Caltrain kicks off transit-oriented development strategy

At its upcoming board meeting on Thursday, Caltrain is kicking off a process to set its strategy and policies for land around Caltrain stations, including and especially land owned by Caltrain. This is a healthy component feeding into Caltrain’s business plan, and helping Caltrain be a good financial steward of its assets and institutional citizen of a region with a severe housing crisis.

The planning process will address a set of questions regarding the value of land that Caltrain owns for transportation, compared to the potential value for other uses; various policy goals including revenue, affordable housing, station access and parking. The station access and policy topics also relate station areas where land is owned by others, but policies about station parking have a major affect on options for the station area.


Guiding decisions and community engagement

Having such policies set by the board will help Caltrain make decisions and cooperate with the cities on the corridor.

Such policies could help reduce the conflicts that beset the “San Carlos Village” mixed use development that is now being built. With that project, the transit agency delegated the role of setting affordable housing levels to a private developer.

Local residents and advocates who supported infill development and appropriate parking near transit wanted to see more affordable housing than the private developer wanted to build; so they did not actively support the project. Meanwhile, some neighbors wanted shorter buildings and more parking adjacent to the train station; and they were vocal in opposition. The result was shorter buildings, less housing, less affordability, less revenue, and more parking in the project.

BART precedent

BART has set a solid precedent for such planning, having created a set of transit oriented development guidelines covering issues such as business goals, affordable housing, density, and relative need for parking (see image).


Pilot cities – add San Jose? also Mountain View?

Caltrain is planning to use three cities – South San Francisco, Belmont, and
Redwood City – to create case studies to test Caltrain’s evaluation method and evaluate the results of various policy options.

This case study process is good, but there is an important opportunity left out – that perhaps may need to be done in parallel.

Even as Caltrain is working through its potential TOD policies, the City of San Jose is rapidly moving toward decisions about the major plans for the Diridon area, where Google is planning to bring 20,000+ employees. Caltrain owns some key parcels of land, currently used for car parking, that are important for the Diridon infill development.

It would be good for Caltrain to be an active partner in considering its proposed business goals, land use/housing and station access strategies, working in partner with the city and landowners. Because the Diridon process is moving forward on a timeline being set by San Jose and Google, Caltrain should time its Diridon assessment to work with the San Jose process.

Also, using Diridon as a case study could help Caltrain develop policy packages that are appropriate for the region’s largest cities. BART (see below) set a healthy example by defining several “place types” in its TOD and access policies. Caltrain should do the same, and develop policies appropriate for the largest cities on the corridor. This is also likely to be important in San Francisco, where the city’s proposals for the “Downtown Extension” may result in transit-oriented development on land currently as railyards; and where San Francisco may be considering a replacement for the 22nd street station.

Another idea – the cities proposed for case studies are all in San Mateo County. The city of Mountain View is planning an upgrade to its transit center, including the potential for joint development on Caltrain parking lots. The Mountain View sites might also be good candidates for the toolbox pilot.