On Wednesday, Mountain View’s Environmental Planning Commission will review Mountain View’s environmental study of the proposal to add more housing near Google in North Bayshore, focusing on transportation. The Environmental Impact Report clearly shows the contrast between new and old rules for assessing the environmental impact of transportation.
In response to the housing crisis affecting the region and driving displacement in Mountain View, the Mountain View City Council set direction for a plan to add up to 9,850 housing units in North Bayshore, currently an office park with over 17,000 commuters, planning to add another ~10,000 in the coming decades.
By adding housing and services near jobs, the North Bayshore area near Google would reduce vehicle miles travelled per person by about 7%, according to the analysis in the new Environmental Impact Report, which would be considered an improvement under the new rules being adopted for the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) following the adoption of Senate Bill 743 several years ago.
The study in Mountain View joins similar recent studies in Menlo Park (which chose to allow up to 5,500 units of housing near Facebook) and Brisbane (which is considering a major development at the Baylands near Bayshore Caltrain) showing that adding homes and services near jobs results in less per-person driving.
Unfortunately, the City of Mountain View has not yet migrated to the new CEQA rules, unlike San Francisco, which using the new rules showed infill development with housing, offices, and services further reduces driving in its newest EIR for the Central SOMA plan Following the old rules, Mountain View’s EIR concludes that refraining from adding housing near jobs and services is the “environmentally preferred alternative” since keeping housing far from jobs results in less local delay at intersections.
However, an EIR does not require a city to choose a specific alternative – it is process of public disclosure that gives community members and policymakers information to make decisions.
According the the staff report, the studies show several other informative factors that could help Mountain View add housing to North Bayshore while keeping the roadway network functional. Mountain View’s current policies require keeping vehicle trips at the few “gateway” entrances to North Bayshore below their capacity.
The studies analyze at a high level the benefit that would be provided by adding a new transit and carpool only bridge over Stevens Creek. This high-level analysis shows that the area could accommodate 5,000 to 6,000 homes if a transit/carpool bridge was added – and also if the housing was built with a “car-light” parking ratio of .6 spaces per dwelling unit. With a mix including more studio apartments, even more housing could be accommodated.
The studies show that the amount of driving is highly sensitive to the amount of car parking provided. In the short term, Sobrato, first developer offering to build housing in North Bayshore is uncomfortable with such a low parking ratio. This is understandable, since the first new 800 housing units along with the 358 mobile homes in Santiago Villa still won’t be enough to support robust services that will allow residents to do many of their errands near home, without having to drive for groceries and other needs.
A reasonable approach could be to lower the parking ratio over time, while starting with parking that is unbundled from the lease and that is designed to be shared over time with other uses. With these policies, the first housing could be added with the amount of parking needed given the initial levels of services and transit. Over time, as less parking is needed, existing parking can be repurposed, and new buildings can be built with less parking.
Another factor is the assumption about how many new residents in North Bayshore will actually work near where they live. The report gathers information showing that Mountain View currently has about 27% rate of people living near work. Highly walkable mixed use areas, including downtown Seattle, have an internal trip rate near 40%, while car-oriented office park areas without enough housing to support robust services, such as North Santa Clara, have internal trip rates under 20%.
While there is uncertainty in predicting the number of people who will live near work, in the retrofitted “live work play” neighborhoods evolving from office parks, there are decisions that can foster a higher “internalization” rate, such as preference for people who work nearby (it’s not legal to exclude people who work elsewhere, but it’s legal to have a preference); having enough housing to support robust services (5000+ units according to earlier expert advice), and designing for walkability.
- The new VMT metric is much more compatible with Mountain View’s policies to reduce solo driving and support infill development with a better balance of housing and jobs. EPC can recommend, and Council can direct the city to move to adopt the new rules as quickly as feasible, while choosing alternatives with housing that support the city and state’s goals
- An additional transit/carpool bridge over Stevens Creek would likely allow more housing- enough housing to support robust services. The city should study this option in more depth.
- The amount of driving is highly sensitive to the amount of parking, but very low parking ratios are difficult with the current level of services. Therefore, the city should phase in lower parking ratios, while starting with parking that is unbundled from the apartment lease or condo price and that is designed to be shared over time with other uses. Parking ratios can be lowered in future phases when there as more services and better transit are available.
- The share of people who will live near work is challenging to predict. The city should take steps to increase the likelihood of a higher “internalization” rate, by allowing enough housing to support robust services, designing for walkability, and allowing a preference for people who work nearby.
- Mountain View has strong transportation demand management policies for commercial space, including regular and transparent reporting. Similar policies should be required for residential development. The monitoring and reporting will help policymakers understand and tune policies as the area evolves.