Planning July 2016

News

Transit Makes Tracks in Denver

It's been a year for ribbon-cuttings in metropolitan Denver. Four new rail lines authorized by voters in the ambitious FasTracks program in 2004 and a bus rapid transit segment have begun or will soon begin service, triggering development that is remaking the urban fabric. The 50.5 miles that will be completed by year's end will bring the rail and BRT total to 97.5 miles — with more under construction. Most significant was the April launch of an electric-powered commuter train route linking the city's Union Station and Denver International Airport. Stopping at five intermediate stations along the 23-mile route, the train surges to speeds of 79 mph. Two other commuter lines to the city's northwest suburbs and one light-rail line along the city's eastern side are also debuting this year.

FasTracks' original price tag was $4.7 billion with a completion date of 2017. Costs have risen to $5.6 billion, and most of the work will be completed by 2018. The two remaining lines may not be completed until 2042. Sagging sales tax revenues threatened to delay the work even more, but in 2012 the Regional Transportation District and Denver Transit Partners forged a public-private partnership called Eagle P3. The consortium provided $500 million, which was augmented by a $1 billion federal grant. Another $93 million grant will help fund a line extension being started this year.

Community impact

Former Boulder Mayor Will Toor believes the rail lines and new bus rapid transit line between Denver and Boulder have already started to knit the region together and shape land use. "Communities are really focusing significant development around the stations, and they are doing it for light rail, commuter rail, [and] BRT," he says.

For Westminster (pop. 110,000), located 10 miles northwest of downtown Denver, a 20-minute car ride from downtown will become an 11-minute train ride in July. The planning department believes it will be key to revitalizing a worn neighborhood of former industrial sites along Federal Boulevard. "Whereas most of the country seems to look at rail stations as a glorified park and ride, we look at our station as the catalyst for the generation of new urbanist development," says planning manager Mac Cummins, AICP.

Westminster has built a 600-car parking garage at the rail terminus and plans a 40-acre park. The city hopes to induce developers to build high-density housing and retail on the land nearby. With housing prices at half to two-thirds of those in neighborhoods close to downtown Denver, Westminster also hopes to draw millennials, Cummins says.

Since 2004, the key lesson learned has been that building transit doesn't magically make the development appear, says Chris Nevitt, Denver's citywide transit oriented development manager. "The marketplace needs to be right to do TOD, and there is a whole lot of enabling work with respect to infrastructure, entitlements, and land assemblages."

At some stations along the new airport line, the only question seems to be how high and how dense the TOD will be. In a greenfield development on the city's edge, light rail was crucial to drawing Panasonic's new innovation center to not just the site, but also potentially the region. Denver has made a bigger commitment to rebuilding and expanding rail infrastructure than any other city in the last 20 years, says Nevitt. And, by pairing that with strategic planning for TOD, it's positioning itself for economic success.

Denver's much-anticipated train line from Union Station to the Denver International Airport opened to travelers in April, just one milestone in the city's FasTracks initiative. Photo by Ryan Dravitz, courtesy Denverurbanism.com.

—Allen Best

Best writes about water, energy, transportation, and other issues from a base in Denver. He can be found at mountaintownnews.net.

Cooling City Hot Spots

Cities don't just sizzle with nightlife. They sizzle from the urban heat island effect, too. Dark surfaces that absorb heat from the sun, a lack of greenery, and waste heat from industry and vehicles lead to higher temperatures in cities than in the rural areas around them.

Scientists have known about the effect for decades, but Louisville, Kentucky, is the first major U.S. city to commission a study of the causes and effects of its own urban heat island. Four years ago, Louisville had the fastest rate of growth in its urban heat island effect among the 50 largest U.S. cities, according to a list compiled by Brian Stone Jr., a professor with the School of City and Regional Planning at Georgia Institute of Technology.

"When you are on the top of those bad lists, you want to take steps," says Maria Koetter, director of the Office of Sustainability for the Louisville Metro Government. Koetter and her office found grants to fund a report from Stone on Louisville's heat island.

The report, which was released in April, found that the hottest and coolest parts of the city differed by as much as 12 degrees Fahrenheit. It also estimated that 86 people died in the city from heat-related causes in the summer of 2012.

A few things make Louisville unusual among cities, Stone says. Among them is that its downtown tree cover rate of eight to 10 percent is the lowest of any of the 50 cities Stone's team looked at. Stone also says it's one of the few large American cities that lacks a tree ordinance.

Another strange feature is that Louisville's industrial sector is located so that prevailing winds bring waste heat from manufacturing and vehicles into residential neighborhoods, making those places hotter.

The Louisville study modeled the impact of using lighter-colored materials for roofs and pavement, which reflect rather than absorb heat. The results surprised Stone. Though his analysis found green cover to be 1.2 times more effective than so-called "cool" materials when measured in square meters, the actual area within the city that can be covered with vegetation is limited. Cool materials, on the other hand, can be used everywhere. As a result, cool materials could lower Louisville temperatures by at least one degree and as much as six degrees on the hottest days compared to one or two degrees for green cover. For most places in the city, a combination of cool materials, green cover, and energy efficiency (which had a minimal effect on its own) is recommended as the most effective strategy.

While the basic causes of urban heat islands are similar in every city, Stone warns, "Each city has its own issues. What works in Louisville may make things worse in Phoenix."

Stone says that turning the data and analysis in his report into city policies that lower city temperatures is the work of planners. Those changes can take years, but Koetter says that, serendipitously, Louisville has just begun revising its comprehensive plan.

The city has also held public forums and launched Cool502, an initiative that puts neighborhood-level data from the report into residents' hands, including the number of trees that need to be planted and cool roofs installed to lower temperatures. Stone's report includes a neighborhood-by-neighborhood plan for planting 450,000 trees. Koetter predicts that a cool-roof incentive program will be one of the city's first policy actions.

Controlling global warming can feel out of reach, but cities have the power to reduce their own heat islands, says Stone. "Cities are the most well-positioned units of government to address the rate at which they warm."

—Madeline Bodin

Bodin is a freelance writer who specializes in environmental topics.

News Briefs

  • U.S. air quality continues to improve, due in large part to cleaner-burning power plants and vehicle engines, according to the American Lung Association's 2016 "State of the Air" report. Sixteen cities hit their lowest levels of particle pollution ever. However, 52 percent of Americans still live in counties where air quality needs improvement.
  • The 2016 Atlantic hurricane season officially started June 1. NOAA's Climate Prediction Center forecasts a near-normal season with 70 percent likelihood of 10 to 16 named storms, of which four to eight could become hurricanes. However, despite a near-normal prediction, hurricane activity could actually increase when compared to the last three years, which were below normal.
  • The world's longest and deepest rail tunnel opened in Switzerland in June after $10 billion and nearly two decades of construction work. The 35-mile high-speed rail tunnel cuts under the Swiss Alps to connect northern and southern Europe. Switzerland says it will revolutionize European freight transport.
  • Heavy rains flooded Paris in early June. The city was prepared for the worst, having conducted a citywide flood disaster training exercise in March. The multiday exercise simulated 100-year flood levels. As virtual flood waters rose, emergency teams dealt with scenarios including interruption of public transport, hospital shutdowns, and flooded city landmarks.

Tree Farms Green Vacant Lots

 

These renderings, modeled after vacant lots in Detroit, illustrate the life cycle of Fresh Coast Capital's hybrid poplar trees and how the farms, which will be open to the public, will fit into the surrounding communities. Rendering courtesy Fresh Coast Capital.

Urban areas in the Midwest have more empty space than they know what to do with. So when Chicago-based Fresh Coast Capital approached a handful of struggling municipalities with a unique proposal — to seed vacant lots with hybrid poplar trees — the nascent investment and real estate development firm was met with receptive curiosity.

Founded in 2014, Fresh Coast Capital seeks to redevelop land in an environmentally friendly fashion. Their initial gambit seeks to bring commercial tree farms to vacant land in six Rust Belt cities. The firm invested a total of $1 million in Youngstown, Ohio; Battle Creek and Flint, Michigan; St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri; and Elkhart, Indiana.

Almost all of these cities have lost close to half of their peak populations. Fresh Coast's investment will seed 60 acres of farms with some 27,000 trees, which will then be harvested for sale.

A win-win

In Flint, Fresh Coast is working with the Genesee County Land Bank, which controls around 12,000 parcels of land. The deindustrialization-ravaged city's master plan calls for vast tracts of land to be converted to "green innovation" and "open spaces." Tree farms fit the bill.

Although the land bank usually only deals in five-year leases, last year they gave a 15-year lease to Fresh Coast Capital for an eight-acre parcel. The firm needs at least that long to grow and harvest the hybrid poplars, and the city felt that their proposal was strong enough to grant an exemption from the norm.

In Ohio, the investment firm is working with the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit group that engages in restoring vacant lots, neighborhood planning, urban farming, providing home ownership counseling, and even offering community lending. The dynamic local group also assists the parks department with its planning needs, which is how the community development corporation got in touch with Fresh Coast Capital.

The firm will be planting on three underutilized city park spaces, situated in hollowed-out neighborhoods that Youngstown cannot afford to maintain.

"They did not come here asking for money," says Ian Beniston, AICP, executive director of the YNDC. "They basically said just give us access to the land and we'll put together the capital ourselves and maintain the property at no cost to the city. They definitely understand the challenges of vacant land, and they are trying to develop a model that generates a return on investment, creates some small level of employment, and just offers a purpose for the land." Beniston says that if all goes well they would like to see Fresh Coast expand their efforts in Youngstown.

In Flint that is already happening: The investment firm has taken an interest in a fresh-cut flower farm. A local operation, Floradora's Flowers actually runs the business, but Fresh Coast holds and insures the property, which it purchased outright from the previous owner.

"There are so many vacant lots in the city," says Heidi Phaneuf, community resource planner with the land bank. "Fresh Coast is bringing ideas and capital and resources to help find ways to reuse that vacant land in interesting and unique ways. It's pretty exciting to see. The trees are already growing."

—Jake Blumgart

Blumgart is a reporter and editor based in Philadelphia.

News and Legal Lessons are edited by Mary Hammon, Planning's associate editor. Please send information to mhammon@planning.org.