The City of Santa Clara replied to comments from transit agencies and sustainable transportation advocates, urging the City to strengthen sustainable transportation in the largest development project ever in Santa Clara County. The response, to date, has been a “no.”
The development is located on the site of a former landfill, currently being used as a city golf course. The area is served by the Great America stations serving ACE and Capitol Corridor long-distance trains, and VTA light rail trains, in addition to VTA bus service. It would provide an entertainment center for a city without much local dining and entertainment, additional office space, and some housing. Because the development is on the site of a former landfill, there are regulatory challenges in providing substantial housing.
Comments submitted on the Environmental Impact Report for the project urged Santa Clara to look to cities including Mountain View area and San Mateo for practices designed to reduce car trips in major new developments. However, the City replied that the development would have 90% or more driving compared to developments with minimal transit access, and would be expected to continue to be car-dominant.
Need for much stronger sustainable transportation goals
On the bright side, The city agreed to include priced parking and unbundled parking as tools to provide a more balanced transportation incentives; historically, developments have provided fully subsidized parking, while people need to pay out of pocket for transit.
However, the city has been unwilling to set a stronger goal for car trip reduction, with accountability for the developer. The city argued that it was unrealistic to reduce car trips, because there will be multiple tenants on the site, unlike Stanford, or North Bayshore with a few major employers. Meanwhile, the San Mateo Rail Corridor Plan requires 25% fewer trips than a car-dominant area, in a plan area with multiple developers and multiple tenants.
The city also contended that it is unrealistic to set goals for mode share, since mode share surveys are voluntary and unreliable. However, the City of Palo Alto’s Downtown Transportation Management Association hired a reputable research firm to conduct a random-sample survey assessing mode use and transportation preferences among the 10,000 worker downtown employee base. It is feasible to conduct robust and reliable research if this is a goal of the city.
The city of Santa Clara argued that the development could not, and should not, provide assistance for restaurant and retail workers to use sustainable transportation. Because such workers often get to work before or after the period with peak congestion, their cars don’t contribute as much to traffic. However, driving by retail workers also contributes to greenhouse gas and particulate emissions, potentially at a high level due to older cars and long commutes. By contrast, one of the focus areas of Palo Alto’s downtown transportation demand management program is transit support for service workers. It is feasible and desirable to include retail and service workers, and it is inequitable not to do so.
The City of Santa Clara has also not yet made clear that transportation performance would reported publicly (as it is in San Mateo, Mountain View, and other cities with strong TDM policies.) The city did not support the concept of penalties in the case of noncompliance with the transportation plan.
Invest in Sustainable Transportation
An important strategy used in San Mateo and Mountain View is requiring major developments to make substantive contributions to major transportation improvements – such as a Caltrain station reconstruction and grade separation in San Mateo, and a dedicated transit lane connecting Mountain View transit center to North Bayshore, were identified as part of the transportation planning for the plan area. Major improvements that would be candidates for such investment include substantial improvements to the Great America Rail station, an elevated pedestrian walkway across Tasman Drive at Centennial Boulevard, and additional bicycle/pedestrian crossings allowing access into the project area.
Housing, Transportation, and Project Phasing
Regarding housing, the development would generate space for 19,000 jobs, and only provide 1500 units of housing, exacerbating the city’s jobs/housing imbalance. In response to comments, the city amended the environmental impact report with a goal to add 11,000 units of housing in the city to address the jobs/housing balance as part of an upcoming update of the city’s General Plan. Potential locations for this housing might include areas near the Related CityPlace development.
Given the impacts and concerns about transportation and housing, it would be even better for the city to phase approval of the project, based on achievement of housing and transportation goals. In order to reduce traffic, pollution and other impacts, the city should create an Area Plan that includes plans to facilitate non-driving access for short trips in the adjacent areas, and to maximize the value of investments in sustainable transportation in the area.
A deliberately car-centric strategy
Unlike other cities in the region, which are moving forward with strategies to significantly reduce driving associated with major new developments, supporting the climate goals of the region and the state, Santa Clara is still moving forward with an older, car-centric vision. The city expressed this car-centric vision clearly: “Motor vehicles constitute the primary travel mode in the City of Santa Clara, Santa Clara County, and the greater Bay Area and are expected to continue to be the primary travel mode during the time frame of the Project. Therefore, the Project site plan contains site access roadways, internal roadways, and parking facilities with motor vehicles as the primary mode. However, modifications can be made as mode shares shift over time.”