Commerce City wants to develop around N-Line’s 72nd Avenue stop

COMMERCE CITY — The train’s been rolling through this city for nearly two years, but aside from daily use by hardcore commuters, there isn’t much to lure passengers off the rails and into this fast-growing city north of Denver.

There are no coffee shops, no restaurants, no bodegas or grab-and-go stores as riders step onto the N-Line’s 72nd Avenue station platform. Swaths of empty land abound all around, full of potential but nothing more.

That yearslong logjam broke loose last week when elected officials in Commerce City approved a 100-unit affordable housing project near the station. The city council also pushed through an emergency measure to allow commercial uses in an otherwise residentially zoned area.

The 72nd Avenue stop is Commerce City’s lone train station in the Regional Transportation District’s sprawling light and commuter rail network.

“I think that stop presents tremendous opportunity not just for Commerce City, but for the whole region,” Mayor Benjamin Huseman said in an interview with The Denver Post. “I’m hopeful this is the catalyst.”

Commerce City’s recent moves are the latest nod to transit-oriented development — defined as walkable, high-density neighborhoods centered on easy access to transit — in metro Denver.

According to RTD, nearly 3,400 transit-oriented development, or TOD, housing units were built in 2021 near stations across multiple rail lines in Denver, Lakewood and Aurora, as well as along the Flatiron Flyer bus rapid transit line on U.S. 36 that takes commuters from Denver to Broomfield and Boulder.

Add to that nearly 700,000 square feet of commercial space that came online last year around those stations, and 2021 represented a solid resurgence from pandemic-battered 2020.

“We’ve seen significant development over the last few years,” said RTD’s manager of transit-oriented development, Chessy Brady. “There was a slowdown during the pandemic but it’s been coming back very strong.”

In 2022, RTD expects there to be “historically high deliveries” of multi-family housing units — nearly 6,000 in total — around transit stations. That’s around 1,000 more units than the high-water mark set in 2019.

While the N-Line connecting Denver’s Union Station to the city’s northern suburbs lags well behind more established transit corridors in the metro area — namely the southeast light rail line running through Centennial to Lone Tree and the L-Line serving downtown Denver and the Five Points neighborhood — Brady said long-term growth prospects up north are strong.

“As development continues north of Denver, the N-Line holds a lot of potential,” she said. “There’s no reason to rush the development process. Make sure you hit the market at the right time.”

Advantages, challenges abound

But optimally timing the market is no easy feat, especially when it involves a sector that took a massive beating during the pandemic. Transit ridership, which plummeted during the early months of the pandemic by 60% and is still well below pre-pandemic levels, remains a wild card after work and commuting patterns were dramatically reshaped by more than two years of virus restrictions.

Rodney Milton, executive director of the Urban Land Institute Colorado, said despite the larger challenges facing transit’s future, Commerce City’s 72nd Avenue stop “has the bones” for a project focused on transit-oriented development.

“If the city is intentional about TOD, it can be something special for the city,” he said.

ULI Colorado last year produced a report for Commerce City examining the promises and pitfalls of the area around the station. It noted the station’s proximity to the National Western Complex and downtown Denver (just one and two stops down the N-Line from Commerce City, respectively) as pluses, as well as available property with “spectacular mountain views.”

The organization also noted the presence of the South Platte River just to the west of the station, “which could be further amenitized and connected,” making Commerce City’s rail station a potential destination point rather than just a way station.

On the negative side of the ledger, the Urban Land Institute noted a “lack of connectivity, access, safety, integrated green space, and community amenities” at the site. Another challenge is fractured property ownership, a history of industrial activity and a lack of water rights in the immediate area.

Milton said it’s important that Commerce City consider the area directly to the east of the station in any future transit-oriented development plans. Gentrification, in the form of escalating home prices, could impact the modest, largely Latino neighborhood as newer and shinier units get built near the station.

“Before you start the work, you need to make sure you do community retention planning,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Jennifer Allen-Thomas expressed concerns at the Aug. 15 city council meeting about the health of future residents near the station. Unanswered questions about the future of the sand and gravel plant next to the station’s parking lot led Allen-Thomas to cast a no vote on the housing project that is slated for a sliver of ground between the station and Colorado Boulevard.

“How is that going to affect these residents living there?” she said. “We need to make sure the safety and health of the residents is protected.”

Huseman, the mayor, acknowledges there’s more work to be done before development can really take off at the station. The large parcel to the west of the station that stretches to the South Platte River still needs to be annexed into Commerce City, for starters.

But he said the affordable housing project that was approved near the station last week is a good start. It will feature three and four-bedroom units to accommodate working-class families, he said, providing attainable price points for households led by teachers and firefighters.

He sees stations like the 61st and Pena station on the A-Line, the Lincoln station in Lone Tree or the Olde Town Arvada station on the G-Line as examples of how Commerce City might approach its own station buildout.

“We’re needing something”

Commerce City might also look to the end of the G-Line, where the Wheat Ridge/Ward Road station is busy undergoing a transit-oriented makeover following the opening of the commuter rail line in spring of 2019.

Like its Adams County neighbor, the Ward Road station is the only one Wheat Ridge has on RTD’s rail system. Voters in the city passed a sales tax increase in 2016 that directs $12 million to the Ward Road station area to fund infrastructure improvements.

Wheat Ridge is taking a housing-first approach, said City Manager Patrick Goff, with plans to add retail and shopping into the mix later.

“The primary development opportunities at this site will be housing and flex office space that can be adaptive for either light industrial, storage, R&D or office space,” Goff said. “Retail is an unlikely use in the near future. Retail follows rooftops.”

On a recent afternoon, construction workers around the Ward Road station labored on townhomes and multi-family apartments as storm clouds threatened overhead. More than 250 townhomes are under construction at the station, while about half of nearly 200 planned apartments are done.

While Wheat Ridge got an 18-month headstart on Commerce City — the N-Line didn’t open until September 2020 — Huseman said the time to get going on building up the city station area is now. The mayor betrayed some impatience at last week’s council meeting, noting that Commerce City put together a Station Area Master Plan nine years ago.

“We’re needing something in that area,” he said. “We’ve known for years that we were going to have a commuter rail station there.”

Source: Read Full Article