SONY DSCby James A. Bacon

Silicon Valley appears to be moving in fits and starts toward more rational land use, creating denser, more mixed-use, better-connected communities appropriate to a region with extraordinarily high land values. As a casual visitor to the region, I don’t pretend to speak with any authority on the trend but I can provide a couple of case studies on how change is happening. The good news for businesses and residents of Silicon Valley is that change is occurring and that the new is better than the old. The bad news is that change isn’t coming fast enough, and the new stuff being built probably could work better.

Proposed design of Apple mothership
Proposed design of Apple mothership

Projects like the planned 2.8 million-square-foot Apple headquarters complex, one of the final legacies of Steve Jobs, tend to grab the lion’s share of attention. The proposed headquarters, snarkly dubbed the “mothership” for its futuristic design, will be an architectural masterpiece. Apple says the facility will produce as much energy as it consumes and its floor plan will foster creative collaboration. But the complex will be a self-contained campus. While it may encourage collaboration internally, its isolation will not promote interaction with entities outside the corporation. And while the facility itself may be  carbon neutral, plans include a vast underground parking lot to accommodate thousands of employees who will be commuting (and burning gasoline) by car.

Yes, the Caltrain station provides bike racks -- and people are using them. But look carefully at this picture. Beyond the bikes the valuable land adjacent to the train station is consumed by surface parking lot.
Yes, the Caltrain station provides bike racks — and people are using them. But look carefully at this picture. Beyond the bikes, the valuable land adjacent to the train station is consumed by surface parking lot.

It’s not as if Silicon Valley lacks mass transit. As one would expect of a California locale, the region has made significant investments in rail and bus. A Caltrain track runs from San Francisco to San Jose with several stops along the way. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority runs bus lines throughout. There even appears to be some mixed-use clustering occurring around the transit stations. If the region is to address its long-term challenge of providing more affordable housing and reducing traffic congestion, it will need fewer Apple motherships and more of the uncelebrated development like that which is occurring around the Sunnyvale Caltrain station.

The Caltrain stop is served by an attractive bus station. Too bad nobody was using it when I happened by.
The Caltrain stop is served by an attractive bus station. Too bad nobody was using it when I happened by.

However, local planners and developers in the region also will have to work on their execution. Last week I had spent some time touring the district around the Sunnyvale station. Local planners have done some things right. But my quick and superficial impression is that the district will fall short of potential.

Planners appear to be checking off the smart growth list — light rail. Check. Covered bus stops. Check. Mixed-use buildings, grid streets, bicycle racks, parks, underground parking… Check, check, check.

Sunnyvale open space -- attractive but empty.
Sunnyvale open space — attractive but empty.

But the key players appeared to have paid less attention to how all the pieces fit together. The biggest problem is that the train station is surrounded by parking lots and an empty park-like space. The mixed-use, multi-story buildings are all pushed back from the station. Given the reluctance of people to walk more than a quarter mile to transit (roughly 1,500 feet), the most valuable space is located right next to the station. That’s where the greatest density should be. But in Sunnyvale that’s where the lowest-value land uses are located.

The streets and public spaces of this transit-oriented district were empty. The problem wasn’t just the time of day — late morning and lunch-time on a Wednesday. One street was really hopping: South Murphy Avenue. The design was classic New Urbanism with wide sidewalks, on-street parking, narrow lanes, street furniture, ornamental trees and sidewalk dining. The place was packed. I don’t know how people got there, whether they walked or they drove, but the restaurants were jammed.

South Murphy Street
South Murphy Street

Other than South Murphy, there was little street life. There wasn’t even much automobile traffic. Perhaps it’s premature to draw conclusions. After all, construction was underway for some major multi-story apartment buildings. At some point, those residences will be filled and they may contribute to pedestrian traffic. On the other hand, residents may end up just commuting to sprawling corporate campuses like those of Apple and Google. Without major employers in the mixed-use business district, the “mixed” use isn’t likely to have much impact.

One other observation: The re-development that is occurring may be way too limited. As one of the greatest centers of wealth creation in the world, and one that happens to be hemmed in by water and mountains, Silicon Valley has sky-high real estate prices. Demand could easily support more density than the two-, three- and four-story buildings around Sunnyvale’s train station. The region could easily support San Francisco-scale density. NIMBYs are terrified, of course, that greater density will bring greater congestion, and they’re probably right. But the region is already spending hundreds of millions of dollars yearly on mass transit which seems scandalously under-utilized.  (Fares in Fiscal 2013 accounted for only 10% of so of transportation authority revenue.) It is the height of folly to spend so much money on mass transit without zoning appropriately around train stations and bus lines.

Sunnyvale and the valley’s other municipalities should be evolving to much higher-density urban forms. The region’s inability to do so will continue to prop up insanely high real estate prices, making it unaffordable to all but the top echelon of technology talent to move there. California arguably could capture a much larger share of the wealth created in the valley but restrictive policies will push lower- and middle-income occupations to other states.

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7 responses to “Re-imagining Sunnyvale”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Interesting post (they’ve all been good). Curious that such a verdant area as Palo Alto, San Jose, etc. has the usual sprawl issues. Same is true in Walnut Creek which is where people with usual incomes live and commute. Much worse though, in Southern Calf.although I don’t know it as well.

    Maybe the point is that if you have land, you’ve got instant sprawl. Like inertia.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Jim is getting a snapshot of the valley. It changes over time. San Jose had become very challenged. Few people lived downtown, lots of crime. Then, revitalization began. Some historic building restoration, new museums, redeveloped parks. Things have turned around.

      Palo Alto is very, very nice and probably represents the closest thing Jim would call functional human settlement patterns. It has a “downtown”. People walk in from their homes and eat, drink and are merry. If I lived in Silicon Valley I’d want to be in Woodside or Palo Alto. Woodside is very small and nice but with a median family income of just under $200,000 you can imagine what the housing prices are like. Check that – you can’t imagine. The 15 properties which most recently sold in Woodside averaged $3.3M. Palo Alto is a relative bargain with the most recent 25 sales averaging only $2.1M.

  2. accurate Avatar

    Just wondered if you had a chance to check out this area of Silicon Valley

    It’s the largest homeless camp in the US. Plus many smaller homeless camps nearby. The largest group of camps appear to be around the Adobe headquarters.

  3. one of the things that you see if you are camping for several weeks in a row – eventually in searching through the campground directories -you will find the campgrounds that don’t have the 200K RVs.. and instead older RV and trailers, etc now parked semi-permanently (some not moving ever again) and people, the elderly but also families living in 300-500 square foot “homes” paying 300, 400 dollars a month for their “site” with water/sewer/electricity “hookups”.

    the more one travels outside the cities, the more one realizes that quite a bit of the non-urban parts of the country have folks who are not homeless by any strict definition .. but not living high on the hog by any stretch of the imagination.

    We like to point to California, Detroit, etc but the truth is the are many parts of rural america that would be “homeless” if not for mobile homes and semi-retired RVs… and such.and that includes many parts of Texas.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      There are thousands of trailers in the trailer parks lining Rt 1 in Fairfax County. I know you want to believe that all the poor people live in Southside Virginia and in the inner cities but it’s just not the case.

      You should also join Del Surovell when he goes campaigning through the trailer parks of Rt 1. Bring Jim Bacon with you.

      I had the chance to speak with Del Surovell. Good guy although he is far to the left of me. He told me of decades of talk about a Metro line running right down Rt 1 from Huntington Ave (basically the Beltway) in the north all the way to Ft Belvoir with several stops in-between. It sounds good until you realize that the trailer parks are there because the land is some of the least valuable in the county. Build the Metro and watch those trailer parks turn into high priced townhomes and condos which the folks living in the parks can’t possibly afford.

      There are never easy answers for this stuff.

      1. re: trailer parks and double wides and cities and rural.

        you may have misunderstood or maybe still would not agree – but rural folks who live in pretty modest circumstances may not even have enough to live in an urban trailer park and perhaps more likely to be homeless.

        the difference is that in the country – “family” tends to provide housing even if minimal whereas in the urban area – if there is no “family” , you’re in deep do do.

        you don’t see many homeless living in the country… and in the country trailers and double wides are typical/normal not the dregs.

        and in fact, folks who live in 500 sq ft homes are pretty efficient users of resources…out of necessity but still a lot less consumptive than sprawl or urban.

        and there is a step down.. check the campgrounds…people living in dead RVs and even tents.

        makes you want to re-visit what the definition of “home – less” is.

        we might be the wealthiest country in the world but we have significant number of folks living on the margins.

        1. DJRippert Avatar

          I agree with you. I’ve also noticed that a lot of wealthy people don’t seem to understand the shape of the wealth distribution curve in the United States. Few understand what the median after tax monthly income is for a family in America. Meanwhile, most people would be surprised to learn that there is more income inequality among the top 1% than among the lower 99%. In fact, the top .1% has seen its share of national wealth skyrocket while the people in the 99.0 – 99.9% has maintained a flat share of American wealth over the past 20 years.

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