Elysian Fields [May Take] Forever

Transit-oriented development faces continuous struggle, from the real to the imagined


By Maria Shao

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or 74 years, the Bay Meadows Racetrack served as a San Mateo landmark, a venue where enthusiasts watched, and wagered on, the fleetness of thoroughbreds like Seabiscuit and Citation. But now, four years after the track was demolished, comes perhaps the biggest wager ever placed on the storied grounds: Construction has started on a mega-development of housing, offices and stores that will rise where hooves once galloped.

[pullquote_right]“[Bay Meadows] is the exemplar of a [transit-oriented development]. Why did it take eight years? If a project that good took eight years to get approved, how much opportunity is being lost elsewhere? I look at it as a societal shortcoming.”
Chris Meany, Wilson Meany[/pullquote_right]The Bay Meadows development, with $100 million of investment so far, represents a high-profile bet on a popular concept: high-density transit-oriented development. A dozen years after owner Stockbridge Capital Group and developer Wilson Meany first proposed redeveloping the 83-acre site, the tractors and backhoes are finally at work on San Mateo’s largest remaining piece of developable land. The Peninsula city and San Francisco-based Wilson Meany envision the creation of a compact, pedestrian-friendly and vibrant new neighborhood directly adjacent to the Hillsdale train station, the seventh busiest on Caltrain, the increasingly popular San Francisco-to-San Jose commuter service.

The vision behind Bay Meadows, which is being marketed as an “urban village,” is to build a community of homes, stores, offices and parks near public transportation, enticing people to get out of their cars and use transit, walk or bicycle. As the theory goes, the transit-oriented community itself constructed with sustainable practices would minimize environmental impacts while accommodating growth on the bustling mid-Peninsula. “This is a prime example of how the city needs to grow in the 21st century,” said Darcy Forsell, a planner for San Mateo, a city of 100,000. “We have offices and housing near transit. We are really hoping residents and employees ride transit to minimize vehicular trips. I think this will be a nationally recognized TOD.”

Yet the project, which has gone through years of planning politics, anti-growth wrangling and the recent recession, also highlights the complexity behind creating an effective TOD. Changing people’s habits is especially difficult. It remains to be seen how successful Bay Meadows developers, city officials and transit agencies will be at creating the environment and infrastructure to get large numbers of people to alter their car-dependent lives.

Notably, more than a decade after Bay Meadows was first envisioned, little progress has been made on key transportation projects—three elevated rail crossings and a major enhancement of the Hillsdale station—that would improve the development’s access to Caltrain and better integrate the neighborhood with the rest of San Mateo. The projects would require hundreds of millions of dollars, but funding is nowhere in sight. City officials have been talking about the improvements for at least a decade.

The inertia represents one of the many challenges in the Bay Meadows saga. It took from 2000 to 2008 to clear legal and political roadblocks put up by anti-growth activists, said Christopher Meany (pictured), managing partner of Wilson Meany. And even though development is going ahead without the improvements, Meany contends that the years of wrangling over Bay Meadows reflect a lack of public and political commitment in California to smart land use and infrastructure improvements even though both are widely touted by elected officials and municipal planning staffs. “[Bay Meadows] is the exemplar of a TOD. Why did it take eight years? If a project that good took eight years to get approved, how much opportunity is being lost elsewhere?” he said. “I look at it as a societal shortcoming.”

Getting transportation infrastructure right is daunting. Transportation improvements are expensive, yet typically underfunded, and require cooperation among multiple government agencies. The three San Mateo grade-separated rail crossings and Hillsdale station enhancement could cost as much as $300 million, estimates Larry Patterson, director of public works for the city of San Mateo. Creating a pleasant walkable environment often requires new streets, sidewalks and paths. A convenient and attractive station area may require new or relocated crossings, platforms and parking. “They take years or even decades to put in place,” Patterson said.

“We have been working very closely with the city as part of the planning process. We’re supportive of what they want to do,” said Mark Simon, a spokesman for Caltrain. “It’s a question of can we put together a funding package” from local, state and federal sources.

Currently, Caltrain’s tracks block good east-west connection between Bay Meadows, El Camino Real and locations further west. The city and Caltrain envision three elevated rail crossings to allow 25th, 28th and31st avenues including car, pedestrian and bicycle traffic to pass unimpeded to and from El Camino. This would improve safety, open traffic flow between the development and the larger city and relieve vehicular congestion.

Caltrain is now building three grade-separated crossings in San Bruno, a $147 million project slated for completion in fall 2013. The three San Mateo crossings are likely next in line, though the transit agency will hear from other cities proposing their own grade-separation projects, said Simon. San Mateo is well positioned to be next because it already has done extensive work on its grade separation proposals, he said. Caltrain has access to grade-separation funding from county sales tax revenue, but not enough to fully finance the three San Mateo crossings. The city has pledged up to $12 million, mostly from fees charged to Bay Meadows, toward building two of the crossings.

City officials hope to see the Hillsdale station, now south of 31st avenue, moved north to between 28th and 31st avenues, making it a shorter walk to a greater number of Bay Meadows riders. The city also envisions the station being expanded and transformed into an “intermodal” transit center with more parking. The changes would put the station next to the middle of Bay Meadows, instead of on its southwestern edge, and could benefit the development generally by making public transit more attractive.

The improvements are “certainly preferable” but “not necessary,” said Janice G. Thacher (pictured), a Wilson Meany partner. “The train station is [already] here. We have a walkable, mixed-use development,” she said. Most of Bay Meadows will be within a half mile, or five- to 10-minute walk, of the existing Hillsdale stop.

Lack of progress on grade separations, however, means Bay Meadows cannot build all of its proposed 93,000 square feet of retail. Until grade-separation work has started, Bay Meadows cannot exceed city-imposed limits on vehicular traffic generated by new retail, according to the 18-year development agreement with the city. So only about 45,000 square feet of retail will be developed initially. “The retail is the one piece that is adversely affected,” Meany said.

Wilson Meany plans to develop 1,170 residences, mostly townhouses and apartments, in 14 neighborhood clusters. Five office buildings bordering the Caltrain tracks and constructed to LEED Gold standards, are to offer 750,000 square feet of Class A office space. Small retailers, such as restaurants, coffee shops and dry cleaners, are to be located on the ground floor of office and apartment buildings along a Main Street and in a Town Square. In addition to many pedestrian walkways, there are supposed to be 18 acres of open space, including three public parks, athletic fields and a community garden. “We believe profoundly in the idea of a village. It’s the basic building block of neighborhood,” Meany said.

Located in the heart of a population and employment corridor, Bay Meadows is situated a half-hour train ride south from San Francisco and north from San Jose. The Hillsdale station serves as a Baby Bullet stop and as a link to busses and shuttle vans. “The planning concept was all around the train,” Thacher said.

Today, a whole new neighborhood is emerging from the swaths of dirt where horses once sprinted. Utility pipes and roads have been put in. Two parks are under construction. Work has started on the first two residential subdivisions, 63 units in the Amelia section by TriPointe Homes and 93 units in the Landsdowne section by Shea Homes. Brokers are now seeking tenants for the offices, which will be built as tenants are secured.

It took a lot to get to this point. Wilson Meany initially encountered resistance from some San Mateo residents opposed to a large, high-density development replacing the historic racetrack in their predominantly suburban community. Critics tried unsuccessfully to put a measure on the ballot against the project and sued the city to block it. But the city government wanted to allow some growth if it could be achieved through a high density TOD close to the Caltrain and El Camino commercial corridor.

Photography by Chad Ziemendorf

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