Published Tuesday, January 8, 2002, in the San Mateo Independent
Plan for housing concerns some residents
Future of land along rail corridor raises questions of safety,
By Jennifer Christgau-Aquino
SAN CARLOS -- Arlene Patton of the San Mateo County Transit Authority
looks at vacant property along the Caltrain tracks in San Carlos and
sees an opportunity for mixed-use housing with ground floor retail
and office space.
Emily Paz sees Patton's vision as a recipe for creating slums.
"How can you propose housing in such a dirty, noisy place?" she
asked. "What will the city do to make sure this [slum housing] will
not end up here?"
The strip of dirt that was once the sales floor for used car dealers
and pastry stores will one day be office space, a place to shop and
eat and home to some, according to San Mateo County's Transit
As the Transit Authority hunkers down on plans for these plots,
voices of opposition to the property's future use as housing are
At a recent council meeting, the city approved its housing element
plan, earmarking the property along the tracks as the eventual site
for 200 housing units.
While the draft document is merely a planning device and is in no way
a step toward the project's approval, the council's passage of the
concept has residents expressing their concerns.
"We are isolating our children. They are going to be stuck right
between the railroad tracks and El Camino. Try to cross El Camino as
a pedestrian. We can only make it worse by putting housing over
there," said Peter Angelides at a recent council meeting.
But city and transit officials caution against these concerns, saying
any project along the tracks must undergo years of study. And
whatever is built depends on whether the Transit Authority
electrifies the tracks or adds another rail.
"Any development we do is going to be really sensitive about what our
future operations will be," Patton said.
Currently, the transit authority is undergoing a modeling process, in
which it is considering a combination of commercial, retail and
housing uses for the land -- from what could be built with a fourth
rail to what possibilities exist if the tracks are electrified.
"What we want to do is show the residents what an exciting place the
train station can be ... how you can craft things like development so
that you get this great interactive area. [What is built] has got to
interact with the neighborhood ... improve crossing El Camino Real,"
Once the project is completed -- still several years away -- Patton
said the Transit Authority would put out a request for proposals to
develop the land. The project must undergo both approval by the
Transit Authority and the city.
It's too early to predict exactly what will happen with the land,
Patton said, but it won't sit idle.
"[Building] nothing at all is not an option," Patton said.
The land was originally owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad and
was a strip of used car dealerships and industrial businesses. To
many, it was an eyesore, Patton said.
In the late '90s, those businesses were ousted when the Transit
Authority bought the land and evicted tenants, because it needed the
space to lift the tracks above the streets.
"I think they [residents] are going to be really happy with what
winds up happening. It was a lot of used car dealerships, buildings
that weren't kept up real well. The way that SP kept its property,
people weren't willing to invest in quality development," Patton said.
Whatever the Transit Authority builds will definitely be better, said
Mayor Don Eaton.
"When and if it gets built, would it be low quality? Not on my watch.
Anything that gets built in this town is going to have to be
attractively designed. It's going to have to fit. We are not going to
build a bunch of big ugly boxes," he said.
Housing isn't the right fit, said El Camino Real merchant Amy Chang,
who also heads up the El Camino Merchants Association.
"We need high-quality commercial in order for the retail sector of El
Camino to succeed. The loss of the entire eastside really hurt the
economic vitality of that sector," she said.
It's not that Chang and her group are against housing. Rather, they
are concerned that the city is planning too many housing units
downtown. The city's housing element plan calls for more than 300
units to be built downtown.
"We can explore some housing, but we also need to look at really
focusing on bringing in high-quality commercial. The emphasis on
housing is really perhaps displacing opportunities to create really
key commercial that would anchor those areas that will bring in
traffic. Housing is helpful because you have people come into the
area at night and on the weekends, but during the day we need
business traffic," she said.
For other opponents of the concept, their main objection is safety.
But they also worry that dust, noise and the busy El Camino will
cheapen the apartments.
"From the very first time I heard about housing along the railroad
tracks ... my initial response was ... to be against it. Air
pollution, noise. There is only 135 feet between the tracks and the
sidewalk. To me that's about the worst place to-live," Angelides said
at a recent council meeting.
Patton doesn't believe that. She points to several successful
developments abutting the tracks in other cities, which are high-end,
good quality projects.
She points to a recent development in Sunnyvale that sits right next
to the tracks and has been very desirable. High quality construction
materials can block out issues with noise and vibrations from the
train, she said.
"We think issues like noise or ... some other negative ... is going
to be offset by things like you don't have to have a second car. If
you live there can walk find do your grocery shopping. You can go to
the city, you can connect to BART. Every location has a positive and
a negative. We think overall people will find having that location
very attractive," Patton said.
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