Monday, September 20, 1999

Development rides along


Stations attract housing, business development

BY TANYA ALBERT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[rail]
A MetroLink light rail train makes its way to the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        Light rail is more than a people mover in St. Louis or Dallas; the electric-powered trains are helping to power new housing and business starts.

        As Greater Cincinnati considers whether light rail is the right solution for growing traffic problems, the Enquirer found that new systems in St. Louis and Dallas have opened up development opportunities and increased demand for housing and retail around stations. Some Greater Cincinnati developers are well aware of the potential.

        “We're already getting questions from developers. How close can we build? How many people will ride it?” said John Schneider, with Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI), a downtown advocacy group. “These systems are real city-builders.”

        After light rail opened, property values around stations in St. Louis and Dallas shot up. Renovations started on abandoned buildings. New housing, hotels and shops opened. Communities where rail extensions are being built are planning early so they can decide what they want to see develop — or not develop — around the stations.

        No one gives all of the credit to light rail. A good economy, the right location, tax incentives and other factors all contribute to development.

        “But light rail represents a large public investment and tends to to attract private investment,” said Ethan Seltzer, director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies at Portland State University in Oregon.

        Looking at the cranes and other construction equipment in action along St. Louis' and Dallas' tracks, that seems to be the case.

        Dallas credits light rail as a factor in $900 million in new housing, hotels, entertainment, retail and other development along its 20 miles of track that opened in 1996. Grocery and drug stores have been built in declining neighborhoods. An abandoned warehouse is being converted into loft apartments and retail.

        Before the first lines opened in St. Louis in 1993 and Dallas in 1996, community leaders and developers were skeptical about how much the systems would be used. But ridership soon forced the skeptics to shed those doubts. Today people make more than 44,000 trips daily on St. Louis' system; there are about 40,000 daily trips on Dallas' system.

        The success of the initial lines has prompted suburbs getting new extensions in St. Louis and Dallas to be proactive in planning and marketing. It's a lesson Greater Cincinnati can learn, planners in St. Louis and Dallas say.

        In many parts of suburban Dallas and St. Louis, land use plans already are in place in anticipation of extensions to the rail lines. Local planners are wooing potential developers to new rail sites several years before they're scheduled to open.

        “By getting involved early, we were able to do things more compatible for the community,” said Bill Grogan, managing director for St. Clair County, Ill., Transit District.

DART site "was huge'
        When Interstate 30 was built through Dallas in the late 1950s, it cut off a thriving neighborhood from the central business district to the north.

        Property values slowly declined on the south side of the highway. People and businesses moved away.

        In 1996, light rail reconnected the neighborhood with downtown Dallas. The result? A more than $200 million rebirth.

        An old red brick Sears warehouse — 1.4 million square feet where some 17,000 people once worked — is being turned into loft apartments, offices, and a retail and entertainment complex. Apartments in the South Side on Lamar project will go for $800 to $4,000 a month. Residents will have a view of downtown Dallas from one side, the Trinity River from the other side.

        Dallas police are building new headquarters directly across the street. Also nearby, Gilley's, a 165,000-square-foot honky tonk and entertainment complex, will open next year.

        The Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) Cedars light rail stop is less than a five-minute walk from the new construction.

        “Lots of things influenced our decision — it's close to downtown and the convention center,” said Peter Coughlin, development coordinator for the South Side on Lamar project. “But the DART site, that was huge.”

        As plans for the neighborhood take shape, developers envision well-lit, tree-lined sidewalks leading from the DART station to the apartments and entertainment. They're seeking federal grants to help build pedestrian and bicycle corridors around the neighborhood.

        Rebirth is being seen as well in suburban St. Louis around the Wellston rail stop. Wellston, a predominately poor African-American suburb, still has an industrial base. But it lost its retail and commercial business. The community's unemployment rate is 10 times higher then other parts of St. Louis County.

        Renewal of the area has started with The Cornerstone Partnership, which transformed an abandoned Wagner Electric Plant building into a center to train people for high-tech manufacturing jobs.

        The school, which opened last year, is just blocks from a MetroLink stop. Planners knew the location would attract students from all over the region.

        With Cornerstone up and running, MetroLink in place and a day care facility under construction, Wellston and the St. Louis County Economic Council have charted out future construction they want to see. And plans are beginning to pay off.

        Soon, a major manufacturing firm is expected to announce 300 new jobs for the area.

        “MetroLink is one of the key factors,” said Denny Coleman, president and CEO of the economic council. “I can't say it is the only anchor here. But having it here makes the job easier overall.”

Pedestrian friendly
        The action isn't happening just in declining neighborhoods.

        Already-thriving areas north of downtown Dallas are seeing a mix of new buildings going up or older buildings gutted and redone just steps from light rail stations.

        At the Mockingbird station, about four miles from downtown, an eight-screen movie theater is going in along with loft apartments, office space, restaurants and retail. In St. Louis, abandoned warehouses across from Busch Stadium are part of a $300 million to $350 million rehab project called Cupples Station. It will include a 224-room Westin Hotel and office and retail space.

        Light rail has an advantage over roads for such mixed use development — housing, retail, office space and entertainment — because rail is more pedestrian friendly.

        Walking neighborhoods that contain most of the essentials can grow around stations.

        “Light rail has the ability to help focus development better,” said Roger Snoble, DART president and executive director. “Developers are seeing a losing sprawl battle so are looking to consolidate.”

        And property buyers seem to be receptive. Around the nation, cities are seeing higher property values around rail stations. Studies confirm that in San Diego, Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C.

        A study in Dallas shows that people want to live close to light rail stops. On average, property values within a quarter-mile of light rail stations rose 25 percent more than property in economically comparable neighborhoods without rail stops, according to a University of North Texas Center for Economic Development and Research.

        “There's lower office vacancy and high rent around the rail system,” said Bernard L. Weinstein, director of the center.

        St. Louis hasn't done a study, but some Realtors and developers say that values are increasing along parts of the 18-mile line.

        Since light rail opened in 1993, demand for housing around the St. Louis' Central West End and Forest Park stops has grown steadily.

        “We have seen a very positive increase in values since the system opened,” said Carleen Hoerr, a real estate agent for 20 years. “We saw the rise in value before the economy turned around.”

Planning counts
        Dallas and St. Louis grappled with the same questions that Cincinnati faces now. Would the systems even get built? And would they have riders? Consequently, there wasn't a lot — if any — planning around the stations.

        But after the systems quickly attracted tens of thousands of riders daily in each city, interest from developers grew and city economic development directors knew they had something they could work with. Projects like South Side on Lamar in Dallas and Cornerstone in St. Louis took off.

        Successful lines taught suburban leaders a lesson: Light rail was a tool to lure development. Knowing that, they could try to guide the development they want to see around the future stations before the first new train cruises down the track.

        “It's very important you have an idea of what is going to happen so you can sell the idea to a developer,” said Scott Shelton, Swansea, Ill., village administrator.

        The community of 15,000, about 12 miles east of downtown St. Louis, will see light rail open in 2002 and has already decided it wants a hotel with meeting space, restaurants, entertainment and retail.

        If there's planning before the rail line opens, residents can decide first whether they want new development in their neighborhoods. And if they want the development, they can shape what kind.

        Without good planning, the right development may not happen.

        For example, at Dallas' Lovers Lane station north of the downtown, an imposing white, concrete wall of an office supply store backs up to the light rail stop.

        “That's not the kind of development you want there,” said Jack Wierzenski, DART planning studies and system development manager.

        Recognizing that, city council members in suburban Garland, Texas, adopted a land use plan put together by developers, citizens and city leaders. Light rail isn't scheduled to open until 2002. The plan focuses on attracting retail and housing to the downtown area of the older suburban community of 204,000.

        “I've been interested in doing whatever we can to rejuvenate the downtown area,” said Jerry Russell, a Garland resident who serves on DART's board and has been active in creating land use plans in Garland. “When I realized the positive impact the stations were having in the nation and in the area in particular, I felt light rail would be a real catalyst.”

        In Greater Cincinnati, some in the development community are excited about the possibilities light rail could bring.

        John Frank, chairman of Colliers International, a commercial property brokerage and management company in Cincinnati, hasn't been to St. Louis and Dallas. But he did visit Portland to see what light rail has meant to development in that city. What he found: The potential for higher density, mixed-use development.

        “If it went through older neighborhoods such as Norwood and Pleasant Ridge, I think there very well could be potential for development,” he said. “And once they get some type of rapid transit in different areas, there's all kinds of possibilities - positive things that can keep sprawl to a minimum.”

       



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