Mathew Reed, policy director of nonprofit Silicon Valley at Home, says El Camino Real is a “responsible place to build more housing” because of its easy access to Caltrain and eventually BART. Despite its status as a key transit corridor, little has changed on the El Camino Real in Santa Clara, following opposition from nearby residents who don’t want six-story buildings in their backyard. “It’s very important for everybody to be involved in the discussion, but it’s very dangerous for a small number of people to be able to upend a multiyear planning process at the last minute,” Reed said.
BY: Grace Hase┃Bay Area News Group
PUBLISHED: December 28, 2021, 6:20 am
Their vision was to turn El Camino Real into Silicon Valley’s grand boulevard — a landscaped, 43-mile stretch from Daly City to San Jose that seamlessly flows from one city to the next, with wide lighted sidewalks, pocket parks, historic buildings, shops and multistory housing all interwoven.
But the group of South Bay and Peninsula residents that first convened in 2006 to guide such a transformation had its work cut out.
What’s considered California’s oldest highway — its history traces back to 1769 — El Camino Real was a hodgepodge of stores, gas stations, strip malls, fast-food eateries and appliance centers interspersed among occasional apartment complexes.
Fifteen years later, not much has changed. And that’s frustrating to Russell Hancock, CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, the group that has overseen the Grand Boulevard Initiative and still meets to this day.
Instead of being a place where jobs and housing complement each other in a region that notoriously struggles to balance both, he laments that El Camino Real remains a “mish-mash” of businesses and buildings whose varying heights and architecture often clash.
“It’s really urban and it already has a certain amount of density to it,” Hancock said about El Camino Real’s potential and prime location near the downtowns of most of the 19 cities along its way.
“In my view, it should be like canyons. It should look like Manhattan, for crying out loud, up and down El Camino Real.”
So what went wrong with the planned revitalization of El Camino, which means “the royal road” in Spanish and once connected 21 Franciscan missions from San Diego to Sonoma?
The simple answer, Hancock and others say, is that not all the cities along the north-south corridor bought into the grand boulevard vision or entered any formal agreement to coordinate planning. Some, including South San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City and Mountain View, came up with their own vision plans to help guide El Camino Real’s redevelopment. Others either didn’t bother or gave up after public outcry.
Whenever cities talk of raising building heights — a touchy issue that has consistently plagued development in much of the Bay Area — they often encounter fierce backlash from residents of neighborhoods near El Camino Real who don’t want tall buildings casting shadows their way. Complicating matters is the road’s status as a state highway, meaning cities can’t dictate what changes or improvements are made to it without going through Caltrans.
Santa Clara was the latest city to hit a roadblock when it tried to implement its El Camino Real Specific Plan. After four years and a $910,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the City Council opted in October not to approve the plan. Some council members and many residents felt the six-story commercial buildings and four-story housing complexes proposed were just too tall.
As a result, the city will go back to the drawing board next year to revise the plan — a move that could cost $1 million. The council indicated it would prefer to see residential buildings capped at two stories and commercial buildings at four stories.
But the lower heights would translate into a loss of nearly 4,000 housing units and 700,000 square feet of commercial space over the next 20 to 30 years.
Mathew Reed, policy director of nonprofit Silicon Valley at Home, says El Camino Real is a “responsible place to build more housing” because of its easy access to Caltrain and eventually BART.
Reed acknowledges development can be “vulnerable” to opposition from nearby residents who don’t want six-story buildings in their backyard, but says that shouldn’t have made Santa Clara just drop everything for now.
“It’s very important for everybody to be involved in the discussion, but it’s very dangerous for a small number of people to be able to upend a multiyear planning process at the last minute,” he said.
A few miles down the road, Sue Serrone, the founder of Livable Sunnyvale, said she had expected her city’s plan for El Camino Real to be finished several years ago.
Serrone said the concept for El Camino Real was close to that envisioned by the Grand Boulevard Initiative — tree-lined streets with wide sidewalks, public meeting spaces, lots of retail and lots of housing.
“That’s still the vision as far as we know, but getting there is another story,” Serrone said.
According to city spokesperson Jennifer Garnett, staff turnover and vacancies, “time-sensitive projects” and new state housing laws the city needed to review led to the delay. The city is preparing to complete the plan by June 2022 before its $587,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission expires.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who has represented the mid-Peninsula for several decades, said three factors have inhibited the “rational development” of El Camino Real: the large number of vocal residential property owners along the corridor, the multiplicity of cities and the road’s designation as a state highway.
Throughout much of his district, which includes Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and Sunnyvale, Simitian said El Camino Real has historically been viewed as a commercial strip and not necessarily a housing magnet.
“El Camino is an evolving and dynamic corridor even if it hasn’t changed that quickly over time, and that evolution requires some adjustment,” Simitian said. “I think about it as a site that is ripe with possibilities and where greater heights and greater densities might make sense.”
While cities like Santa Clara, Sunnyvale and Millbrae have struggled to formulate a plan, others like Mountain View are looking for ways to enhance what they’ve already started.
The El Camino plan adopted by the Mountain View City Council in 2014 allows up to six stories near major intersections and three to four stories in most residential areas.
But Vice Mayor Lucas Ramirez said there’s still plenty of opportunity and growth potential on El Camino Real. If it takes revisiting the city’s plan to reach the goal, he believes there’s an “openness” from the council to do so.
“There are some tools that the precise plan gives to developers,” he said. “But maybe we need to start thinking about, for instance, reducing or eliminating parking minimums where there’s high-quality transportation or transit.”