San Jose’s Urban Villages Plan Faces Transportation Obstacles

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.

Connect Forward

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.

27 Comments

  1. if they had gone to germany or eu when designing the system first yrs ago we might not be in this issue, but just as you see local gove failing you, city hall, @scvwd, for flooding, VTA is to blame on this one, there is so much hot air inside govt agencies executives heads, its the taxpayer who loses. ame with the fast rail from la, it will be closed in a few yr also from non use. almost like vta, scvwd, city, etc, no one even bothers to go to meetings as the directors listen only to their pocket, pension, and payola.

    • > 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.

      Oh, wow. The people at the Urban Land Institute must be really smart.

      High density housing! What a genius idea. That’ll help the San Jose tax base problem.

  2. They just need to move the airport to Moffet Field, and that’ll take care of downtown’s density problem/vibrancy.

  3. But… but… the developments have Section 8 housing- the miracle solution to all things unaffordable.

  4. Headline:

    “Urban Orgasm, turns into Borg Wet Dream at the hands of Capitan Kulck and the Lost Planet Airheads”.

    You people need to leave Starbucks Fantasyland, people don’t want to be lead into your urban section 8 tenements
    fire traps with or without endless price hikes on “VTA the most inefficient rail system in the world”. We can destroy California’s infrastructure with more high speed rail instead of fixing high speed flooding and bottomless potholes.

    Just fire up the tax machine!

  5. “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.”

    Apparently this logic did not apply on Alum Rock Avenue with BRT. Anyone want to take bets on when we’ll see the first pedestrian fatality as people run across traffic to catch the bus which is in the middle lanes of a busy street? VTA and (common sense) Planning is an oxymoron. They killed store front retail on Alum Rock. No parking anywhere any more on the street thanks to BRT. Is that a characteristic of a good Urban Village plan? I think not. New bus stops are show places. Existing stations a few blocks away are un-maintained eye sores. The Plan, spend, Plan, spend cycle keeps a lot of people busy but do we have results that we the people like and use? Debatable.

    • YYY,
      You’re not supposed to drive a car on that street, walk or bicycle don’t yah know!
      But then again why would anyone want to leave their “Urban Transit Hub Utopia”.

  6. I see the regular people reply to stories, rarely is there support for the content or solutions given…well, sometimes there are great ideas.

    Here’s my issue: What are you doing about it?

    Everyone’s got an opinion and everyone loves to sit on the sidelines and be critical. But why don’t you get off your keyboard and volunteer your time and help fix things? If we have your time and energy (and recruiting your friends) helping to solve some of the problems we have, maybe we can maybe we can make some headway. If you are already doing that, great, but I have no idea since everyone’s name’s are little monikers.

  7. > With no nightlife and no developed office space, Cottle Transit Village neither thrives as a transit hub nor as a village worth celebrating.

    Does anyone recall putting Michael Brilliot in charge of nightlife?

    Me neither.

    Wonder where he got his credentials as San Jose’s nightlife critic and planner. Maybe he’s just a nebbish and a dullard and he’s the reason that nightlife at the Cottle Transit Village is such a flop.

  8. From the article:

    …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.

    Earth to ‘development experts': Once you get a clue, you might be able to understand why your ideas aren’t getting any traction.

    • People LIKE the convenience and 24/7 availability of their cars. If people wanted to use bicycles instead of cars, you would see tens of thousands of people on bicycles, using your silly bike paths—instead of the occasional, lonely bicycle rider.

    • People walk when they want to—not when and where social engineer ‘experts’ decree.

    BART …tickets cover a paltry 12 percent of the cost. And ridership continues to decline.

    Voters pass these spending initiatives because the electeds and their pet bureaucrats have figured out how to finagle them into it. But the same voters expect others to use bikes and take BART—while they continue to drive their cars.

    So the next step will be to force people into giving up their cars. But since the vast majority of voters drive cars, at some point they will rebel against these social engineers. Can you say T-R-U-M-P? I knew you could!

    What would we do with out these tax suckers ‘development experts’?

    Without them we’d have a lot more spending money. Before VTA decided they could be experts at managing and running public transportation, that service was provided by private companies that competed with each other for the lowest cost bus service. Taxpayers got efficient, inexpensive public transportation, and the bus companies paid movable property taxes and income taxes.

    But then these ‘public servants’ decided they knew more about running public transportation than companies in the transportation business. That hubris resulted in the current out of control VTA finances. Now the VTA mismanagers regularly put their hands out to the taxpayers for more money, to continue funding their incompetence. And they blame the public!

    The Golem and his pals at VTA are trying to force people out of their cars and onto bicycles, or whatever they think is best for the chumps (taxpayers) paying for it all. And I’d be willing to bet they don’t take public transportation to their meetings, because (insert self-serving excuses here ______).

    Let’s go back to the way it was, before the government ballooned out of control: Accept sealed bids from companies in the business of providing public transportation; the lowest bid wins the next 3-year contract.
    That also includes management costs, so these overpaid VTA bureaucrats can go out and find real jobs like the rest of us, so there will be that many fewer fingers rooting around in our wallets.

    Can we the proles/chumps vote on that?

    • Smokey, you have identified a fundamental question that the VTA board has to ask. Can VTA do a good job of being both a Congestion Management Agency and a Public Transit Agency, which is currently their dual mission? Unfortunately, the board doesn’t appear to be asking this question, but if they were to do so, then maybe they would leave the transit to private entities and focus on the congestion part of their mission.

      • What we should do is sell the VTA’s tracks and trains to the Golden Gate Bridge district, and use the money to fix the roads.

  9. One thing the Cottle planners forgot was adequate parking for the “urban village.” At times, it’s nearly impossible to find a parking spot at the new Safeway. Walking and biking is nice, but it’s hard to carry all of your weekly groceries using these modes of transportation. Not to mention that people drive down Cottle like it’s the Indy 500 while staring at their cell phones. It’s not at all a pedestrian or bike friendly road. I’ve witnessed accidents at the SB 85 entrance ramp when one car stopped for pedestrians. Drivers not paying attention rear-ended the one that stopped.

  10. What does a photo of a Veterans’ Day parade down West Santa Clara Street near the De Anza Hotel have to do with the Cottle Transit Village?

  11. Tfhe masses get lulled into boogy crap like this when the gov’t officials come out with something new. Until we have flying cars there will be nothing new – just variations on a theme. And how do the masses get lulled? It’s when the smarty pants officials come out with new lingo for the same old nonsense. The hot term for this election cycle is – – – -“Urban Villages” – – – OK so the public stands around nodding heads – – Oh! Urban Villages. So that’s the cure for the ills of housing, transit, roads and livability in general – – why of course (w’e’re supposed to say) Urban Villages – -and from there – everything will be fine.

    There used to be another name for Urban Village – – neighborhoods. But using a term like that does not give the officials thee advantage of being “smarter” than the rest of us – so that would be a problem.

    • > There used to be another name for Urban Village – – neighborhoods. But using a term like that does not give the officials thee advantage of being “smarter” than the rest of us – so that would be a problem.

      True dat!

    • Urban Village,
      I must be old, they used to call them —“The Projects—The Tenements”—followed by something really clever,
      — “Urban Renewal”—and—“The War On Poverty”—!

      So they were a problem.

  12. “With no nightlife and no developed office space, Cottle Transit Village neither thrives as a transit hub nor as a village worth celebrating.” – There are many office buildings that have been empty many years and only one half to one mile east of the over-packed, high priced, “urban village.”

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