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Norfolk says light rail's benefits already rolling in

Norfolk says light rail's benefits already rolling in

Light rail in Norfolk Virginia has already has helped generate more than $220 million in planned office, retail, apartment and hotel development downtown - before construction has even begun.

By Jennifer Jiggetts

(Published in The Virginian-Pilot on December 6, 2007.)

The first shovel of dirt has not been turned, yet light rail already has helped generate more than $220 million in planned office, retail, apartment and hotel development downtown.

Developers of three projects - Wachovia Center, Belmont at Freemason apartments and a Residence Inn - said the city's starter light rail influenced their business decisions. Having modern transit within a short walking distance delivers a steady stream of potential customers and provides an alternative to driving for residents and workers, they said.

Wachovia Center is a 22-story tower and apartment building that will include office, retail and residential space on Monticello Avenue.

"The fact that there will be a light rail stop right out the front door of our project was a key part of why we selected that site," said Thomas G. Johnson III, vice president of sales and development for Nusbaum Realty, the project developer.

Developers of the Residence Inn by Marriott on Brambleton Avenue are counting on light rail to transport customers to what they believe will be a big draw for their extended-stay rooms, the Eastern Virginia Medical Center.

For Belmont at Freemason, "light rail was a big factor in the size, quality and scale of our project," said Pete O. Kotarides, of Kotarides Developers, which plans to break ground early next year on the three-building complex, which will be adjacent to light rail's York Street station.

It's hard to predict how much more Norfolk can expect in private development along the 7.5-mile transit line, The Tide, which breaks ground Saturday.

What is certain, though, is that many modern light rail projects are as much about economic development as transportation. Light rail lines are increasingly being used to encourage and guide growth.

The American Public Transportation Association reports that, on average, $6 of private money is invested along a new transit line for every $1 of public money spent. That means for Norfolk's $232.1 million line, $1.4 billion in new development could follow.

"We know why this project is being built - it's truly about economic development," Federal Transit Administrator James S. Simpson said in October when he was in town to award a $128 million federal subsidy for light rail construction. Industry experts warn, though, that there's no guarantee of significant private investment.

"It's not automatic; it has to be proactive," said Robert Cervero, chairman of the city and regional planning department at the University of California, Berkeley, who has done extensive research on transit-oriented development.

To realize the development benefits, Cervero said, other things must be in place. Those include land-use policies supporting transit; a strong economy; a population that's inclined to use transit; and a transit system that's effective and inviting in both service and design.

Cervero, a Norfolk native, said downtown's redevelopment is at a "tipping point." facing challenges with traffic congestion and parking supply.

"It's fortuitous to bring in light rail now," he said. "Without question, light rail can further stimulate the redevelopment of downtown Norfolk. A great thing rail does is provide a focus area."

Two cities that are often held up as prime examples of how to best integrate light rail and economic development are Dallas and Portland, Ore.

Since building the first light rail line in Portland in the late 1970s, the city has realized more than $3 billion in development adjacent to the line. In Dallas, more than $1 billion has been spent on new development around DART in the past decade.

Closer to home, Charlotte opened its first leg of light rail last month. Already, $400 million in new development is under way and another $1.4 billion is planned through 2011.

But not all light rail projects have been economic development success stories.

"One thing that can happen is nothing," said Robert Dunphy, of the Urban Land Institute. "Transit advocates will claim if you put rail in, all of a sudden you'll have this money flowing. It's just not true.

"What has to happen is someone needs to look at the market and focus the development and make sure there's a supportive environment."

Already, Norfolk has adopted a parking policy that limits the growth of downtown parking to encourage transit use.

City planners are now evaluating land uses along the light rail route and identifying where there are opportunities for new development. In some areas, that will mean higher-density development, said Planning Director Frank Duke. Duke, who came to Norfolk in August, said the process should have started many months ago.

"We need a smart plan now," said Councilman W. Randy Wright. "We're not going to get the best development by letting plans happen on their own."

In Charlotte, the city started integrating plans for transit and land use in the 1990s, long before the first light rail track was laid.

"We don't see how we can do one without the other; we wouldn't be successful in either," said Tina Votaw, transit oriented development specialist with Charlotte's transit agency.

Meanwhile, the city is soliciting proposals for redeveloping what's now the Kirn Memorial Library site. The library will be relocated, and its building demolished next year to make way for a light rail station.

Roderick S. Woolard, economic development director, envisions more development opportunities at Fort Norfolk, Harbor Park, Military Highway and Newtown Road.

"The greatest value will be connectivity," he said. "We'll be connecting Fort Norfolk to downtown and Harbor Park to downtown. It will enable us to have a greater downtown area."

Wright said that as a result of light rail, the city already has received one unsolicited proposal for developing land near Harbor Park. He would not provide details.

"There's already huge opportunities within the city of Norfolk," he said. "Ultimately, when we extend the line to the Navy base, there will be more opportunities. And even more if it goes into Virginia Beach."