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Plans to enliven Tri-Rail hubs gain steam

Stations on north-south line to mix housing, service

By Michael Turnbell
Transportation Writer
Posted April 16 2005

When passengers step off Tri-Rail's commuter trains, not much awaits them at many of the no-frills stations.

But from West Palm Beach to Miami, developments that combine housing, services such as dry cleaners and newsstands, offices and hotels are on the drawing board to transform lifeless train stops into thriving hubs in the next few years.

"We are talking about a true lifestyle based on the concept of high usage of public transportation," said Michael Wohl, a local developer with big plans for the Sheridan Street park-and-ride lot that abuts the tracks in Hollywood.

In February, the Florida Department of Transportation leased the 18-acre site to Wohl and his partners for a $100 million development called Station Side Village.

The project would retain 793 of the site's 804 parking spots but in a garage serving a larger complex of market-rate condos, restaurants and stores and a charter school serving up to 800 students in addition to the train station.

"I think it's become obvious to people that in order to maintain our quality of life in South Florida, we have to become less dependent on the automobile," Wohl said.

All along Tri-Rail's north-south tracks, developers are zeroing in on stations.

In May, a new train stop will open south of Yamato Road next to the T-Rex Corporate Center.

Around the station, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority plans to build 50,000 square feet of office space and 20,000 square feet of retail space devoted to services geared at train riders, like a coffee shop, newsstand or a bank.

Near downtown West Palm Beach, a cluster of homes and apartments for 2,000 families, offices and a 100-room hotel are just one possibility considered for a 36-acre site around an enhanced rail station along Tamarind Avenue.

The catalyst for the sudden land rush is completion of a 72-mile long ribbon of dual track, enabling Tri-Rail trains to run in opposite directions every 20 minutes in 2006. Passengers now must wait an hour between trains.

"It will be a completely different kind of train service. It will be much more usable and practical," said Kim DeLaney, growth management coordinator with the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council.

About 15 million American households will want housing within a half-mile radius of transit by 2025, double the number that live in those neighborhoods today, according to Reconnecting America, a national organization that promotes transit-friendly development.

The group estimates that the number of housing units near stations in South Florida will increase by 311 percent during the next two decades, with more than 260,000 units available by 2025.

Transportation experts say several factors are fueling the demand.

As the population ages, households are getting smaller. For a new generation of singles, empty nesters and couples without children, time spent commuting is a stronger consideration when deciding where to live.

South Florida drivers here waste an average of 52 hours a year stuck in traffic, 13 hours longer than a decade earlier, according to an analysis of federal traffic data by the Texas Transportation Institute.

"Transit's stake in housing and economic development is pretty high, because the more development takes place around transit, the more people will ride transit," Federal Transit Administration chief Jennifer Dorn told transit supporters at a conference in Los Angeles last fall.

In Dallas, development around stations was slow to catch on when the city's first light rail line opened in the 1990s. But after the success of the first residential project, developers came crawling with plans to build variations tailored to urban places downtown to less densely populated suburbs like Plano, 30 miles from the city's core.

Like many residents in Plano's red brick Eastside Village apartments and retail complex, 32-year-old Jeff Meek doesn't take the train to work but he likes living next to the station and the convenience it affords.

The rail line parallels Dallas' North Central Expressway, a chronically jammed commuter artery.

In the evenings or on weekends, the graphics designer can ride the train to catch a movie at an art-house theater and shop at stores like Urban Outfitters at Mockingbird Station, where former warehouses now house a trendy retail and entertainment complex with lofts and condos surrounding a train stop near Southern Methodist University.

"During basketball and hockey season, I can jump on the train and be at the American Airlines Center in downtown Dallas in 30 minutes," Meek said.

Although housing isn't a component of the new Boca Raton station, transit officials say the train stop will be a major hub for employees in the nearby office park as well as the main campus of Florida Atlantic University and workers at Boca Raton Community Hospital, two of Boca Raton's largest employers.

"The important thing is that it's not going to generate traffic. We're not designing this for anyone other than our passengers," said RTA spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold. "The last thing we want to do is create more traffic on Yamato Road."

Arlington County, Va., outside Washington, kept traffic in check by steering 18,000 homes and apartments, 75,000 jobs, almost 2,000 hotel rooms and 17 million square feet of offices and retail shops within walking distance of subway stations since the 1970s.

As a result, about three-fourths of the city's passengers walk to stations instead of drive.

Shelley Poticha, president of the Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Transit Oriented Development, said Arlington's narrow strip of land along the subway comprises less than 8 percent of the county's total land area but generates a third of its tax base, helping to keep property taxes lower than other neighboring suburbs.

But such projects, despite a track record of creating vibrant entertainment districts and increasing property values in other cities, aren't always embraced.

Concerns about density and traffic killed a plan last year to redevelop a former jai-alai fronton near Tri-Rail's Mangonia Park station with up to 2,000 condos and 150,000 square feet of office and retail space.

Poticha said a balance can be struck between creating dense development around stations and preserving the character of single-family homes in nearby neighborhoods.

"It's important to understand the context of how the project fits into the community. It should not be a spaceship landing," Poticha said. "It should be something that creates benefits to the broader community."
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