The Loma Prietan - December 2013

San Carlos Fumbles Transit Village Approval

Reduced Height, Density, and Affordability

by David Crabbe

The San Carlos Transit Village could have been a very good transit-oriented development ⦠if the city council had approved what was proposed.  Photo: Christiani Johnson Architects, Inc.
The San Carlos Transit Village could have been a very good transit-oriented development … if the city council had approved what was proposed. Photo: Christiani Johnson Architects, Inc.

The San Carlos City Council approved the proposed San Carlos Transit Village, a mixed-use transit-oriented development immediately adjacent to the San Carlos Caltrain station, at its November meeting.  Unfortunately, the council did not approve the development that eight years of hearings had hammered into a fairly reasonable proposal. The original proposal was for 280 rental housing units and 30,000 square feet of commercial/office space, but the council’s approval reduced the total number of rental units from 280 to 233 units. The council also demanded changes to height limits and affordable housing development.  The city’s own financial consultant believes that the smaller number of units is uneconomical to build. 

The Chapter is particularly disappointed in this outcome since its Sustainable Land Use Committee (SLU) spent many hours reviewing the project’s statistics, environmental impact report, and design.  SLU members attended more than 12 public hearings over eight years, commending the many positive aspects of the development and suggesting improvements to reduce traffic impacts and greenhouse gas emissions.  During the approval process, many of SLU’s proposed improvements were adopted.  These include parking spaces for car-share cars, a more pedestrian-friendly design, better bicycle access, and subsidized transit passes for tenents.

The Chapter did not endorse the project, because it fell short of the Chapter’s Sustainable Land Use Guidelines for Transit Oriented Development. However, high-density development is an ideal use for this land, as it is walking distance from the Caltrain station, from major bus routes, and from downtown San Carlos shopping.

The council’s latest decision opens up the possibility that the developer may return with a lower-density project and request the city to waive many of the previously adopted approval conditions.  This could wipe out many of the improvements we have made over the past eight years. 

The next step is to wait for the developer’s response to the council’s action and, if the project proceeds, to continue to monitor the process and suggest improvements.  Our ideal outcome is for the development to return to its original density with all our suggested conditions of approval adopted, but that scenario  seems very unlikely. It is not clear whether the developer will revise the proposal to conform to the council’s approval or abandon the project entirely.   

In its recent approval, the council insisted that the buildings be no more than three stories tall rather than the proposed mix of three- and four-story buildings, and it reduced the affordable housing requirement from 10% very-low-income and 5% low-income, to 5% low-income and 5% moderate-income.  This reduced the total number of affordable very-low and low-income units from 41 units to 12 units.  It is particularly important to build affordable housing near transit, since tenants in those units are more likely to use transit.

This project was first proposed about 12 years ago by Legacy Partners, a for-profit developer, and SamTrans, a public agency, and conforms to the city’s general plan and zoning ordinance.  For the past eight years, the proposed design has been slowly progressing through the city’s approval process, and until council’s decision on November 12, the total number of residential apartments had remained 280 units.  It appears that the council’s last minute reductions were in response to the threat of a city-wide referendum on the project by the Greater East San Carlos homeowner’s association, which has been strongly opposed to the project from the beginning.                                    

David Crabbe is a member of the Chapter’s Sustainable Land Use Committee and an architect who lives and works in San Carlos.