Paul Drake Leads Utah’s Transit Innovation

Paul Drake helps the Utah Transit Authority facilitate economic development through public-private collaboration and planned investment

The South Jordan Station is close to both Salt Lake Community College and the Shops at South Town mall and situated in a “Quiet Zone” where the trains do not routinely sound their horns as they enter or exit the station. Courtesy of Utah Transit Authority

When the 2008 recession hit, millions of people were forced to reconsider their career paths. Huge swaths of industries suddenly dried up for months or years, if not entirely. High-end resorts were one of the first casualties in the construction world, and resort planner Paul Drake suddenly found himself at a crossroads. He turned his attention to transit.

Paul Drake, Director of Real Estate & TOD, Utah Transit Authority Courtesy of Utah Transit Authority

Drake, now director of real estate and transit-oriented development (TOD) for the Utah Transit Authority, came to the organization 12 years ago simply to study urban planning. He stepped away from professional practice to intern and build out a wider skill set. He’s been there ever since.

“The scope of the internship was not defined by any strict guidelines,” Drake remembers. “I would go around and learn whatever I wanted. It was a fantastic situation, and I was given the nickname ‘the feral intern.’”

Drake became involved in UTA’s massive effort to build out major rail structure in Utah. Projects included commuter rail, an expanded light rail system, and a bus rapid transit system.

Through these efforts, Drake came on full-time as an employee. As he gained greater responsibility and leadership opportunities at UTA, he was invited to be part of the University of Utah’s pilot Masters of Real Estate Development program.

He rebuilt UTA’s TOD program from scratch and was asked to lead a combined real estate team that encompassed TOD, acquisitions and dispositions, and property management in 2017, where he currently serves as director.

Joint Venture Expertise

UTA has seen significant success in public-private ventures to help continue building out the future of public transit in Utah. The first successful private development partnership, the East Village located in Sandy, Utah, broke ground in 2014.

“We maintain pretty prescriptive guidelines about how the development should be designed,” Drake explains. “We want to maximize accessibility to the transit component, the bus loop, and the train platform.”

The details of these ventures are always different, but the larger idea remains the same: help create high-intensity-use development centers. It often means integrating as many different types of land uses as possible, mixing office, retail, residential, civic, and open spaces to ensure that when people arrive by public transit, there is something to experience.

“When you get off the train, we want to make sure there is something substantial to greet you, and some reason for you to be there,” Drake says.

A UTA red line light rail train pulls into Jordan Valley Station in West Jordan, Utah. Courtesy of Utah Transit Authority

Preparation Means Fewer Disagreements

 Whether it’s working with private developers or working together with communities to help develop their transit options, Drake says preparation is the key.

“We look at land use and infrastructure improvements, zoning, tax incentives, and efforts that would prepare the station area for development.”

There are constant meetings with development partners, city representatives, and other stakeholders. Drake says every community has a different vision for how they want their city to be presented, and it’s essential to bridge that vision with UTA’s desire to connect Utah with better public transit.

“We want to find the intersection of all of these interests, and we see ourselves in a unique position to bridge the gap between the development community and cities.”

Drake says the often-strained relationship between developers and city regulators is a friction UTA can help lessen with more upfront planning and collaboration.

Jefferey Vitek, president and CEO of the Utah-based Boulder Ventures Development, takes that statement a step further. “We’re thrilled with the opportunity to collaborate with Paul Drake and UTA as they continue developing creative solutions for Utah’s unique transit needs,” Vitek says. The real estate firm specializes in commercial, mixed-use, and multifamily projects but has recently focused on providing transit-oriented options for the state’s housing economy alongside UTA.

The East Village, located in Sandy, Utah, was the first transit oriented development project for UTA. Courtesy of Utah Transit Authority

A Major Player

Utah has emerged as a national leader in public transit infrastructure. If that seems surprising, Drake says it makes much more sense when considering the topography of the Beehive State.

“We have really unique issues here because Utah’s principal urbanized area is constrained by mountains on both sides,” he explains. “We have lakes on the north and south, so we have a very limited and defined developable area, but an area that lends itself well to transit.”

As Utah continues to attract people and businesses, Drake says the state is managing its rapid growth through collaboration at all levels, with public transit as a basic component. “Utah has decided to invest in transit, because they understand it’s not physically possible to put everyone on the roads. It’s been so great to see the communities here jump on board.”

Drake says that even Utah’s smallest communities agree that improved transit will make their towns a better place to be.

And when it comes to attracting new business to Utah, Drake says the conversation is always the same. “One of the first, if not the first, things that they ask you is ‘How’s your transit system?’ How are employees coming and going and how is Utah able to compete with other states?”

It seems like other states should be asking themselves how they’re going to compete with Utah.