New York Times - April 22, 2007
MURRAY CITY, Utah
Transit Access Keith Snarr helped negotiate a
deal between Murray City, a Salt Lake City suburb, and
Hamlet Homes to build Birkhill at Fireclay.
Two years ago, this Salt Lake City suburb began
collaborating with a local developer to turn industrial
land into a neighborhood of town homes,
condominiums and offices. Now the project, known as
Birkhill at Fireclay, is finally being built.
The 30-acre $140 million development by Hamlet
Homes, one of this region's largest builders, will have
420 units of housing and 200,000 square feet of retail
and office space; the company expects to begin
construction in a month. The idea is to give
homeowners easier access to their jobs or to stores.
Murray City and Hamlet Homes are taking
advantage of growing buyer interest in living and
working near the regional TRAX light rail system,
which has operated in the Salt Lake Valley since
1999. The Murray North station, one of three TRAX
stops in Murray City - population, 50,000 - serves
as the centerpiece of Birkhill at Fireclay.
"People can go where they want and won't have to
get in a car," said Keith Snarr, the director of Murray
City's economic development office, who helped
negotiate the agreement with Hamlet Homes. "It may
not be the lifestyle for everybody, but there are a lot of
people around here now that understand what it
means to be urban and find this attractive."
Salt Lake City and its closest suburbs built the
$520 million, 19-mile, 23-station TRAX system, which
carries more than 55,000 riders a day, well ahead of
ridership projections. Voters have also repeatedly
passed sales tax increases, including one approved
last November, to spend $2.5 billion more in the next
decade to complete 26 additional miles of light rail, 88
miles of heavy commuter rail line and nearly 40 extra
station stops. The only American metropolitan area
that is building more regional rapid transit capacity is
Denver, which is constructing a 151-mile system.
Birkhill at Fireclay is the first development in a 97-
acre district that Murray City has established around
the Murray North station. And it is one of a growing
number of transit-oriented developments in the
Wasatch Front, an urban area with a population of
more than two million that is looking for new ways to
get around - less by car, and especially by rail. A host
of other metropolitan regions, among them
Minneapolis, Denver, Dallas, Sacramento, St. Louis,
Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle and Portland, Ore., have
invested billions of dollars over the last decade to
pursue the same idea.
Mr. Snarr says he is convinced that the confluence
of fast-rising energy and land costs, static incomes
and the region's swift population growth are
producing the market conditions for a successful new
neighborhood on land along Fireclay Avenue that has
served as his city's industrial backyard.
The existing and planned rail stations offer
developers dozens of opportunities to design and
build transit-focused home and business districts at
the center of the Salt Lake Valley's towns and cities.
"The basic reason that transit-oriented
development is working in Utah and other places is
largely demographic," said Gloria Ohland, vice
president for communications at Reconnecting
America, a national transit research group based in
"American households are older, smaller and
more diverse," Ms. Ohland said. "Singles are 41
percent of the population. People who are single and
couples that have no children - those are the people
who gravitate to cities."
Even with a new tide of people heading their way,
transit-focused builders say there are plenty of
impediments. Assembling parcels large enough to be
attractive requires considerable work in city and town
centers. It took Hamlet Homes more than two years to
amass the 30 acres for Birkhill at Fireclay.
And in most communities, including Murray City,
the zoning regulations that directed homes and
businesses to be spread far apart have to be
rewritten. Murray City passed a transit development
ordinance in 2005 that allows narrower streets,
encourages trees and pocket parks, and is designed
to produce a new district that is not too densely built,
but also won't look or feel anything like a typical single-
use suburban subdivision.
Michael Brodsky, the chairman of Hamlet Homes,
which he founded in 1995, said the market response
has compensated for the difficulties involved in
developing around the Salt Lake region's transit
stops. Along with Birkhill at Fireclay, the company is
constructing two more housing and business
developments near the TRAX stations immediately
north and south of the Murray North stop.
The first is Inverness Square, a $24 million, 120-
unit project a half-mile from the 53rd South TRAX
station. The development, started in 2005, is nearly
completed, and the two- and three-bedroom town
houses, with prices starting at around $170,000, are
sold out, Mr. Brodsky said.
Last October, the company began developing
Waverly Station, on 10 acres alongside the
Meadowbrook TRAX station. The $42 million project
includes 47 condos, 131 town homes and 14,000
square feet of retail and office space. Hamlet just
completed the first phase - 41 two- and three-
bedroom town homes of 1,500 to 1,900 square feet.
All have been sold, Mr. Brodsky said.
"The fact that we are building close to the light rail
station is an important amenity," he said. "It is part of
the package that also includes a combination of
affordability and accessibility to a more urban setting."
Mary Ann Downs, 22, an interior designer, moved
into her $193,000 three-bedroom home at Waverly
Station in February. Ms. Downs is happy to be near the
TRAX system - she plans to use it this spring when
the light rail connects to the new commuter line - and
she also likes her neighbors.
One of them is David Bailey, 28, who works for a
jewelry dealer. He bought a two-bedroom home for
$205,000. He said access to the TRAX line, which he
rides to basketball and football games downtown,
played a part in his decision to buy. "I really feel as
gas prices go up, homes near public transportation
will increase in value," he said.
Thirteen miles north of Salt Lake City, CenterCal
Properties just closed on a $2.13 million purchase of
70 acres near the new commuter rail station in
Farmington, a bedroom community of 14,000
residents and one of nine stops on a 44-mile, $611
million line to Pleasant View that is scheduled to open
in the spring of 2008.
CenterCal, based in Portland, Ore., earned a
national reputation in transit-oriented design with its
Gresham Station, a 130-acre, $400 million, mixed-use
district that it began in 1999 along the MAX light rail
line east of Portland.
Fred Bruning, the company's president, said
CenterCal planned to bring the same principles of
compact, transit-focused design to its new project,
called Station Park, which will be just across the
Farmington rail station's parking lot. It will consist of
700,000 square feet of retailing, 300,000 square feet
of office space and 250 residential units in rental
apartments and town homes.
A rendering of Station Park on the company's Web
site (centercal.com) shows a district designed with
three-story buildings, with shops on the ground floor
and offices and homes on the floors above,
surrounding a large public square with a fountain,
broad sidewalks and a garden. The project's design
is a mix of European urbanism and outdoor suburban
"Compared to what is already there in Farmington,
this is a lot of density," Mr. Bruning said. "You have to
take it in steps and develop density as the market
becomes available. We design our projects in such a
way that density can increase over time. If it's
designed well, it has a shelf life for decades."
The design is intended to mimic urban spaces in
which buildings change uses - open spaces can be
filled, or buildings can become open space.
Mr. Snarr, Murray City's development director, has
similar plans for the Birkhill at Fireclay, which is priced
comparably with the Waverly Station development, and
for other projects he is recruiting for the city's transit-
"People want to live in a place that's a little more
cosmopolitan," he said. "They gain a lot. They save
money on gas and housing costs. They reduce their
stress because they don't have to drive as much. And
they get a chance to know their neighbors. It adds up