AURORA | Four years ago, when Regional Transportation District board member Tom Tobiassen was first elected to represent Aurora, the prospects of building the Interstate 225 light-rail line were dismal.
The economy tanked, and with it went any chance of the FasTracks line being completed on time. City officials, veterans groups, land owners and the community in general had little faith in the project, Tobiassen said.
“It looked pretty grim in 2008. There wasn’t a lot of optimism,” he said.
The sentiment lasted for years, until RTD staff members in July cobbled together enough money to award a contract to Kiewit Infrastructure Co. to construct the $350 million project that will be completed by late 2015.
Now, the city is buzzing with positivity, land owners are marketing their plans for new housing and office space projects to be built along the light-rail stations, and developers are interested in building out Transit-Oriented Development projects.
Tobiassen calls it a “resurgence of optimism.
“There’s a lot of renewed interest in developing the land around the future light-rail stations, now that the light rail is actually on the horizon,” he said.
When Greenwood Village-based land owner David Erb got word that RTD gave the green light to the Aurora FasTracks project, he said he was shocked and thrilled, and had renewed faith in the Transit-Oriented development project he had been planning since 2009.
Erb had temporarily tabled his plans for the residential project he was planning for the East 2nd Avenue and Abilene Street light-rail station when RTD ran into financial problems.
“RTD’s costs were going higher and their sales tax revenues were going lower, so the I-225 line was placed in limbo, as were our plans,” he said.
Finally, solid plans came into place for a train to run through the land he owns near the intersection of 2nd and Abilene.
“All of a sudden here in the past couple months it has sprung to life,” Erb said. “We dusted everything off that we had prepared a couple of years back and now we’re ready to go.”
Erb’s vision for the area around the light-rail station includes five four-story apartment and condominium buildings with about 770 units, for a total build-out cost of about $76 million.
Erb is currently in the process of soliciting interest from developers to build the project. He said there is interest in the project among the development community.
‘We’re hopeful to have a great deal of activity here within the next few weeks,” he said.
Different TOD projects are planned for different light-rail stations. Erb’s is primarily residential, although he has approval from the city to build retail and business space as well.
“That site lends itself best to residential utilization,” Erb said. “It’s kind of tucked away, which is really nice for creating a community feel and a bit of a challenge for commercial development, so we feel like the site is highly likely to be built out specifically as residential.”
Erb said developers interested in other TOD projects are sure to get on board with the idea of building them out, now that the plans for the Aurora line are concrete.
City officials are also noticing a rise in confidence levels among developers.
“We’re seeing great interest from the development community at the station area sites,” said Mac Callison, the city’s transportation planning supervisor at an Aurora City Council committee meeting Aug. 15.
Transit-Oriented Development plans were adopted by the city in 2009 and 2010 for all of the stations except for the Aurora City Center and Montview stations, which were already designed in the city’s master plan.
The I-225 light-rail line will include eight stations to be constructed along the east side of the highway. The corridor is a total of 10.5 miles long, and TOD projects will be constructed around all of the light-rail stations.
Each design plan calls for different developments to complement the commercial and residential projects associated with TODs. For example, the Iliff Station area plan calls for a central park, the Florida Station plan identifies a high-density housing district south of Florida Avenue, and the Peoria/Smith Station plan includes the design for a series of public parks between the existing Sand Creek Regional Greenway and the station.
Nancy Freed, deputy city manager, said TOD sites could also offer Class A office space — something Aurora has desired for years.
Excitement in the construction community is rampant, said Councilman Bob Roth, who works for a New Mexico-based industrial contractor with offices in Centennial.
“In the circles that I’m in, with consultants and contractors, people are absolutely thrilled this is happening,” Roth said.
City officials at the Aug. 15 committee meeting underscored the significance of Aurora’s FasTracks light-rail project finally coming to fruition.
“This will fundamentally change the city,” said Dave Chambers, director of the city’s public works department at the Infrastructure and Operations Committee.
With all the light-rail construction scheduled to happen in the city in the coming months, city officials are planning for some hardships. For example, some lanes on all major arterials in the city will be closed at one point or another and businesses will be impacted, Chambers said.
There is also a possibility that the construction firm will work on developing several parts of the light-rail line at one time, rather than building in a linear fashion.
“They don’t just put rail lines down overnight,” Chambers said. “There’s a lot of work.”
But the benefit will be huge.
“Think about how good it’s going to look when it’s done,” he said.
Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]