New Wave of Development Follows Streetcar Construction in Mid-Sized Cities

When selecting a parking lot along the Kansas City streetcar line as the site for a 50-unit, five-story apartment building, Boulder-based developer Linden Street Partners was clear: “The streetcar is the big thing that drew us, absolutely,” the company’s Scott Richardson told the Kansas City Star. “We like the demographics and the economic trends. I walked the area and liked the site.”

Developers are pouring $71 million into Kansas City's Commerce Tower to convert the building into 15 floors of apartments. Image: ## City Business Journal##

Kansas City hasn’t even begun construction yet on the 2-mile, $103 million streetcar project. But the project is already spurring the kind of development that promoters hoped for. In addition to the apartment complex, the streetcar line also attracted a new, 257-room hotel. In what locals tell us is a rarity for downtown projects, the hotel received no subsidies.

There are other projects coming online near the route that are less concretely attributable to the streetcar project: A 22-story office tower will be converted to market-rate and affordable housing, and a 10-story building will be renovated for luxury apartments.

A similar effect can be seen in Tucson, where the city’s under-construction streetcar will begin running next summer. Michael Keith, director of the Downtown Tucson Partnership, said $250 million in development has already been proposed along the four-mile route connecting the city’s downtown to the University of Arizona.

“We’re going to see 100 million [dollars] teed up for next year, including a 139-room boutique hotel, and two multi-family apartment developments totaling 700 units,” he said.

Keith attributes a wave of other building projects and new businesses in the last few years to the impending arrival of the streetcar. Downtown advocates are particularly excited about a high-end housing project called One East Broadway, which will contain 24 units, two floors of office space and two floors of parking. The project was financed in part with new market tax credits, Keith said, but it sets an important precedent.

“This was the first successful high-end housing project to hit downtown in more than a decade,” he said. “It pretty much sets the table for a whole range of market-driven apartments to be built downtown. Other developers are going to be able to come in and get conventional financing for market-rate housing.”

These abandoned row houses by the Cincinnati Streetcar route have all sold, prior to renovations by a developer. Image: ## Whimsy##

Tucson doesn’t have a strong commercial downtown, making these residential projects all the more critical to the city core. “We’re not Phoenix.” Keith said. “We’re looking at a live-work-play and increasingly residential-based downtown.”

Cincinnati is another city that is installing its first modern streetcar, a $150 million project that was envisioned as a way to revitalize and connect core urban neighborhoods and downtown. In this case, again, planned development that was one of the project’s major objectives appears to be panning out. The city has barely begun laying tracks for its 3.6-mile starter loop, but developers are already lining up along the route.

The Elm Street Townhomes, still under renovation in Over-the-Rhine, are already sold out, according to the blog Cincy Whimsy. Elm Street Townhomes, LLC advertises its location along the under-construction streetcar line as part of the draw. Across the street, a senior living facility is being built.

Meanwhile, downtown, developers recently announced plans to convert a mostly vacant office building into 20 apartments.

Jim Moll of Coldwell Banker is the broker on the Elm Street project. He said the developers, two architects based in Seattle, purposely sought out vacant land by the streetcar route after voters approved a referendum on the project in 2008.

“Literally, the day after the ballot initiative passed I got calls from people about properties,” Moll said.

As transit expert Jarrett Walker has written, the benefits of streetcars compared to buses are not related to mobility. These three projects don’t give transit dedicated lanes to bypass traffic congestion. While it’s certainly debatable whether streetcars were the optimal way to generate development with scarce transit dollars, it nevertheless seems clear that they are shaping these cities for the better, creating more walkable downtowns with a healthier mix of uses.

Moll said, in his opinion, a frequently running bus line wouldn’t have sparked the same kind of interest in Cincinnati. “Rail is not a temporary thing where a bus route is,” he said. “Those streetcars, they have to stay on the rail. That’s the defining point.”

13 thoughts on New Wave of Development Follows Streetcar Construction in Mid-Sized Cities

  1. In this story “affordable” appears only once, and the g-word (gentrification) not at all. Who is living there now? Will they continue to be able to live there?

  2. Cities change. Sometimes people stay, sometimes they don’t. You can’t block progress simply to prevent change.

  3. But, but, but… the ITDP assured us that buses attracted development just as well, no, better, than streetcars and tramways. Surely there are buses currently in those locations, why did the developments not happen beforehand?

  4. I think what ITDP is saying that a quality bus package, not local bus, including stations which are attractive, branded and substantial, attractive, branded, clean and quiet vehicles, off-board fare collection, real time passenger information, etc. can do an excellent job of inducing development around stations, and because that quality package is immeasurably cheaper than streetcars can effect that impact across a larger number of corridors for the same money — not to mention offering more reliable, safer and faster service in a mixed traffic environment. The multiple corridor, 65 Km. Viva “BRT Lite” system in Yor Ontario outside Toronto, measuring development effects the way the author (and others) do — anything new in walking distance is a direct transit benefit – has “produced” much more development than any of the projects mentioned in the blurb at a fraction of the cost.

  5. Josh, Todd said nothing about blocking progress.

    Asking about and caring for your neighbors is not a bad thing. If we want to build cities for everyone, these are questions that need to be asked.

  6. OK, so who will able to live in these redeveloped areas in these two cities? Angie, it would be great if all development stories in Streetsblog mentioned specific goals, if any… or just likely results, for below-market rate housing in articles about housing development.

  7. That isn’t what this article is about, though we have written about that in other contexts. Did you notice the guy in Tucson said there hasn’t been any market rate housing built downtown in a long time? They’re just starting to even attract market rate housing in downtown Tucson. These cities aren’t San Francisco or New York City. It’s important to recognize that the housing market dynamics are very, very different.

  8. Do you know about the goals, or not? Did you ask? Most cities have a strategy, don’t they?

    You quote a lot of people cheering on the new development but very little is quantified or projected. Regulations take time to enact — if a city has no policy then there is no defense. Re-visiting percentages of this or that in with a new project should be the exception.

    A few years down the line it may be too late to ensure a good mix. Is your purpose here to be narrow and cheerlead for tramlines or to analyze the whole situation while it can still be moderated?

    The other day I joked that a public transport operator pulled out of a contract to run a new streetcar because they city was not building enough below-market housing in the areas it would serve.

  9. If you want buses to rival rail, you end up paying as much as rail over 30 years. Though the initial cost is lesser, the higher cost of running the system and of buying vehicles every 10-15 years instead of every 30-40 years add up and eliminates much if not all the lower costs of BRT vs rail.

    As to York, I’m sorry, but calling it TOD is a stretch, a very big stretch. The system is long for the region and connects every center of activity. When you add one transit line and one place and see investments flock to it more than the unserved parts, you know it’s TOD. When you add lines covering all the developing centers, it is hard to know what is development that would be occurring regardless and what is actually attracted.

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