FasTracks: Taxing but transformative: Rail line to DIA spurs latest wave of transit-oriented development.

Author:DuBay, Keith
Position:REAL ESTATE ROUNDUP

IN 1997, THE DEBATE RAGED FOR GUIDE the Ride, the first big vote on a large sales tax increase for a massive train-oriented transit system in the Denver metro area. Critics called it a boondoggle that wouldn't improve traffic and few would use.

The first campaign and its steep 0.4 percent sales tax increase was rejected by voters, derailed by a divisive Regional Transportation District Board of Directors, a vague design, and general lack of voter familiarity with the commuter rail concept.

Renamed FasTracks, the 122-mile, hub-and-spoke plan radiating from Denver Union Station was approved by voters in 2004, funded in part by the sales tax. As the system has progressed, usage has increased, spurring massive development near stations, which will number 78 at the end of 2016.

Ride the Mile High City's light rail system and you'll witness mushrooming apartment buildings, retail and restaurants in properties that once exuded industrial grime, railroad rust or were mere highway canyons. There are new micro-communities based on lifestyles of choice, density, proximity, ecology and transit, catering to the millennial generation that favors such an accessible, mobile lifestyle; and to others who want to downsize in an urban environment.

Whether the nearly $8 billion FasTracks project is a waste of taxpayer money or not, today the argument is moot. Most experts say Denver is only halfway through the FasTracks build-out, but the city and its suburbs are invested in transit development, and so are real estate stakeholders. "If you would have told me 20 years ago we'd see this level of development, I would not have believed it," said Bill Sirois, manager of transit-oriented development for RTD. "Being an advocate, I'd have hoped. But it has exceeded our expectations. It just took off."

LODO--A VIBRANT CORE

Step off the train at the Colorado Convention Center and you are steps away from swanky bars and restaurants that, to residents, employees or visitors of downtown Denver, seem to have popped up out of nowhere. At Denver Union Station, you're surrounded by towering new office, high-rise apartment and condo buildings and the $500 million Union Station transit hub replete with hotel, retail, restaurants, bars, rail and bus connections. Coors Field, the Pepsi Center, Elitch Gardens and Sports Authority Field at Mile High are all light-rail accessible.

For decades, politicians, civic planners and the private sector have worked toward the vision of a vibrant, transit-oriented downtown, galvanizing a world-class city--and Union Station was to be the nexus of it all.

The University of Colorado A Line from Union Station to Denver International Airport will usher in a new era of travel when it opens in April. Employees at the new...

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