affordable nonetheless. "The affordability component led to the success of the project," he says. "We were probably the fastest lease-up and stabilization of any project in Denver in the last five years."

Denizen opened in 2015 in the former Alameda Station parking lot.Rents for some small studio units were less than $1,000 a month when the building opened in 2015. "People assume it has tax credits or it's tied to some subsidy program," Cohen says. Not so: "We just wanted to deliver a product type that's in demand."

"Affordability is the biggest issue this city has to tackle," he adds. "We're on the verge of a crisis." People continue to move to Denver, but "[t]here's going to be a certain point where people look at Phoenix or Salt Lake, or Houston or Dallas."

Denizen's price point and access to transit is nicely complemented by LEED Platinum certification ("We had people who never turned the heat on," says Cohen of the past winter) and perks like a bike-sharing program and The White Whale Room, a cafe and bar that "activates [the station] 18 hours a day."

Cohen says a survey revealed that 25 percent of Denizen residents use light rail every day and 15 percent never ride it. But 90 percent of daily-riding residents have a car, and there are more two-car households than no-car households: The project included one space per unit, and there's a parking waiting list of about 50.

"Denver is unique in that regard," says Cohen. "It's probably affected by the recreational opportunities here and people wanting to get up to the mountains." Unlike cities that grew up around a robust rail network, "We're just not there yet. People are still relying on their automobile."

At Evans Station Lofts, Gladwell reports more zero-car tenants, citing 50 units and about 20 people working in 10,000 square feet of ground-level offices and "lots of space” in the 44-spot parking lot. And it's not only light rail that tenants are riding. "Don't forget the bus," adds Gladwell. "That bus line on Broadway is a good one. It comes around every 15 minutes."

What's next?

"We're still at ground level," Cohen says. "The stations that have been around for a long time, 20 years, are still surrounded by parking."

At Alameda Station, "RTD was willing to be flexible. The same thing could be said for University Station," he says. "As RTD gets more flexible, you'll start to see more mixed-use and vibrant communities near stations."

Bill Sirois, RTD's senior manager of transit-oriented communities, says Alameda was part of a TOD pilot program that also includes a nine-acre development in the works in Arvada. RTD also sold a parking lot near 26th and Welton streets to Palisade Partners to build apartments, and the transit agency is working to put out an RFP for another lot on Welton. "We're targeting condos if we can make it work," says Sirois.

But in general, RTD is taking a good look at the results from the pilot program before selling more property. "We're transitioning right now," says Sirois. "We're doing a broader assessment. This is such a big year for us -- we want to see how particularly the new lines are operating. We're not going to make any quick decisions."

Of the transit-oriented projects currently under development, Cohen points to Belleview Station as a potential standout. "It's a great vision and it's starting to feel like a place, but it's greenfield," he says of the mixed-use development that's underway on the former golf course just west of the rail line. "It's starting to bring a mix of residential, retail, and office. You can see how it's going to come together."

At Alameda Station, D4 is "now unlocking and enabling the next phase of development," Cohen says. The goal is to transform the former nondescript parking lot into "a major front door of a broader development opportunity," he explains. "It's important we set the tone and get a high level of activity and vibrancy to the station site."

A D4 project-in-planning could accomplish a lot in that regard: a "fairly significant" office building on a sliver of recently rezoned RTD property between the light rail and the Denver Design Center. "It's about 1 million square feet," says Cohen. "It's an obvious opportunity for dense mixed-use development."

There's also potential for a Denizen-like development on RTD's old bus barn property on the west side of the station on Santa Fe Drive. "We have it under option to buy from RTD," says Cohen. "We have had a couple site plan visits with the city. It just takes time to get there." The slow pace is held back by traffic and walkability issues and environmental concerns. "It's a challenging site."

While he isn't ready to go into details, Cohen says D4 is currently planning three more projects near Alameda Station. He sees the area between Alameda and I-25 & Broadway stations as a massive infill opportunity. "Denver really lacks a midtown," he says. "We view this as a true opportunity to be Denver's midtown."

Nevitt agrees. "Broadway Station is probably the biggest potential TOD we have," he says. "It's enormous, it's central, you have multiple [light-rail] lines coming through there. It's like TOD heaven, but right now it's 50 acres of dirt. Most of that land is now focused on parking, a single use. . . . We don't have [the master plan] figured out yet, exactly how that's going to look, but looking more like Denizen would be a success."

Broadway Station Partners owns a portion of the RTD parking lot at the station that could be decommissioned as soon as summer 2016. The company's 41-acre property also includes part of the old Gates Rubber site and is slated for an ambitious mixed-use redevelopment anchored by more than 2,500 residential units.

Nevitt says the city aims to focus on areas in high demand with initiatives to streamline the development process. The big question: "What is the market appetite for a station and how well have we set the table for that meal on the city side?"

There are still a lot of forks and cups to put in place. "There are a lot of deficiencies we have to address, particularly infrastructure deficiencies," Nevitt says, and many are critical to improving first- and last-mile connectivity. "The irony is that one of the stations with the most deficiencies is 38th & Blake."

But it's not all about more and better infrastructure. Nevitt feels good TOD has "a big employment component," and adds, "We as a city need to do better at creating jobs that are oriented towards transit. I'm more interested in primary jobs than retail jobs or service jobs. The best example of that is what's happening at 61st and Peña." Dubbed Gateway, the vision for what's now "the prairie dog stop" includes a big employer in Panasonic Enterprise Solutions (targeted to create 300 jobs), housing, and a retail and entertainment district.

DHA's Tobin says jobs "will come together over time," citing an immediate uptick around Mariposa with such tenants as the Rocky Mountain Microfinance Institute, Youth on Record, Osage Cafe and Arts Street. "We still have several spaces where we are being very careful that we find the right fit," he adds.

Repeating history

Denver grew up around a streetcar system before embracing the car and burying the trolley tracks in asphalt in the 1950s. The city's growing rail network is a massive do-over.

"Our system is still a baby system," says Mile High Connects' West. As opposed to cities like New York and Chicago where rail "has been part of the urban fabric for 100 years," Denver is part of "a new transit universe," on the front end of cities with new rail projects and a serious need for TOD to truly disrupt the legacy car culture. "We're all in a very similar place."

Salt Lake City, Seattle, Dallas, Portland and Los Angeles are likewise in the process of building out rail networks, and all are challenged with turning back the clock on decades of automobile-friendly design and planning.

"I think there's a set of cities struggling with the same thing," agrees Nevitt. "One of the key lessons is the importance of good partnerships between the jurisdiction and the transit entity, and the willingness to engage creatively with the private sector."

Regardless of intentions, there are plenty of moving parts; one small failure might doom a TOD project. "Infill development is challenging," laments D4's Cohen. "It takes time. There are existing users and existing lease commitments, and we're at the mercy of the market. There's a lot that needs to be unwound."

Nevitt shares a story from the recent TOD Conference in Los Angeles. "There was a bunch of people from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia," he says. "They're building out their entire transit system -- $30 billion, about 100 stations, six different lines." The project broke ground in 2014 and trains are scheduled to start running in 2018.

Nevitt offers a sarcastic coda: "If you don't have to worry about democracy or the environment, there's a lot you can do."

Back at Evans Station

While his 38th & Blake project with ULC is uncertain, Gladwell plans to break ground in July on another transit-oriented affordable housing project a mile and a half south of Evans in downtown Englewood.

Gladwell says the station area has gained momentum since the first tenants moved in nearly three years ago. "With time [the neighborhood] will change, and it's not all good," he notes. "People who can live here now won't be able to live here in 10 or 20 years. Gentrification is not all good, but stagnation and decay aren't all good either."

There are signs of life, like the nearby brewery and distillery and new shops on Broadway. To the south of the station is The Studios at Overland Crossing, formerly the battered Denver Pottery building, now a popular event venue and a model of adaptive reuse.

There are also signs of stagnation. Catty-corner to the station: a long-shuttered and contaminated industrial property. The Evans Avenue bridge, Santa Fe Drive, the railroad tracks and plenty of barbwire are obstacles to human-friendly development.

Give it time. "This piece of land sat here for 13 years and nothing happened," says Gladwell of Evans Station Lofts. "Just because you have light rail, it doesn't mean it's going to happen overnight."

More than most developers, he takes the long view. "Twenty, 30, 100 years from now, Denver is going to be a different city because of light rail," Gladwell says. "It'll have these nodes of density around light-rail stations. We're going to be growing in a different way than Atlanta and Phoenix have, and we're going to see a more livable city because of it."

On Wed. May 25, we invite readers to get further involved in Denver's TOD conversation with the third in a series of panels produced by Confluence Denver and Otten Johnson: "Chicken or Egg: Which Comes First -- Transportation or Development?" The event takes place from 4 to 6 p.m. at EXDO Event Center, 1399 35th St. in RiNo.
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Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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