If you’ve traveled down West Evelyn Avenue recently, you may have noticed a new apartment building rising from the site of Minton’s lumber. Google’s satellite view also captured the site post-demolition.
Just a year ago, the fate of this project was unknown and the approval process dissolved into an acrimonious dispute over density, parking, and traffic. Opponents claimed the four story design conflicted with the identity of the surrounding neighborhood and additional residents would induce traffic headaches. Supporters, of which I was one, saw it as an opportunity to add much needed housing in a location close to services and public transport.
After the project was finally approved, I spoke with a skeptical onlooker and he echoed the traffic concerns, stating that the county’s light rail system is not a realistic substitute for driving.
Despite my fervent advocacy in favor of the project, his concern resonated with me. Valley Transit Authority has one of the worst performing light rail systems in the nation and the Mountain View, or Tasman West line has seen service whittled away because of weak ridership.
It’s not uncommon to hear: “light rail doesn’t go where I want to go.” However, this is exactly what the new apartments on Evelyn Avenue will begin to fix. The more origins and destinations near stops, the more places people will be able to reach via transit.
With that said, increased densities are not the exclusive solution for successful transit. Density must be coupled to a concentrated mix of land uses. That means shops, housing and offices should be within a short walk of the station to generate demand for frequent all-day transit service and support retail business. If the land around stations is developed for a single use, such as offices, travel demand is limited to peak hours and usually in one direction.
To visualize a single-use district and the problems it creates, travel to East Whisman in Mountain View or Moffett Park in Sunnyvale. Both places are characterized by offices and are served by light rail. Outside of commute times, light rail is barely used and retail is sparse since its difficult to thrive on the 9 to 5 crowd. After 6 p.m., both places are ghost towns.
Compare these dull environments to thriving peninsula downtowns where shops, housing and offices are intermixed. Judging by recent , the mixed use character of Peninsula downtowns is in demand. Cities would be foolish not to promote this type of environment around other rail stations.
Despite the momentum towards mixed use, walkable, transit oriented environments cities continue to plan for the past. Mountain View’s General Plan update calls for the East Whisman area to remain exclusively office and new developments lack space for retail. Sunnyvale's Moffett Park Specific Plan has produced similar outcomes. Without retail and housing, these places will remain limited destinations and depress transit service.