Samtrans/Caltrain head wants TOD in San Carlos
- Published Tuesday, January 30, 2001, in the San Francisco Chronicle
Housing Outside The Box
Proposal links shops, apartments, Caltrain
The difficulty lies in reaching that point where what needs to be
done connects with a will to do it.
If we need more housing, and no one disputes that we do, then the
question is where we put it.
If we don't want to build on the foothills and the open spaces and
the baylands and the beaches -- and we don't -- then we need more
Since we can't spread out, we have to go up.
But high-rise development attacks our very notion of suburban life
and the hearth-and-home, backyard-barbecue, ride-your-bike-in-the-
street imagery that drew us here.
On the other hand, our notion of what it is like to live here already
is under attack by traffic congestion and the skyrocketing cost of a
Against that backdrop, Mike Scanlon, the head of SamTrans, has been
telling local officials in the year-plus since he came here from
Florida, that they need to move toward transit-oriented development.
What he means is a European-style model of residential development
within walking distance to shopping, trains and buses that eliminates
the need for day-to-day use of the automobile.
And now he is proposing just that on a 7-acre parcel of Caltrain
right-of-way land in San Carlos, on the east side of El Camino Real,
just north of Holly Street and the train station.
"I go around talking about transit-oriented development," said
Scanlon. "The best way to talk about transit-oriented development is
to model the way. Not just tell people to go do it, but to go do it."
The very preliminary plans -- so preliminary that no formal proposal
has been made to San Carlos officials -- call for using about four
acres and building a 50-foot-high, five-story building.
The ground floor would be office space and retail shopping. The
remaining floors would be apartments, perhaps as many as 200 units.
SamTrans' headquarters would be moved to the new building from its
current location a few blocks away on San Carlos Avenue, Scanlon said.
The goal, in addition to whatever the development itself will
provide, is to create a model that can be duplicated the length of
the Caltrain right of way, at every station from South San Francisco
to San Jose.
The key will be to tie the residential and commercial development of
the site directly to the train station and a major bus station,
making mass transit an integral part of living in the development.
"I want to create a little taste of Europe. With the right
architecture, we can accommodate a more dense population and link
directly to Caltrain and a shuttle bus service," Scanlon said.
"People are starting to realize we've got to do something. Where are
our children going to live? We're so far out of balance with jobs and
housing, and it's a supply-side problem."
San Carlos officials have begun mulling over Scanlon's concepts as
part of a community effort to rethink the city's downtown
For months, the city has been conducting visualization sessions --
meetings with residents to consider ideas for what should and should
not be done on the city's downtown Laurel Street stretch, as well as
on El Camino and adjacent streets.
"In concept, it's a very good idea, but the devil is in the details.
What they're talking about is pretty big and kind of frightening to
people," said City Manager Mike Garvey.
Indeed, it's downright unsettling for Duncan Browne, who lives with
his wife and 6-year-old daughter in a two bedroom, one-bath home in
the neighborhood just east of the site where Garvey wants to build.
Since the Brownes moved in, the Caltrain grade separation has been
completed, which meant hoisting the train tracks 15 feet into the air
on a dirt berm.
"When we moved here, we knew there was going to be a train there.
We're not one of those people who buy a house at the end of a runway
and then, a year later, they're complaining that the jet noise is
terrible," Browne said.
But if a five-story building goes up, it blocks Browne's view of the
hills to the west, and that view is one reason he wanted the house.
"I don't mean to be a whiner, but that's not what we signed on for,"
he said most reasonably.
On the other hand, what all of us signed on for may already be long
This is not the suburbs anymore.