Advocates tout development along Valley's light rail line, hope for more

March 16, 2013

More than 14 million people rode the Valley’s light rail system last year. Valley Metro says that was more than a 6.5 percent increase over 2011. And, some advocates are hopeful numbers like those will lead to more housing, shops, restaurants and other development along the 20-mile line.

Shannon Scutari is one of those advocates. She helps coordinate a fund that works to create transit-oriented development along the light rail line that runs from Phoenix, through Tempe and into Mesa. And, she points to accomplishments like the 1,200 mixed-income housing units that are expected by next year.

Shannon Scutari Shannon Scutari is optimistic about more development along the light rail line.(Photo by Mark Brodie - KJZZ)

SHANNON SCUTARI: We’re taking a risk in an area where a lot of lenders are not taking a risk, and we’re creating success stories in an area where a lot of people, a lot of skeptics thought we would never create success.

BRODIE: Scutari says much of the new development along the rail line is due to the rail line. As we ride the train uptown toward Camelback, she tells me the numbers show Maricopa County needs alternatives to its car culture.

SCUTARI: It’s easier to grow and develop on the outskirts because that’s where the transportation infrastructure really encourages growth and development. If you don’t provide an alternative transportation, then you don’t provide alternative growth patterns.

BRODIE: Scutari acknowledges some parts of the line have seen more building than others. She points to the Roosevelt Corridor in Phoenix as an area that’s seen some activity. But Valley Economist Elliot Pollack says developers develop where there’s demand - and that so far, even with its ridership, light rail hasn’t created enough of it.

ELLIOT POLLACKRight now, the rail system really doesn’t go from where people live to where people work, and that’s what a good light rail system will do.

BRODIE: In some areas, though, the potential of light rail has led to development. Mesa is scheduled to open a three mile extension by the end of 2015. And, a health center and new housing have already sprung up in the area. Shea Joachim is an Economic Development Project Manager for the city.

SHEA JOACHIM: We’ve seen, in anticipation of rail extending down Main Street, significant investment in anticipation of taking advantage of that proximity to a transit option.

BRODIE: Joachim says right now, the development pattern on Main Street is auto-oriented and suburban. He says the rail line could change that.

Rail in Mesa Mesa will open a light rail extension in 2015. (Photo by Mark Brodie - KJZZ)

JOACHIM: Light rail brings the component that helps us shift that to a more urban or transit oriented development pattern. And, that brings new investment, new opportunities and new economic activity into some of the more mature areas of our city.

POLLACK: In theory, development occurs along transportation routes.

BRODIE: Again, Elliot Pollack.

POLLACK: But keep in mind that in Phoenix, you’re not gonna walk a quarter of a mile or a half a mile to a railroad station. That’s out of the question, given the weather here.

BRODIE: Pollack says that means the rail might lead to development right next to stations, but he doubts it’ll have that effect elsewhere along the line. And, he limits the radius around stations to a few hundred years. But Mesa’s Shea Joachim doesn’t buy that.

JOACHIM: Generally, we look for walk sheds of a quarter mile, in some cases, upwards to a half mile from stations.

BRODIE:  It’s less of a walk than that to get from the station at Central and Roosevelt to Matt Seamon’s new project. He’s a partner with Metro West Development, which is planning a mixed-use project on First Avenue, just south of Roosevelt — it’ll include retail and restaurant space, as well as up to 70 housing units.

MATT SEAMAN: We’ve always felt it was a good site. But, the light rail’s gonna add people on the street and bodies on the ground that’s just more visibility for the small businesses and retail folks that want to be in the project.

BRODIE: The Valley will never be New York City, Washington, DC or Boston, transit-wise, according to Shannon Scutari. And, she says, that’s OK. Scutari believes Phoenix should strive for choices – giving residents the opportunity to use different forms of transportation, and to get to different neighborhoods across the Valley.