Monday, April 29, 2013

BART TOD: The Range of Possibilities

The Petaluma Station Area plan will be taken up by the Petaluma City Council on Monday, May 6.  If you care about urbanism, it would be a good meeting to attend.  And if you haven’t yet read the final draft plan or the concurrent changes to the Smart Code, this would a great time to begin.  For land-use geeks, the mitigated negative declaration is also available for review and comment.

The impending consideration is also a good excuse to take a look at existing transit-oriented developments (TODs) in the Bay Area.  BART is a good source of those.

So, on a recent drizzly morning, I played hooky.  I collected a friend and headed for a BART station to spend the day taking stock of TODs.  (My definition of hooky has changed over the years.)

Our first stop was Pleasant Hill.  During my post-college, pre-marriage years, I lived a short walk from the Pleasant Hill BART station, so this site had particular interest to me.

From site-planning and architectural perspectives, Pleasant Hill is a success.  It’s a fine layout, filled with good-looking buildings.  But it lacks life.  Many of the storefronts remain unleased.  And the sidewalks were nearly empty.  To the extent that we spied residents, they were seen driving luxury cars into parking garages.

The sense was that the project, thus far, was a financial success.  (There remains at least one additional pad on which a building can be constructed.)  But the sense of vibrancy that one would hope to see in fully engaged TOD was absent.  Perhaps the deficiency was the community.  Central Contra Costa County is an affluent place.  A home at a TOD might be perceived as a parallel alternative to a single-family home in a nice subdivision, not as a different way of life.

It’s certainly possible, maybe even likely, that the Pleasant Hill TOD will eventually develop the street life for which one would hope.  But it’s not yet there, at least not on a drizzly Thursday morning.

Our second stop, which was also our breakfast stop, was the Fruitvale TOD.  It couldn’t have been more different from Pleasant Hill.  In part because it has existed longer, but also in part because it serves a demographic that is more likely to engage in an active street life, the Fruitvale TOD is vibrant.  All of the ground story retail space is leased.  And office uses are creeping into the upper storiesOne difference between Pleasant Hill and Fruitvale is neighborhood context.  During my years of living near the Pleasant Hill BART station, the only land uses within a reasonable walkable perimeter were residential.  Since that time, most of the bare parcels have been developed into modern office complexes, which also don’t create a pedestrian life.  From a walkability perspective, the Pleasant Hill TOD is largely isolated and must create its own pedestrian culture.

In comparison, the site of the Fruitvale TOD was surrounded by existing street life, such as International Avenue and the Fruitvale Public Market.  The Fruitvale TOD was a complement to an existing pedestrian culture.  It didn’t need to invent its own.

There are social concerns at Fruitvale.  There have been crime reports from the neighborhood.  And when my friend asked to use a restroom, he was told to show his restaurant receipt to a security guard who personally escorted him to the facilities.  But that is the nature of the Fruitvale neighborhood.  And it will hopefully improve over time.

Lastly, we visited Richmond.  It was the most disappointing of the three.  The architecture was stark, the site planning was underdeveloped, and there was little retail.  As a result, there was no pedestrian culture.  And, unlike Pleasant Hill, there didn’t even appear to be a good setting in
 which one could develop.

If we compare the three to Petaluma, we can see the challenges.  Although there is more of an existing pedestrian culture near the Petaluma site than in Pleasant Hill, it’s far less than in Fruitvale.  Petaluma runs the risk of looking like and functioning like Pleasant Hill for a few years.  And while the current architectural concepts for Petaluma are far better than in Richmond, there may be pressure to dumb down the architecture to get the project underway.

Adopting the Petaluma Station Area plan will be a good step.  But it’ll only be a first step.  The courage to stand by the plan and to allow time for the pedestrian culture to mature will also be essential.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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