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Denver's Transit Visions Haven't Come True. What Does That Mean For Transit-Oriented Developments?

Denver’s Regional Transportation District is going through a decidedly bumpy time, which in turn is raising concerns about the future of the metro area’s transit-oriented developments, though some builders say healthy transit is just icing on the cake, not a crucial part of the recipe. 

RTD light rail in downtown Denver

TOD has been a buzzword for Denver developers for decades now. In 2004, voters approved the FasTracks plan to construct a commuter transit system across metro Denver. In the intervening 20 years, 113 miles of light rail and commuter rail have been created, as have 18 miles of bus rapid transit. 

The vision was that urban renewal would follow. By supporting the development of dense mixed-use projects near public transit, the city intended to increase walkability and reconnect neighborhoods, improving economic stability for the region and helping the environment.

Development has indeed come to the areas surrounding bus and train stations. Since 2005, 68% of all new office development and 44% of new housing across Metro Denver has been within a half-mile of an RTD station, despite those sites comprising a tiny fraction of Denver’s land.  

But now the transit portion of TOD appears to be in peril.

Ridership on RTD’s buses and light rail system has declined 46% since 2019, even while its operating budget increased 3%. The system did bounce back after the worst of the coronavirus pandemic and saw a high of 661,000 riders in 2022, but it fell back to 343,000 rides last year.

Rail maintenance and safety issues have forced several RTD rail lines to significantly slow their operating speeds, causing delays and frustrations for commuters. Rising crime rates on the transit system have prompted RTD to hire more law enforcement across the eight Colorado counties served by the system.

“If you don’t have a functioning, efficient, reliable, timely, safe, affordable light rail system, you don’t have a chance of getting a metropolis moving and efficiently functioning,” said Chris Waggett, CEO and operating partner at D4 Urban. “We have the bones of a great system, but it shows how comically inept it is that we now got trains running at 10 mph because we didn’t do the maintenance.”

D4 Urban was a pioneer in Denver's TOD. In 2017, it completed the Denizen at Alameda Station, creating 275 apartment units, a transit plaza, retail stores and a more accessible street grid in what was a parking lot and bus turnaround area in downtown Denver. It was one of three sites acquired from RTD and served as a pilot project for the region’s TOD plan.

But RTD is not living up to the promise he saw then.

“We seem to have lost, in the last five years, the critical importance of public transit to energize the center city, Denver and the Front Range,” he told Bisnow. 

Waggett said he is concerned that there is no overall mission for TOD in Denver.

“We are sleepwalking when it comes to integrating transportation and land use development,” he said.

Still, new TOD projects continue to crop up around the metro, and developers Bisnow spoke to had a mixed view of how important ridership is to their success. 

Denver Union Station

“We don’t expect anything to happen to RTD,” Lee Ferguson, senior vice president at Trammell Crow, said. “We’ve got no indications that it’s going away. If it did, these [developments] would remain true Class-A, amenity-rich apartment sites that we feel would be desirable for a number of reasons.”

Trammell Crow subsidiary High Street Residential is developing two major TOD projects in metro Denver. A phase of the 252-unit, Class-A multifamily development called The Russell, adjacent to the RTD station in Olde Town Arvada, is scheduled to be ready for occupancy in late summer/early autumn of this year. 

Across town, HSR is building Elevon at Central Park Station, where the RTD A-Line can take residents downtown to Union Station or Denver International Airport. Phase 1 of Elevon, 301 units with a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments, is preleasing for occupancy later this year. The 341-unit Phase 2, which will include about 6K SF in ground-floor retail, is scheduled to break ground in late 2024.

Ferguson said these projects “are not truly just commuter locations. We feel that they are part of a larger ecosystem, of which the TOD component, the transit component, is important.”

But, he added, “We’re also thinking about a walkable community, this dynamic mix of housing, office, retail, amenities, etc. So we haven’t experienced any negative impact from RTD. We haven’t heard of it from anyone looking to lease in these communities.”

Chris Nevitt, the city and county’s manager for transit-oriented development, told Bisnow he recognizes how much is riding on ridership. 

“With all of this development, the transit is meaningful,” he said. “The more frequency, the more reliability, the more it is comfortable and safe, the more powerful that dynamic. When transit is infrequent or unreliable or unpleasant, or unsafe, that dynamic recedes. That impact is less. And that spreads the development out in a way that generates a lot of traffic, which is not in our interest.”

He said he thinks traffic on public transport will rebound and continue to benefit nearby projects.

“I think [RTD’s challenges] are temporary, and RTD will rise to the challenge and will have the robust public transportation that we’ve all bargained for and bet on,” Nevitt said. “And I think the real estate community is in the same position, that the amenities that are associated with public transportation are compelling.”

He recognizes there is skepticism and anxiety from developers about the transit component of TOD, and he said he takes it as a positive sign.

“There’s not a lot of controversy over things people don’t care about,” he said. “A lot of people care about this, which tells me that the demand for frequent, reliable, clean and safe transit is enormous and that we are pointing in the right direction, which is orienting our development program, orienting our infrastructure, and working with RTD to deliver on that vision. Because that’s what the public wants. People are upset about it because they’re not getting it. And if they didn’t care, they wouldn’t be upset.”