Refresher on TOD and commuter rail
Various blogs including a promising new one and a old stalwart are excited over the north Austin density plan and UT possibly kicking in some of the money for the 'downtown circulator', respectively. Both accept fairly unchallenged the position that since we failed to bring the rail to the people, we can at least bring the people to the rail.
With that in mind, it's worth reiterating the answer to the question:
When can you get transit-oriented development around stations for a commuter rail line?
Answer: In this country? Maybe when gas hits $10/gallon; otherwise, never, no matter how much you try to prime the pump.
Transit-oriented development is great. It happens all over the country, on good LIGHT RAIL SYSTEMS, which Capital Metro's system definitely is NOT. Please take with a grain of salt the continuing efforts of people like Lyndon Henry to blur the boundaries here; calling this commuter rail project a "light railway" doesn't make it go one foot closer to UT, the Capitol, or most of downtown. Turning the circulator into a streetcar instead of a bus does absolutely nothing to solve the problem of time and reliability which prospective passengers will face, thanks to the decision to route the line where the track already existed instead of right down the urban core as in 2000.
Keep a healthy amount of skepticism handy when people are talking about building "transit villages" around the suburban stations of a commuter rail line which doesn't go anywhere interesting on the "urban end" without having to transfer to a bus. Developers certainly will figure it out, as they have in South Florida, where every such attempt by the government to stimulate TOD around a similarly retarded rail line has failed.
You want transit-oriented development? You need good transit, first. That means reserved-guideway transit, be it light or heavy rail, whether in-street or off-street, for all of the trip1. The only thing that matters is that it can't be stuck behind other peoples' cars. You don't get transit-oriented development around transit which requires that its patrons ride the bus, even if you gussy the bus up and put it on rails (which is all that streetcars sharing a lane with cars really are, I hate to say).
The key here is that the problem end of this commuter rail line is not the residential end. Yes, the 2000 light rail plan would have gone through some high-density residential neighborhoods while the 2004 commuter rail line goes down Airport Blvd. instead. But that's not the fatal flaw - the fatal flaw is the fact that the prospective rider of the 2000 line would have been able to walk to work from the rail station, while the 2004 rider must transfer to a bus, every single day.
A large part of the 2000 line's residential ridership would have driven to the train station anyways. Those far northwest riders are still potential 2004 passengers - until they take the train a few times and start living la vida bus.
As for UT - I hope they're not stupid enough to fall for Mike Krusee's bait-and-switch here. They always stood to benefit dramatically from the 2000 light rail line and were fairly pissed that a line heading directly to UT's main campus didn't make it on the ballot in 2004. This streetcar line doesn't help them get any closer to a high-quality transit route in any way, shape, or form - it just tears up one of UT's streets for a transit mode which won't be any faster or more reliable than the shuttle buses that currently infest that part of campus; and UT's employees aren't going to be any more likely to ride the commuter train if their shuttle is a streetcar versus a bus - it's still a transfer to another vehicle which is slow and stuck in traffic.
(1: It's OK if the passenger needs to drive to the station where they get on the train in the morning. People will accept unreliability if they can make up for it with speed and flexibility - i.e., if they have their car. Buses are slow, unreliable, AND inflexible - the bus driver can't decide to take a different route to/from the train station if traffic on the normal route is too heavy).