On a cloudy Saturday, December 15, Friends of Caltrain, Sunnyvale Cool Cities and the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter Sustainable Land Use Committee partnered on a walking tour to learn more about the City of Sunnyvale’s plans to update the zoning and enliven the disconnected area around the underutilized Lawrence Caltrain station.
The next step in developing the plan will be a City Council and Planning Commission joint study session on January 15. If you live in Sunnyvale/Santa Clara, or are interested in longterm opportunities to redevelop Silicon Valley sprawl to be more walkable and transit friendly, read on.
The area around the Lawrence Caltrain station currently has a disconnected assemblage of industrial buildings, scattered apartment and townhome complexes, car repair shops, offices, parking lots, and a few stores. Many locations that are a quarter mile from the train station as the crow flies are a half-mile or more on the street, due to superblocks, busy arterials without crosswalks, one way streets, and other barriers. So the walkable “catchment area” for the train station is much smaller than it seems.
It is no wonder that this sparsely populated and disconnected area is only the 18th most popular Caltrain station, with about 500 riders per day in each direction. With low ridership, the area has correspondingly poor service, about 2 trains per hour at rush hour. The station’s reputation on Yelp is characterized by its lack of amenities.
But Sunnyvale is looking to make longterm improvements to the area within 1/2 mile from the Caltrain station, in coordination with Santa Clara. A Lawrence Station Area Plan will change the zoning, which the city hopes will encourage developers, make the area more friendly for walking and biking, and take advantage of the underutilized train station.
In a series of consulting projects, community workshops, stakeholder meetings and study sessions, Sunnyvale has developed a vision for the area with more mixed use development, creating better neighborhoods and supporting local businesses. Sunnyvale would like to see a walkable community, with amenities and services nearby. A walkable neighborhood near transit and services would appeal especially to an aging population.
That vision would unfold in the coming decades. Today, the first sight that greets a rider getting off the train is the Peninsula Building Materials storage yard. The family-owned business has been in operation since 1923. There are no plans to sell it, but if they did, the land would be worth tens of millions to a developer.
Next to the storage yard is an isolated section of townhouses. There aren’t enough residents to support a supermarket or coffee shop, so people who live there need to drive to do the most basic of errands.
The street next to the townhouses is very wide, although it gets very little car traffic. The turn radius to the train station is very wide to accommodate the trucks for the building supply store next door. So drivers race down the short section of street and zip around the wide curve.
On the other side of the townhomes are some auto repair businesses. New zoning could allow those properties to be turned into more houses or stores. In the vision for the area, enough houses will be built to support businesses for the residents. If that transformation happens, there will need to be some other location for the auto repair shops.
Between the townhomes and the auto shops, there is a drainage right of way, which could also be turned into a bike/pedestrian path. This would provide pleasant green space and also help residents from the homes bordered by Evelyn and Reed to the train station or any new stores in the area without traveling on busy Reed. The designs also propose bike/pedestrian crossing of the train tracks
On the other side of the street, the side of the street without a sidewalk, is a new daycare center. As properties redevelop, they will be required to add sidewalks.
The street lets out onto busy Reed Ave, without a crosswalk. People who live across the street, in the apartments to the left or single family homes to the right, live only .25 miles from the Caltrain station as the crow flies, but need to walk a half mile to get there, detouring to cross at a light.
Crossing Lawrence at Reed/Monroe is particularly forbidding, with high-speed traffic whipping around wide curves. Pedestrians take refuge in islands amid the flow of cars.
On the other side of the street is an Extreme Networks office building complex in the city of Santa Clara. This site is also up for redevelopment, under a new zoning plan that calls for mixed use residential with retail. The first step of an Environmental Impact Report process started in April 2012, but that process may re-start since the parcel now has a new owner. Santa Clara and Sunnyvale residents concerned about the area should watch for news.
The Extreme Networks office site is connected to the train station by a one way street to the station. A transit rider wanting to bring a bike from the station can ride the wrong way for less than a quarter of a mile, or can ride legally about a half-mile around the other end of the station.
On the other side of the Lawrence Station are offices surrounded by large parking lots. In the new zoning, the parking lots could be filled in with buildings. Parking would move to parking structures or underground. One opportunity for new developments in the area is to follow the lead of Moffet Business Park, about 3 miles away. The Business Park has a Transportation Management Association for about 15 businesses, allowing them to share the expense of shuttles to the Caltrain station, carpool programs, and other programs helping employees get to work without driving. Sunnyvale could encourage or require new businesses and developments in the Lawrence area to participate in a TMA, enabling smaller employers and residences to get the benefits of shuttles, discount transit passes, and other transportation benefits.
There is a well-hidden staircase connecting the parking lot behind one of the office buildings on Kifer to the area behind the Caltrain station. If you don’t know the hidden short cut which connects you to the station in under a quarter of a mile, you need to walk a half mile around a large block to get to the station on the street.
The preliminary plan proposes creating a grid of streets and bike/pedestrian paths through what are currently superblocks of office buildings and parking lots, making the area easier to navigate on foot and by bike.
The tour was lead by Gustav Larsson, who is the chair of the Planning Commission, but led the tour as a private citizen. He gave about 15 neighbors, Sierra Club volunteers, and nonprofit staff background on the area, and listened to people’s suggestions.
Another part of the long term plan for the area might be to depress the massive Lawrence Expressway overpass which shadows and divides the area. Not only is the expressway a physical barrier, it divides the area visually, so you cannot see nearby streets and buildings.
The Sunnyvale City Council reviewed the Lawrence proposals earlier this month. The project will be studied in 2013, for inclusion in Santa Clara County’s 2014 Expressway study. Funding for a project of this magnitude could take over a decade.
As for the Lawrence Station area itself, the next steps are a City Council and Planning Commission Joint study session on January 15, and City Council review on February 26. After that, design guidelines and open space plans would be developed, the city would conduct environmental review, and the zoning would be changed. According to the timeline, the plan would be complete by April 2014.
There is still a lot to be done to flesh out the vision, refine the new street and bike/pedestrian grid, define programs that encourage use of transit, and more. The efforts are particularly important since Caltrain electrification is likely to bring more frequent service to the area in 2019 or so. The new developments, pedestrian and bike access would make better use of the transit service.
To learn more about the background of the plan see the Lawrence Station page on the city’s website. For updates on the Lawrence Station area (and other Caltrain stations you use), sign up to adopt your station.