With a nod to progressive metros like Minneapolis, Denver, and Portland, Ore., which invested billions of dollars over the last decade to tie commercial and residential expansion to their state-of-the-art public rapid transit operations, Salt Lake City plans to ride its fledgling light rail system to a higher level of smart growth success. As it stands, Salt Lake's $520 million, 19-mile, 23-station light rail network accommodates more than 55,000 riders per day, and growing. Suddenly, transit-oriented development (TOD) projects along what's known as the Wasatch Front are transforming downtrodden urban districts into tomorrow's connected downtowns.

SLC TOD: Birkhill at Fireclay from Hamlet Homes will use smart growth principles to transform a delapidated area of Murray City's downtown into a bustling Salt Lake County hub. Photos: Courtesy Hamlet Homes Since the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) initiated the TRAX system in 1999, Salt Lake's light rail network has eclipsed city officials' expectations, with an estimated total ridership of nearly 15 million in 2006.

The UTA's grand scheme is to roll out an ambitious 30-year expansion plan, with the goal of creating smart growth residential and commercial development opportunities along the existing and planned rail stations. Area builders like Hamlet Homes–ever seeking a competitive edge–have expanded their business models and product portfolios to build transit-focused home and business districts at the center of Salt Lake Valley towns and cities.

After finding sales success in two urban projects near TRAX stations, Hamlet Homes is committed to expanding its position as a premier suburban home builder. Its focus is on new urban, mixed-use, and TODs.

Satellite Station

Salt Lake County's Murray City faced a challenge common to many small municipalities: a scarcity of undeveloped land. Despite being surrounded by stunning views of the Rocky Mountains' Wasatch Range and home to its quaint and historic downtown State Street, Murray has a proliferation of deserted industrial buildings and blighted tracts amid its 12-square-mile city limits.

In an effort to reverse the urban blight, city officials developed a General Plan that committed itself toward putting a new face on the community. After years of experience developing in the town, Michael Brodsky, chairman of Hamlet Homes, had established a good relationship with the city and was anxious to parlay his TOD successes into Hamlet's first foray into mixed-use. He got his chance with Birkhill at Fireclay, the charter development in a 97-acre district that the city established around its Murray North station.

Birkhill at Fireclay occupies 30 acres or about 30 percent of Murray City's Fireclay District. Groundbreaking occurred in late summer. Upon completion, the project will contain roughly 380 residential units, including townhomes and condos, and 200,000 square feet of retail and office space.

"The first two subdivisions that we did sold out," Brodsky says. "They were urban infill properties in an extraordinarily good location, despite the surrounding areas. We transplanted townhome design [ideas] from the East Coast and also from Irvine, Calif. They were an immediate success. That kind of kicked off our sense of security that we could do these infill sites successfully."

Although there's opportunity with such projects, there are also challenges. Brodsky acknowledges that Birkhill at Fireclay is "a little scary" because it's more than just a townhome development. To assemble parcels large enough to accommodate the city and town centers, Hamlet toiled for more than two years. What's more, conducting the environmental cleanup that must precede construction is not one of Hamlet's skill sets.

Throughout, Brodsky cites the collaborative relationship with city officials as key. "I realized that I was dealing with a very progressive city, in its forward-thinking and planning," he says. "So when the time came to take a risk, I felt like I could believe what they said to me."

Further, Murray City's municipal officials have done their part to encourage private enterprise to move forward with such projects. "They have done street networks; the tax increments are a very nice incentive to developers to come in and develop the properties," Brodsky says. "They're providing some of the infrastructure right now in the form of roads and utilities. It's encouraging, not to just us, but to other developers as well."

Ticket to Ride

Although Hamlet is the first developer to capitalize on the area, there is plenty of reason to expect more. Fueling the economy is the residential demand and job growth projections associated with the Intermountain Medical Center teaching hospital, which will open in October.

Economic studies show the facility may create as many as 1,100 new jobs this year alone and 25,000 jobs over three years. "This hospital is the next stop down from [Birkhill at Fireclay]," Brodsky says. "It has a track station; it has bus service. It has a shuttle that goes back and forth from the track station to the hospital all through the day and evening."

Already the land values on acreage Brodsky has assembled have skyrocketed from $250,000 per acre to roughly $1 million. "Biting off this type of project is a risk, and there's some guesswork attached to this," he says. "But when you see these kinds of statistics and you see this kind of economic activity being generated by a facility that is one stop away from you, what would you do?"

–Lisa Marquis Jackson

TRAX Quick Facts

Originally, TRAX was a north-south rail line that paralleled I-15 in the Salt Lake Valley. TRAX has since expanded to include the University line that runs along 400 South, connecting downtown Salt Lake City to the University of Utah.

Expansion is underway to further connect the Wasatch Front, including:

  • Current construction, expected to be complete in April 2008, connecting light rail lines at Energy Solutions Arena, currently the end of the line, to Salt Lake City's intermodal transportation hub located between 200 and 300 South on 600 West.
  • An ongoing study to determine the best alignment for a light rail extension to the Salt Lake City International Airport.
  • Plans for an east-west light rail extension connecting the Central Pointe station on 2100 South near State Street to the proposed West Valley intermodal station.
  • Early discussion to run lines through Midvale, Murray, West Jordan, and South Jordan.

The UTA is also embarking on a 30-year plan to build commuter rail that would extend from Brigham City to Payson. The first phase, called "Commuter Rail North," would connect Weber, Davis, and Salt Lake Counties.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Salt Lake City, UT, Los Angeles, CA, Portland, OR.