By: Pat Ferrier
FORT COLLINS, CO, October 26, 2013: Residents of the new Max Flats apartment complex under construction at the corner of West Mulberry and Mason streets might be able to roll out of bed and into MAX when the city’s new bus rapid transit system gets rolling in the spring.
The 64-unit complex incorporates a transit stop that brings Max Flats right to the edge of Mason Street, closer than other buildings in the neighborhood. Built that way partly by design and partly because of its small lot size, Max Flats is perhaps the best example of how transit is driving redevelopment and how redevelopment is closing in on transit in Old Town and Midtown Fort Collins.
It’s not a new concept but one that is just starting to be fully realized in Fort Collins. Max Flats is what’s known as a transit-oriented development — a project designed to capitalize on alternative modes of transportation including bikes and buses and de-emphasize residents’ reliance on cars. It’s a design built into City Plan — Fort Collins’ bible of how and where it wants to grow.
“We are at the crux where we are determining what our housing future will look like,” said Clint Skutchan, CEO of the Fort Collins Board of Realtors, which recently organized a tour for Realtors looking at the challenges and opportunities in the Midtown corridor, MAX, the redevelopment of Foothills Mall and Max Flats.
“There will be tough and difficult decisions in many instances because it’s very different from what we are accustomed to,” he said.
In a city of 151,000 that is nearly built out, there’s little room to grow without going up, Skutchan said. That means taller buildings, increased density and buildings that creep closer to transportation hubs will be the norm rather than the exception. MAX, the 5-mile bus rapid transit system, includes 12 station stops sandwiched between the downtown and south transit centers, including the Mulberry Station at Max Flats.
Bringing buildings together along streets as an alternative to having parking lots line them is a central aspect of successful transit-oriented developments, said city planner Clark Mapes.
Residents at the five-story Max Flats will be able to walk out the door, get a cup of coffee at the planned ground-floor coffee shop and hop on MAX to head to campus, Harmony Road or downtown. “It’s very convenient,” said Bruce Hendee, the city’s director of sustainability.
Skutchan isn’t the only one who sees Mason Street as more than a transit corridor but as an economic and housing corridor as it redevelops.
“Over time we will see the evolution of mixed use that would include residential and would include primary employment and service,” Hendee said.
When Fort Collins’ transportation master plan is fully implemented, the city’s goal is to have residents living within a 5-minute walk of mass transit. That means areas around the dozen transit stops along Mason Corridor are expected to grow up or redevelop with more people and more retail, restaurants and services.
“The land-use code really envisions buildings that will build up to the property line ... and that enables people to access mass transit,” Hendee said. Transit-oriented developments also give developers more options.
“It gives us more flexibility to do some things on the site without having to fill it with a huge parking lot,” said Kevin Brinkman, developer of Max Flats and several Old Town and campus-oriented apartment projects. Max Flats will provide about three-quarters of a parking stall for every bed. That translates to 70 parking spots for 100 beds, in addition to bike storage inside every unit.
Max Flats is geared toward professionals who want a more active lifestyle, Brinkman said. “Many times that doesn’t include a car. They’re walking to work, riding their bike or going down to the trails.”
From a developer’s point of view, more transportation options means a more successful project.
“For potential residential tenants, they see (transit) is integrated and think ‘wow,’ it comes with MAX transit right to the doorstep and allows me to get to campus, Old Town, the south part of campus. It’s a big differentiator,” Brinkman said.
One key to the success of such projects is the look and feel of the building faces that people see. “Think of downtown and how well that works,” Mapes said. “But replicating that charm, quality and architectural integrity is often a challenge in new projects.”
Reshaping the future
The Mason Corridor is going to reshape the way housing and transit intersect with livability, Skutchan said. “It’s more of a city-type footprint that’s different from the rest of the community. That’s where we’re concerned. People need to understand it will be different — in some cases very different — but it’s important to migrate toward that level and type of development.”
The transition will not be without growing pains as city residents deal with existing problems exacerbated by a transit system that’s not yet fully functional, including parking issues at developments such as The Summit, a 665-bed student housing project south of the CSU campus, and concerns over building height.
City Council in September approved stopgap minimum parking requirements for transit-oriented developments until a parking study is finished to help city officials understand what tools might be needed to create necessary parking for the new-look developments, said city planner Seth Lorson.
Conversations around parking and transit-oriented development “really is a microcosm of the larger discussion of growth of our community with infill and redevelopment,” he said.
Some residents have objected to The Summit’s four-story height, a deviation from most building heights outside Old Town, Skutchan said. “But that should be the new normal along that corridor if it’s going to be successful. That’s hard. Someone has to be first. Ultimately, the future is toward that.”
With seven months left to go before MAX begins moving passengers, its initial success is still a question mark.
“There’s so much debate on what the ridership will be and what the impact will be,” Brinkman said. “For me, just the investment in that corridor and the focus on the corridor makes it all worthwhile in my mind.”
Hit the corridor on a Friday afternoon and people are out riding their bikes, and activity is booming from the Mayor of Fort Collins north to the 415 restaurant, he said. “I don’t know if those would have gone there if MAX transit weren’t going in. It’s just booming around there on a nice Friday afternoon — it’s almost like it’s been declared as the corridor even before (MAX) is operational.”
The city has one chance to get the transportation right, Skutchan said. “If MAX doesn’t integrate into housing options, into activity centers like at Foothills; if we don’t integrate all these things into one ... if we end up with empty buses along Mason, it will be very difficult to find community support” for future projects.
“We are a young, vibrant, more metropolitan-oriented community than ever,” he said. “I hope we don’t miss an opportunity because we are so entrenched in the impact today that we lose an opportunity for tomorrow.”