In South San Jose, on the same land where Alan Shugart led IBM’s development of the disk drive, nearly 3,000 densely packed apartments and condos sit next to a light rail station at Highway 85.
Less than 18 months ago, Urban Land, a magazine for the Urban Land Institute, glowingly touted the Cottle Transit Village as a model for future efforts to urbanize the intensely suburban, haphazardly developed post-war neighborhoods found in much of San Jose.
Cottle Transit Village “is an ideal urban village that just needed to be completed,” Edward Storm, board chair of Hunter Properties, told the magazine. “We knew that by completing this village we’d provide ridership for public transit, support for job retention, and then taxes and commercial support would follow.”
Today, however, planners acknowledge Cottle Transit Village is not living up to its name.
“We don’t really talk about it as an urban village, even though it’s shown as one on our maps,” says Michael Brilliot, San Jose’s division manager of citywide planning.
On the city’s long-term planning maps, Cottle Transit Village is one of 70 color-coded splotches designated as “urban villages,” and one of the first to be built out and occupied. But as city planners work to develop more urban villages, the development may be most valuable to future decisions if it’s seen as a lesson in unmet potential.
While Cottle has the requisite housing density, a nice park and some of the walkability of an urban village, Brilliot says, it lacks the vibrant commercial, office and entertainment spaces that might make it an exciting urban destination. Big box retailers like Target and Lowe’s dominate the space. Restaurants are more of the Panera Bread variety; there’s even—shudder—an Applebee’s to come. With no nightlife and no developed office space, Cottle Transit Village neither thrives as a transit hub nor as a village worth celebrating.
Despite thousands of new homes in the area, light rail ridership from the Cottle station is actually down about 5 percent from two years ago, according to the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). Ron Golem, VTA’s deputy director of real estate and joint development, acknowledges that riders face some baked-in obstacles. The biggest one: Highway 85.
An elevated walkway drops riders in between the north and southbound lanes of the freeway, making for a significantly longer trek than the quarter-mile planners consider ideal.
“Whenever pedestrians or bicycles have to cross an onramp to get to the station, it’s always a little bit of a hazard situation,” Golem says. “We need to think about how to enhance people’s feeling that it’s safe.”
VTA officials also accuse Cottle developers of ineffectively marketing the station—which developers deny—but transit planners prefer to talk about River Oaks on the opposite side of town. The newer, more successful mixed-use development sits on North First Street. Here, Golem says, developers successfully pitched light rail access to potential tenants. Residents don’t face the same access issues, and ridership has grown 20 percent in two years.
City planners admit that their efforts to turn San Jose, a sprawling, profoundly suburban landscape into a vibrant, interconnected system of urban villages that make a car optional, rather than a necessity, will require a couple of decades to complete. But there remain questions on how soon the essential pieces will fall into place.
BART service arrives in North San Jose this fall, and VTA is preparing to hike fares and change schedules to closely integrate what is today the least efficient local transit system in the nation, according to farebox recovery rates, in which tickets cover a paltry 12 percent of the cost. Not too far down the tracks, regional transit officials hope, high-speed rail will connect the Bay Area to San Francisco, Southern California and stations in between.
Despite these efforts, turning traffic-choked San Jose, the nation’s 10th largest city, into a walkable, bikeable and mass transit-oriented landscape is a monumental challenge, according to urban development experts.
“No question, it’s incredibly ambitious,” says Yonn Dierwechter, a professor of urban studies at the University of Washington-Tacoma. “But if it’s not going to happen in your area, it probably isn’t going to happen anywhere.”
San Jose residents, who for decades have reliably voted for transit funding, are increasingly unhappy with the extended commutes and a lacking sense of community, according to a city survey released last year. Both are issues that “new urbanism” seeks to address, but it’s not clear if disappointed residents fully understand their suburban homes contribute to the city’s choked roadways and low morale.
“For such a thing to work, it takes a lot of alignment, and it has to be done unflinchingly,” says Dan Trudeau, a professor of urban design at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. It requires sustained adherence to zoning and design codes and the backing of major employers, utilities and the media, he adds. “People need to be aware that the system is broken, and then you’ll see the willingness to be led.”
Voters got on board in November, when they approved Measure B, a $6.3 billion countywide transportation plan. Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which lobbies on behalf of many of the most powerful employers in the region, led the initiative in partnership with virtually every public agency and elected official.
While the impact of Measure B is still to come, parts of San Jose are starting to show a little hard-won but tenuous urban zest, such as the South of First Area, The Alameda and North San Jose.
Mayor Sam Liccardo has aggressively pursued more high-rise housing downtown within walking distance of transit hubs, restaurants, art galleries, retail, nightlife and essential services. The city has incentivized both commercial and residential development through breaks on taxes and fees related to new construction and tenant improvements in high-rise buildings. This has drawn some criticism from people who object to government giveaways to wealthy developers, but the City Council has gone along with Liccardo in saying the pump must be primed.
Kirk Vartan, co-chair of the Stevens Creek Advisory Group, a city-sanctioned committee created by Councilman Chappie Jones, gives credit to those trying to tackle the gridlock, noting that urban villages are a huge part of the equation. But, Vartan says, in planning for the massive overhaul of the Tri-Village area—the area around Santana Row, Winchester Boulevard and Stevens Creek Boulevard—the process has fallen frustratingly short.
“The reality is we’ve spent our time creating capacity studies for the area and talking about streetscape improvements,” Vartan said. “It’s window dressing as opposed to creating a vision of what we want the area to look like. What is the character or the feel, what are we trying to create and achieve over the next 20 or 25 years?’’
Vartan suggests San Jose should contract with a world-class consultant up front—as Santa Clara has done—to help neighborhoods create a vision, rather than getting the public involved only after developers have made their plans and environmental studies have been conducted. This would help avoid the extended delays and millions spent on redesign and litigation.
San Jose efforts to achieve more density downtown continue to be exacerbated by the airport’s proximity, preventing true high-rises or skyscrapers. And even if dozens of charming urban villages take shape, the problem of effectively connecting city’s main thoroughfares remains.
VTA is in the midst of a major overhaul aimed at boosting ridership, and the components include frequent connections to BART, more frequent bus service along key routes over less-densely populated areas such as Almaden Valley, and a new light rail line from Alum Rock to Mountain View. Fares are almost certain to rise, but transfers between buses and light rail will be allowed.