Step off of Caltrain at the Hillsdale station, and you’ll find a flurry of activity. Train riders make the short walk home to a group of newly built condominiums and townhouses. Construction crews bolt glass panels onto a row of half-finished office buildings next to the train tracks. Parents play with their kids in a park nestled between four-story apartment complexes.
This is the Bay Meadows development, and it may represent the future of Silicon Valley. In response to skyrocketing rents and gridlocked freeways, a group of policy experts, developers and residents is pushing to transform downtowns and major thoroughfares along the Peninsula into transit-oriented projects like Bay Meadows.
It’s a modern take on how cities used to be designed: walkable communities of multi-story buildings, often with shops on the ground floor and apartments or office spaces above, clustered around Caltrain stations and other transit hubs. The goal is to add much-needed new housing in a way that encourages sustainable alternatives to driving.
In a region built around car-oriented suburban neighborhoods, the approach is a big — and often controversial — shift. Still, supporters say transit-centered development is the best way to accommodate the region’s population boom while keeping cars off congested roads and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
“Denser development is the new thing,” said Bay Meadows developer Janice Thacher. “We think we can create a nice life for people in a 2,000-square foot condominium where they can be close to their work, be close to transportation, have all sorts of access to great opportunities to walk, to meet their neighbors, to use the parks, all of these things and that that is a better bet than putting another car on the freeway.”
A new model for the Peninsula
When the owners of the Bay Meadows horse racing track began to think about redeveloping the site in 2003, Thacher’s firm Wilson Meany saw a chance to apply its focus on urban mixed-use projects at a large scale. “Eighty-three acres of land to plan in a location like this with the Caltrain on site was a wonderful opportunity for us,” she said.
Working with financier Stockbridge Capital, Wilson Meany came up with a design that prioritized community and easy access to the train. They interwove apartments, office space and compact townhouses with parks, cafes, bike paths and a community garden. The site is still under construction, but the approach seems to be working. According to surveys conducted by Wilson Meany, over a quarter of the residents who have moved in take Caltrain on a weekly basis, and 85 percent walk or bike to nearby shops and restaurants.
Karen Luo is one of those residents. When she moved to Bay Meadows with her husband and young son two years ago, Luo developed a new morning routine. She makes the seven-minute walk from her home to the Caltrain station, catches the 7:28 a.m. train up to San Francisco, and then walks for 30 minutes to her office in the Financial District. “I don’t rely on a car at all, and I actually get some exercise out of my commute,” she said.
Luo’s new townhouse is smaller than her previous home in Foster City, but she said the community garden — where her son loves to play with master gardener Mike Irvine — and other social activities more than make up for the lost space. “We downsized a lot, but it’s just a much better experience.”
Tackling job growth and jammed roads
For policy experts, getting more people to follow Luo’s example is crucial to managing Silicon Valley’s growth. As the booming tech economy has drawn more people to the Peninsula, housing construction hasn’t kept pace.
Between 2010 and 2014, Santa Clara County added 189,000 new jobs, but only built 36,414 more housing units. And Census Bureau data show that what housing has been added often isn’t located in job centers like Palo Alto and the City of Santa Clara:
This gulf between jobs and housing is driving up prices and forcing workers — especially lower income workers — to move further away from their jobs to find affordable places to live. In turn, that’s straining the region’s highways, which are carrying more cars for longer distances. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of daily vehicle miles traveled on freeways in the San Jose area increased 63 percent, from 16,922,000 to 27,553,000.
And barring an unforeseen downturn in the tech sector, Silicon Valley is likely to keep growing — the California Department of Finance projects Santa Clara County will have nearly 300,000 more residents by 2030. “That’s adding two more Sunnyvales to our existing population,” said Zoë Mullendore, a housing and transportation policy specialist with the business-backed Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
Building dense housing near transit is a key way to handle this growth and reduce congestion, said Ratna Amin with the urban policy think-tank SPUR. “There is no known solution to traffic besides other modes,” she said, referencing a strong body of research showing that adding more capacity to roadways doesn’t actually reduce congestion in the long-run, since the easier trip encourages people to drive more often.
Mullendore and Amin have been pushing governments on the Peninsula to embrace transit-oriented development, and they’re seeing success. In Sunnyvale, the Leadership Group worked with the city to develop a new transit-oriented development plan around Lawrence Caltrain Station. In San Jose, work is underway to turn the area around Diridon Station — which Mullendore called the future “Grand Central Station of the West” — into a high-density mix of housing and commercial space. In downtown Redwood City, the adoption of a new transit- and walkability-focused plan is already driving the construction of tall new apartments and office buildings.
“No question, cities are trying to adopt the right kinds of plans,” Amin said. But, she added, “it’s a real challenge when the rubber hits the road, when a real development project is proposed.”
Not everyone’s on board
On stage at new product launches, Silicon Valley celebrates density — more pixels on an iPhone screen, more transistors on a microchip. But when it comes to dense development, the region’s residents are often more hesitant.
While the Peninsula originally grew up around the stops of the Southern Pacific Railroad (now the Caltrain line), the rise of cars and highways after World War II shifted the region to today’s suburban pattern of office parks and single-family homes. Many residents like the small-town character of their communities and fear an influx of traffic from new development.
“I don’t think it’s incumbent upon those of us who have been longtime residents here in Redwood City to necessarily degrade the quality of our lifestyle in order to accommodate people who want to live or work here,” said homeowner David Gahagen, who organized a “Residents for Sensible Growth in Redwood City” group. The group formed in response to the building boom in downtown Redwood City, concerned that construction would lead to a mass of people driving through residential neighborhoods to get to downtown. It’s been pushing for a moratorium on new commercial buildings and backed sympathetic city council candidates in the Nov. 2015 election.
That kind of pushback is common. “I’ve seen opposition many times in the past,” said Mullendore, adding that while opposition is understandable, it makes it harder to solve the region’s housing and traffic problems. Complaints from neighbors can delay project approvals, downsize development and cause design changes like extra parking that discourage transit use, said SPUR’s Amin.
At Bay Meadows, for example, architects had to contend with a voter-imposed 55-foot height limit. “You can look out the window and see how that shaped the design,” Thacher said. Without the limit, she said they would have put taller office buildings next to the train station, and some of the housing would have been seven or eight stories instead of four.
Beyond affecting specific projects, opposition from residents creates political obstacles, said Russell Hancock, an advocate for regional planning who runs the Joint Venture Silicon Valley think-tank. Local officials in the Peninsula’s three-dozen cities are reluctant to approve development their constituents don’t want, and so the region as a whole isn’t meeting the demand for new housing. “There’s this reluctant acknowledgement that growth is happening and it needs to be accommodated, but [residents] don’t want it in their backyard, they want it in someone else’s backyard.”
‘Density is not something to be scared of’
Yet as the housing crisis worsens, some residents are starting to say they do want growth in their backyard. In the last year and a half, community groups in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Redwood City have formed to advocate for new housing and transit options in their cities.
“A lot of people do feel like housing is an issue and we should be allowing different models, but the challenge is just that there haven’t been opportunities for these people to connect,” said Palo Alto resident Elaine Uang. An architect who was frustrated by what she saw as the community’s focus on stopping growth instead of effectively managing it, Uang helped found Palo Alto Forward in September 2014. “We started out as forty,” she said, “and we just kept growing and growing and finding support and interest from lots of different corners.”
In Menlo Park, “it started with a beer in a backyard,” said Imagine Menlo steering committee member Andrew Barnes. After voters in the city rejected Measure M — a 2014 ballot measure that would have restricted new development — a group of residents like Barnes were looking for a more “aspirational” way to move forward. “Density is not something to be scared of,” he said. When done right, “density and vibrancy adds to the overall character of the community and makes it an even more desirable place to live.”
So far, both groups have focused more on policy changes than specific development projects. Palo Alto Forward is pushing to reduce parking requirements that make housing more expensive (each space can cost $30,000 or more) and allow mixed-use buildings with housing and retail space near the city’s Caltrain stations. Imagine Menlo is supporting Menlo Park’s plan to add new development near the downtown train station and along El Camino Real.
But Uang said that if they can implement policies that encourage denser development, Palo Alto Forward will be ready to rally community backing. “When a good project comes up, a really important housing development on Cal. Ave. that is going to enable a range of incomes to live there, and it’s going to enable a number of people to go car-light … heck yeah, we want to support that.”