Taking a cue from neighboring cities that are encouraging dense mixed-use projects around the Caltrain line, officials are considering zoning portions of downtown for transit-oriented development.
The proposal for a zone near El Camino Real and San Bruno Avenue encouraging projects that take advantage of nearby public transit options is in the very early stages and would require council approval, interim community development director Aaron Aknin said. It could be brought forward as part of larger General Plan revisions set for review and public comment this year.
TOD zoning, which usually includes design requirements meant to encourage walking and public transit use and discourage driving, is one option the city is considering in a broad effort to create a more vibrant identity for its downtown.
The proposal could dovetail with talks on securing a possible mixed-use developer for the long-empty Wells Fargo site on San Mateo Avenue and planned Caltrain track grade separations expected to make the area more pedestrian-friendly.
A previous effort at transit-oriented development, The Crossing, a massive development located across from The Shops at Tanforan, has been largely successful as far as Councilman Jim Ruane is concerned.
“If you don’t have to drive, this is a really good option,” Ruane said. “Downtown could be ripe for this kind of stuff.”
Business owner Harry Costa, who has been a big supporter of revamping downtown, said that he would be amenable to transit zoning as long as there was the right mix of residential units to support the businesses.
Density is the key because there needs to be an adequate amount of people around the businesses to support them, or else people will drive to the businesses instead of walk from their nearby homes, according to Kenmark Group CEO Bruce Russell. Russell’s company is currently redeveloping the existing Skycrest Center located at San Bruno Avenue and Glenview Drive.
In Russell’s experience, mixed-use and transit-oriented zoning are most successful when they’re part of a larger transit corridor plan, such as one approved by San Mateo in 2005. These plans often include densities of at least 50 units per acre and have a mix of uses.
The big question remains, however, whether cities can engineer these successful transit-friendly environments simply by changing their zoning codes, Russell said.
City/County Association of Governments executive director Rich Napier said a number of cities are going this route, in part because of the lure of state and federal funds if they build these types of developments. Cities can earn between $1,500 and 2,000 per bedroom for projects that have at least 40 units per acre and are located within a third of a mile from Caltrain, he said.