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BART… and you’re where?

September 21, 2014
The BART Silicon Valley alignment as currently proposed. Source: VTA

The BART Silicon Valley alignment as currently proposed. Source: VTA

As the Berryessa BART extension progresses, VTA leadership, elected officials, and the SVLG are beginning to prepare for the monumental political and economic hurdles for completing the second phase of the project to Downtown San Jose and Santa Clara.

The multibillion dollar project involves expensive tunneling beneath Downtown San Jose and will ultimately terminate at the Santa Clara Caltrain station. Despite questionable ridership estimates, the project continues to enjoy political and public support and VTA intends to advance planning and pursue funding to complete the project.

Barring a shift in public opinion, the extension through Downtown San Jose will likely be constructed, but there’s still an opportunity to reconsider the merits of terminating the line at the Santa Clara Caltrain station. Instead, alternatives should be evaluated that serve more people and provides greater regional transit connectivity to a part of the Santa Clara Valley that has none, but is targeted for future growth– the West San Carlos, Bascom, and Winchester corridors.

Santa Clara Stumbles

The Santa Clara Caltrain station is one of the oldest railroad stations on the west coast, and once served the adjacent town and agricultural industry, which sprouted around the nearby mission. However, in an audacious stroke of force driven by the prevailing post war planning philosophy, the entire downtown commercial area was demolished and replaced with a handful of strip malls, garden apartments, and surface parking lots.

New office development adjacent to Santa Clara Caltrain station. Tucked behind the blue office cubes are 4,000 parking stalls.

New office development adjacent to Santa Clara Caltrain station. Tucked behind the blue office cubes are 4,000 parking stalls. Source: Hunter/Storm

Recent planning efforts promote concentrated mixed-use development adjacent to the Santa Clara station, but little progress has been made that breaks from the ubiquitous Silicon Valley parking lot, strip mall, and office park. A new stadium for the local Major League Soccer team is nearing completion, but it’s flanked by surface parking lots and a new 1.5 million square foot office park known as the “high line.” The promotional video for the project declares the traditional office park a “true urban destination” despite its sprawling site plan arranged primarily around parking structures with 4,000 parking stalls.

Design faults of recent development notwithstanding, one could argue that terminating BART at Santa Clara Caltrain is warranted because of multimodal connectivity– multiple frequent bus lines serve the station including VTA’s heavily used El Camino Real service and the bus connection to the San Jose International Airport. Some plans call for an automated people mover to replace the bus connection, but at roughly $750,000,000 for several miles of track, it’s a poor investment. As discussed in the new Diridon Area plan, San Jose Diridon is better suited for an airport connector, whether bus or rail, due to its greater number of trains, buses, and future high speed rail stop.

 

The alternative alignment would provide regional transit connections to existing and future development nodes.

The alternative alignment would provide regional transit connections to existing and future development nodes.

A New Alignment

Rather than turning north towards the Santa Clara Caltrain station, the line could veer south with a potential stop at Race Street & San Carlos. Then, utilizing the inherent advantages of tunneling, the line could turn and serve San Jose City College and the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, with a combined employment and enrollment of nearly 15,000 people. Finally, the line would terminate at Winchester & San Carlos adjacent to Valley Fair and Santana Row.

With stops at these locations, the alignment would connect with 5 frequent VTA bus routes that all have robust ridership and serve additional destinations along the Winchester, Bascom, and San Carlos corridors. A BART alignment serving these streets would further complement San Jose’s General Plan 2040 land use vision, which focuses mixed use, high density infill development on these streets. The manifestation of this vision would result in roughly 10,000 new housing units and 11,000 new jobs within these areas, according to the city’s General Plan land use data table.

Planned growth areas for the City of San Jose showing focused areas near the revised BART alignment.

Planned growth areas for the City of San Jose showing focused areas in the western are of the city, near the reoriented BART alignment. Source City of San Jose

While the cost of this alternative will likely be higher due to an extra 1.5 miles of subway, and additional stations, ridership may be more robust due to better connectivity with existing frequent transit service, proximity to existing regional destinations, and future development patterns shaped by San Jose’s General Plan.

Santa Clara city officials may also have reservations about any change in the alignment if its perceived as damaging to city interests or civic pride. However, the city will have more robust Caltrain service following the electrification project, which will transform Caltrain into a true regional rapid transit system with faster and more frequent service– further blurring the line between BART and Caltrain. The incorporated area of Santa Clara also extends through a portion of Valley Fair and encompasses half of Stevens Creek Boulevard beginning roughly at Winchester, which means the city would actually have two regional rapid transit lines serving different ares of the city and two local rapid transit lines– El Camino Real BRT and the Tasman West light rail line.

The concept of a horseshoe-shaped South Bay BART alignment is an enduring remnant from the earliest BART plans, likely driven by the assumption that Peninsula rail service would be replaced by BART. Given present-day emission reduction targets, land use plans, and transit productivity goals, the 60 year old transit vision should be reexamined for compatibility with the needs of today and tomorrow.

Incorporation

January 1, 2013

First post. The South Bay Area is stuck in some sort of urban definition limbo. We’re sprawl, but we’re greenbelt and open space; we’re smart, we’re segregated, we’re integrated– there’s one thing we do do without question– drive. Relative to the more urban parts of the Bay Area, we ride public transit much less, walk far fewer steps, and generally pedal less (although that’s changing!).

It’s not a completely suburban landscape like the new exurbs springing up in the San Joaquin Valley, but lacks certain urban qualities from San Francisco and Alameda Counties. The blanket of 1950’s urbanism was unrolled quickly during the postwar era and there were few bumps to slow its reach.

Freeway, expressway, and road construction in the 1950’s and 60’s shaped the growth we see today. Image: Eric Fischer 

Fifty years after the unprecedented post-war growth, annexation battles, and rise of the tech industry, Santa Clara County is expected to add the most jobs and residents of all the Bay Area counties by 2035. However, the Valley is derided as a hopelessly car-dependent burg, with nodes of affluence encircling crumbling remnants of pre-war urban fabric. One of the ultimate car-dependent land uses, the office park, matured in the Silicon Valley and today they are tied to big-box retail clusters and single family subdivisions by ribbons of freeway, expressway, and arterials that are not worthy of the labels “boulevard” or “avenue.”

We dabble with pockets of urbanism that seem to reflect tepid acceptance, rather than enthusiastic embrace, of city life. Sometimes we leap, but more often than not, we seem to fall in the most spectacular of ways, reverting back to what we know best.

Santana Row– A San Jose shopping mall designed to mimic an urban neighborhood. Image: Bhatta

I feel that there is a urban planning blog void for the South Bay compared to other Bay Area locations like San Francisco and Oakland and I hope to share perspectives on urban design, transportation, and development, with a mixture of history and data. Comment! criticism, flames to a reasonable degree, and corrections.