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Any Tampa Bay transit project will bring development opportunities, expert says

Bus rapid transit isn't all about buses. It also provides development opportunities, an expert says. [Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority]
Published Jul. 16, 2018

Big transit projects are often about much more than moving people from one place to another.

That's where real estate adviser Marilee Utter comes in. Her specialty is helping communities get the most out of development opportunities that arise from building a light rail or bus rapid transit system, like the one proposed for the Tampa Bay area.

The industry lingo is transit-oriented development. Think of it as all the new things that get built around the train or bus stations. It could be restaurants in an area without any. Or office space in a neighborhood that needs it.

The goal: Create a place around each station where people want to be.

"Done right, each area has a brand, an identity," said Utter, president of Citiventure Associates. She will be speaking at Friday's Tampa Bay Transit Forum.

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Utter, who has worked on projects in Phoenix, Seattle, Charlotte, Houston, Salt Lake City, and her hometown of Denver, knows that not everyone is onboard with the benefits of big transit projects. That's why she stresses the importance of doing them right and maximizing the development features.

Last week, she spoke to the Tampa Bay Times about ways to get a diverse area to galvanize around a project. Here are the highlights from that interview, edited for length and clarity.

From a development standpoint, what does success look like? What would people notice near one of the stations?

Usually you put transit in areas where you want redevelopment. Often it's in industrial corridors, or in Tampa Bay's case, it's in a highway corridor. That allows for opportunities for change, to create new, interesting places for people.

You want it to be a place that people know about and want to go and do a lot of different things there. Some people work there. Some people live there. Some people shop there. People just hang out there. There might be recreation or entertainment. They all have different characters depending on the location and the market, but they all are a destination.

How far out from a station does the effect go?

What we've found happens, because it's market driven, is that it's more like an amoeba shape based on where the station is and where the roads are and any barriers. The shape and size of the amoeba depends a lot on the connectivity, the access, to that station. So if you have good streets and sidewalks, good lighting and parking, and interesting destinations along the streets, people will go a long way. They will walk a long way, they will ride their bikes a long way, a lot further than you'd expect, much further that we ever projected. Sometimes the amoeba is a mile long.

Think of it this way: People go to the mall and walk a mile without thinking about it because there are a bunch of interesting things for them to look at. That's what happens around the successful stations.

And that's good for ridership?

Absolutely. By creating interesting, vital areas around the station, ridership increases. Transit officials don't want it jammed at rush hour and empty the rest of the time. They want what's called off-peak ridership. They want people riding it during the day and later at night. So if you make the stations mixed-use destinations that attract people at different times of the day, that really suits the transit agency and it helps the community.

If Tampa Bay goes forward with a big transit project, is there a city it should emulate?

They are all different. Every city has to make it up to suit its purpose. If you follow a formula from another place you will probably fall into trouble.

How do you sell a sprawling area on the merits of a rail or bus rapid transit system that will run through many jurisdictions, with varying priorities and needs?

Don't feel alone. It's very typical.

Transit-oriented development does not happen by itself. It is a public-private project. It really takes a joint effort.

I'm doing work right now in Minneapolis. The new line will go through four or five jurisdictions with very different makeups and political views. Ultimately the most success we've had is working individually with each jurisdiction and with the neighborhoods around the stations. We talk with them about what they lose and what they get. We've found that to be a really powerful tool.

When you talk big generalities people don't really understand what it means for them.

Why not just expand or improve the roads instead of spending money on a transit project?

First, I'll given an example. In Denver, we had a lot of the same political dynamic and concerns going on as in Tampa Bay. When they decided to widen the interstate, it was great for about six years. Now it's 10 years later, and you don't want to be on it again. So adding two lanes and all the great stuff they did, 10 years later you can't tell you did it. It was super expensive, and it didn't solve the problem.

The second reason is that the economic development piece, especially for attracting young people, is huge. Denver has had a good run lately attracting companies. Of the companies that moved, 90 percent have located their office within a half mile of a transit station. They do that because their workers want to ride transit or at least have the option to ride transit.

It draws workers that draw employers that draw jobs that support the economy. It's not that everyone wants to live at a transit station, but a lot of them do. They want the option to try to live with one car or no cars. They want to live a different lifestyle. It's a much broader economic piece than it sounds.

What about bus rapid transit versus light rail?

I think BRT is a great option if it's designed properly. A lot of people will say they are adding an express bus to the freeway and call that BRT. But BRT needs permanent infrastructure at the station areas, and then a dedicated right-of-way that gives it preference over the rest of traffic, which is a really important point.

Any other advice?

The other thing I would say is it takes longer than you think. So better to get started now.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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