Last weekend, Mountain View hosted a workshop on how to turn the North Bayshore area – the office park that hosts Google, LinkedIn, and other companies, into a neighborhood with homes and services. First, a set of experts provided perspective on what’s needed to create a neighborhood, and gave participants food for thought on what might be done in North Bayshore. Then, participants had a series of exercises to share ideas and preferences. The slides from the professional presentations and the notes and pictures from the workshop exercises will be posted to the city’s website but aren’t there yet, check back here in about a week.
After the workshop, discussion continued on the mailing list of the Coalition for Balanced Mountain View, a group that discusses housing-related issues in the city. To join the online conversation, you can sign up here.
How many people are needed to support a grocery store?
The basic service a neighborhood needs is a grocery store, so one of the key questions about creating a complete neighborhood is the level of population needed to support a grocery store. Karen Alschuler, of Perkins and Will, explained that 7,000 housing units (not people) are needed to support a grocery store. Doug Farr, of Farr Associates, gave examples of neighborhoods that could support grocery stores with a smaller number of people. Harbor Town, a quarter-century-old neighborhood built on a sandbar in the Mississippi river north of downtown Memphis, supports a small grocery store with only 3000 housing units. Since it is inconvenient to leave the island, the smaller store can thrive. Farr also noted that a corner store can be supported by 1000 units of housing.
In the email discussion after the workshop, planning commissioner Robert Cox was skeptical of the “island” hypothesis. He noted that there are other grocery stores within a mile or two, and a store on North Bayshore would need to compete on price and quality with other stores in the area. Mountain View resident Janet Lafleur suggested that the workday population would also help support a store, sharing her experiences picking up groceries at Trader Joe’s in San Jose, during her bicycle/transit commute home to Mountain View.
Turning corporate amenities “inside out”
Today, in North Bayshore, Google and other employers provide food and other amenities for employees within their corporate campus buildings. The onsite services have made it more difficult for retail businesses to survive and thrive. Douglass Farr suggested turning the amenity areas in North Bayshore “inside out”, opening the private cafes, food service, dry cleaners, gyms to the public. Serge Bonte mentioned on the mailing list that many college campuses work this way, allowing non-students to pay for facilities, while students and employees get no-extra-cost or discounted services.
This “Inside out” transformation is currently being planned for the next phases of development in Menlo Park near Facebook. Today, Facebook has internal services (food, bike repair, dry cleaning, etc) that are not open to the public. In Menlo Park’s planning update for the area, with Facebook’s support, the goal is to make the services open to the public, also serving workers in other companies in the area, and residents in new housing that is proposed to be added.
Google already taken a first step down this path in North Bayshore. In an application for office space, Google proposed to make some retail services open to the public, on a corridor between two office buildings. Providing services that are near other companies and near a residential population would help make this into a viable retail district, rather than Google-focused services that happen to be open for people without security badges.
One challenge in today’s market is that brick and mortar retail businesses need to co-exist in a world with Amazon Prime, Google Express, and other e-commerce services offering online ordering and convenient delivery. At the table attended by this blogger, participants talked about retailers that overcome the barrier by creating an experience, giving the example of Bumble in Los Altos, a cafe with an onsite play space with child care.
A walkable shopping area
Attendees at the workshop wanted to see the retail area in North Bayshore to be a place that residents can walk to, without needing a car. Multiple groups recommended mixed use buildings, with residential and office uses above ground floor retail on a shopping street.
Most recommended concentrating retail on a pedestrian-friendly corridor, inspired by Castro street in downtown Mountain View. As for which street should become the shopping corridor, different people and groups at the workshop expressed different opinions. Some made the case for Shoreline Boulevard so the retail can prosper by attracting customers who may be passing by. Others, concerned about the level of vehicle traffic on shoreline, recommended housing along Shorebird, a quieter side street off of Shoreline.
Walking to shop was one piece of an overall goal that many residents shared at the event and afterward – wanting to create a neighborhood that was less dependent on car use. Bruce Liedstrand, former City Manager commented on the list that “we need to design the future North Bayshore so it is car-optional – so no one needs to own or drive a car. This means designing the neighborhood that way and providing car-free mobility within NBS and a [transit] connector to the Castro Street Caltrain station. This will connect future NBS residents to the regional transit network without needing a car.
On the mailing list, Mountain View resident Charles Bransi proposed partnering with Google to make the neighborhood closest to Google’s HQ the first place to adopt autonomous vehicle technology. Self-driving cars, foresees Bransi, will be provided with Car-as-Service business models. “Instead of owning your car (and using it so little on a day to commute), and having to park it, a self driving could be parked in a different location, and used by many people (so fewer cars are needed). You want to do a grocery run, you call a self-driving car. Using GPS, the nearest car will come pick you up.”
What kind of housing and where?
There was a workshop exercise where participants discussed the types of housing they wanted to see, and put markers on a map of NBS to show where housing should go.
The table attended by this blogger wanted to see housing for a community that was diverse in age, household type, and income level. The group didn’t think it would be desirable to house only young, single, North Bayshore tech workers. Even people who are currently young and single are likely to partner and have families. The housing should include 2-3 bedroom housing for families, as well as smaller units and micro-units, and should include below market rate subsidized housing, perhaps favoring teachers and others providing needed local services. Other tables reported similar preferences for diverse housing types for diverse residents. The groups wanted to see amenities for families, including potentially a school, tot lots for little kids, and would love to see Google open its playing fields to the public. Preferences for building height varied, with some preferring Parisian-style mid-rise, and others comfortable with some high-rise towers to accommodate more housing.
In her introductory presentation, Alschuler talked about the level of density that helps create vibrancy. She gave examples of vibrant urban places have about 20K people/square mile; some she listed were the Pearl District of Portland, at 18,350 people/square mile; Uptown in Oakland, at 22,200; and Adams Morgan in D.C., at 28,275. The area being considered in North Bayshore is 138 acres, so to get 7000 housing units to support a grocery store, the average density would be 50 dwelling units per acre.
Not everyone at the workshop was comfortable with housing in North Bayshore. Some continue to prefer to keep the area as office park, and to add housing in other parts of the city. One attendee, for example, expressed a belief that suburban place design is essential to the character of Silicon Valley, and wants to maintain the view back from Shoreline Park to Mountain View. Some remain skeptical that the office park can be successfully evolved into a neighborhood, and dubious that it is possible to add residents and retail without worsening traffic problems.
Neighborhood public spaces
In his introductory presentation, Fred Kent, of Project for Public Spaces, talked about how to make the a neighborhood lively. He explained that a place where people want to be is a place where people can see other people out doing things. He talked about making public spaces comfortable, like by adding benches; and he talked about making sure there were 5-10 destinations to make a space worth going to.
Participants talked in the workshop sessions about whether the social space for residents should be open to the public. The table attended by this blogger, and other groups, wanted to see spaces open to the public, rather than internally facing and gated.
The workshop was only one step in a process for Mountain View to decide about how to create a neighborhood in North Bayshore. The material from this workshop, including slides from the professional presentations, along with notes and annotated maps from the table discussions, will be posted online here. The next public meetings will be held in the fall