The Rail Thing, Is Metro Detroit On Track?

I go to Santa Fe to feast on adobes and a circa 1610 plaza, and instead I'm struck by a train. The New Mexico Rail Runner Express commuter rail line cuts a zag through this high desert city's newly redeveloped funky cool Railyard District, where modern architecture and geometry mesh in an art museum and galleries, a dance studio, farmers market, and restaurants. If ever there was a place in my heart for economic engine envy, this is it. As I flit through the ambitious new Railyard park and promenade during my Santa Fe sojourn, I can't help but compare it to Metro Detroit's prospective transit-oriented development project – the Troy/Birmingham transit center.

A joint Troy-Birmingham effort, the $6-7 million multi-modal transit center is in the final design phase and is due for site plan approval this month, says Jana Ecker, planning director for the city of Birmingham. The 2.7-acre parcel, including a 120-space parking lot reserved for the center, abuts the railroad track behind the big-box stores at the southwest corner of Maple and Coolidge Roads in Troy. The center is to be located in Troy, with a bike and pedestrian tunnel running underneath the track to link it to the Birmingham side and a new Amtrak platform. Planners are in the process of acquiring property in Birmingham, Ecker says.

All aboard!

Troy and Birmingham are contemplating joint ownership of the center, which would serve Amtrak and the SMART bus lines. Detroit Regional Mass Transit has also identified it as a hub connector for the proposed regional mass transit system. Furthermore, the cities are considering Hertz Rent-a-Car and Black Sedan service for linkups to Metro and Oakland County airports, Ecker says.

However, if the project is not funded by June 2010, the property will revert to the developer, Grand Sakwa Properties, Ecker warns. The U.S. House Appropriations Committee will recommend to the full House of Representatives that $1.3 million be advanced for the center's construction – one of only three such transportation projects of 32 submitted that was approved for a $1 million-plus appropriation.
An additional $5 million has been requested from the Senate, and the cities have applied for economic stimulus funding. Various other funding requests are in place, she says, including a partnership with MDOT under the High Speed Inter City Rail program.

The cities are also working with their chambers of commerce, who represent the business and property owners.

Carrie Zarotney, president of the Birmingham-Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce, says the planners looked at successful transit-oriented projects in other cities with newer transit systems, including Denver, Charlotte, and Minneapolis.
As such, a 760-acre transit center overlay development district that extends from Crooks Road in Troy to Adams Road in Birmingham is in the works. Within that district, greater density and pedestrian-friendliness would be encouraged, including mixed-use retail, office, and residential buildings sitting closer to the street.

"The center itself will cause property values to go up 25 to 40% in the general vicinity --walking distance to the transit center. We also see rental incomes and rates going up substantially, 40 to 200% in the area around a transit center," Ecker states.

And the icing on the cake? Every dollar invested in public transportation yields approximately $6 in economic returns, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

This kind of currency, it seems, floats with progressive Detroiters. In an about-face from the car-clogging attitude of, say, 1978, when the Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority allowed its lease with the Grand Trunk Western Railroad connecting Detroit and Pontiac to expire, the train has come full-circle.

You can hear its whistle in the Rail District, a neighborhood on the eastern edge of Birmingham that Zarotney refers to as the city's "best kept secret" -- one that should be told, given the area's railway heritage. Its most distinctive landmark is the 1931 Tudor-style former Grand Trunk Western Railroad depot, a primary stop on the mothballed railway. After being vacated in 1978, the depot was converted into a restaurant, originally Norman's Eton Street Station, and now, the Big Rock Chophouse. And rehabbed warehouses and buildings now boast standout retailers, restaurants, and other locally owned businesses like the too-fun Goldfish Swim School and the Studio 5 design firm.

"I do think [the transit center] would give added visibility for those businesses," Zarotney says. "Many people know downtown Birmingham and all it has to offer and this would really help people to understand that it goes even beyond the downtown area."

Last June, at the transit-oriented development charrette held to raise awareness of the project, the public made it "…very loud and clear that there was a need for pedestrian-friendly access and bicycle paths, so not only could you walk through the tunnel but you could bike through the tunnel," Zarotney explains.
"One of the key things we've talked about keeping front and center in the plan is making sure this is very pedestrian-friendly."

The center, which is seeking LEED certification of silver or higher, will have built-in walkability and sustainability.
A plug-in system for electric vehicles, geo-thermal heat, gray water systems for re-use of H2O, solar power, a green roof, bike racks and storage, rain gardens with native plantings, and plazas and pocket parks are all in the plans, Ecker says.

How about some green for artwork? Zarotney says there will be some element of public art, but as the project is relatively nascent, the planners haven't yet reached that stage.

One place that has incorporated public art, and so much more, is Santa Fe, a sunny bliss fest of creatives.

"On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe..."

It was still way cool to ride the rails to work in 1944 when this Oscar-winning song was written, but in post-war boomtowns, the highways kicked the railroads in the pants.

Santa Fe, however, made its recovery well before Detroit. In 1995, the city rescued its rails by purchasing 50 acres of land from a developer planning to build 2.5 million square feet and tear out the existing rail infrastructure, a legacy of its position as a center of trade and commerce for the Southwest, says Richard Czoski, executive director of the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corporation, the project's non-profit developer and manager. The new agenda: 500,000 square feet of development, a significant non-profit community presence, 13 acres for parks and open space, and commuter rail.

"So it was preserving the historic use of the land, it was lessening the development density, and it was really placing more control in the hands of the citizens and the city, which is why they acquired the project in the beginning," Czoski explains.

The Railyard, which is still incomplete, will include more residential units and a largely underground cinema, he says. Once complete, costs should total about $137 million, split roughly equally between public and private sector financing, including $6.5 million in private contributions towards the green spaces.

Interestingly, the $6.5 million that Santa Fe received from private donors alone is roughly the total expected cost of the Troy/Birmingham center -- which in turn doesn't even approach the expenditure on Santa Fe's Railyard. But this shows what happens when little cities clearly get the big picture. To start with, could Birmingham and Troy residents trade some green in their wallets for transit center green space and amenities?

For cities in the planning stages, Czoski stresses community involvement from the outset, as well as capitalizing on a project's uniqueness, such as vintage architecture or the presence of rail (Birmingham has both features). "It's interesting because the historic center of Santa Fe has been the historic plaza, and real estate advertisements used to say 'minutes to the plaza, a mile to the plaza, walking distance to the plaza'. Now a lot of the advertisements are saying the same thing about the Railyard. It's really become a center of the city, an engine for cultural as well as economic development."

Locally owned businesses fill 64% of the space, with another 20% occupied by community-based non-profits, Czoski says, including a farmer's market, teen center, Hispanic cultural center, and a contemporary art museum.

"Typically without city involvement, non-profits… could not have afforded to be in the center of the city. They would've been pushed out to the suburbs and the outskirts, and we felt it was very important for the cultural fabric of the city to have those kinds of community amenities to be in the center."

And it was a given to bring commuter rail into the central city, starting in 2008 between the Albuquerque metro area (pop. 845,000) and Santa Fe, with an estimated 72,000 residents. Public reaction to the New Mexico Rail Runner Express service, which began as a way to convey state workers to Santa Fe, has been so positive that ridership along its 93-mile span has grown to 15,000 passengers daily, a significant number in a state whose population is under two million, Czoski notes.

Mass transit never generates enough revenue to pay for itself, but the surrounding development is an economic driver that reinvigorates cities, Czoski says. "Out here in the West, everyone drives 80 miles an hour on the interstates. You have huge distances to cover and there was a real concern that people wouldn't use the commuter rail because we're more car-oriented [sounds familiar?!]… It was very successful in Denver, and I know it's been very successful here too, so if it's convenient and priced right and safe and secure with pleasant views, people will use it."

Our pleasant peninsula isn't the wide-open West, and the 30-mile run between Detroit and Pontiac wasn't insurmountable 30-plus years ago. Even today, it'd be hard to find a better waypoint on the route than Birmingham. Assuming the transit center is funded, Ecker estimates completion in roughly a year and a half from now. There are no guarantees, she says, but she's doing her best to make it a reality.

"I think [the transit center] is a shining example of how you can bring everybody together and work towards a common goal, and I think it's also indicative of the fact that pretty much everybody in this region knows that it is time for us to move forward and start working together in terms of getting a substantial mass transit system into the region."

We can only hope that Metro Detroit (pop. 4.4 million), and more specifically, Troy and Birmingham, with their combined 99,000 residents, will adopt the creativity, ambition, and forward thinking that enabled Santa Fe, a city of just 72,000, to make such a success of its own railyard.

Tanya Muzumdar is the spicy curry in Metromode's editorial pool. She is also a freelance writer. Her previous article was Michigan Masala.


©Santa Fe Railyard Community Corporation
Reprinted by permission

Current Birmingham Transit Center

Carrie Zarotney, president of the Birmingham-Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce

Current Birmingham Transit Center

Big Rock - Birmingham

©Santa Fe Railyard Community Corporation
Reprinted by permission

©Santa Fe Railyard Community Corporation
Reprinted by permission

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here
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