Santa Clara redoing plan for El Camino Real
Traffic heads west on El Camino Real in front of the Tuscany Apartments in Santa Clara on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Photo by Joseph Geha.

Santa Clara is going back to the drawing board again on an ambitious project to expand the city’s longest transit corridor—a complex transformation that has dragged on for years.

The City Council voted 4-3 Tuesday to have city workers revise a draft of the El Camino Real transit corridor proposal—a major road redesign that includes about 4,500 homes. Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Councilmembers Raj Chahal and Kathy Watanabe voted no.

Councilmembers want to revise a version of the proposed plan that creates about 4,500 homes. They also want an economic study to review the ramifications of increasing the height of commercial buildings from five to six stories. Both based on concerns over the amount of housing and height increases next to existing neighborhoods.

In June, the council approved $1 million in the capital improvement budget specifically for El Camino Real’s design plan, Gillmor said.

The proposal has been in the works for years as the city looks to revamp its most visible traffic corridor. El Camino Real is about 100 feet wide at its widest point and has the highest bus ridership in Santa Clara County, according to a city report. It’s less than a mile from Santa Clara Railroad Station, a point of convergence for Caltrain commuter rail service, Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor, the Altamont Commuter Express and a planned station for the BART extension.

The draft plan focuses on mixing housing and retail developments, offering thousands of new homes and space for businesses alongside safer, more efficient travel by adding improved bicycle facilities, wider sidewalks and more frequent bus service to the Caltrain Santa Clara Station. The plan includes protected bike lanes, safer bus boarding areas, improved intersections and requires better landscaping and lighting.

This week, the council declined options to create an entirely new plan with about 2,200 homes, or to just move forward on the city’s existing draft plan for about 6,000 homes.

Elizabeth Conlan is among several residents who said the city should move forward with the draft plan for the most housing and not trim height allowances.

“Cutting stories means cutting homes for folks in Santa Clara,” she said. “This could equate to thousands of homes lost for families and individuals who desperately need affordable options for homes in our community.”

Councilmember Kevin Park said he is not convinced the new housing will soften the city’s affordable housing crisis. He also said the plan is not specific enough about encouraging more density and walkability.

“It’s not clear to me that the affordable housing along El Camino will be any more affordable than anywhere else in the city,” he said. “It treats El Camino as if it’s pretty homogeneous along its length, which it’s not. If we can justify it, we should have even higher densities in the mixed-use commercial (zones)—I don’t think there should be a height limit.”

Eugene Bradley, founder of Silicon Valley Transit Users, told San José Spotlight he would like to see the plan address direct bus routes, bike lanes and wider sidewalks. He said discussions are still car-centric and don’t focus enough on other modes of transportation. He said councilmembers should walk the corridor to understand the dynamics of the area.

“Not everyone has the privilege of being able to have a car in Santa Clara, and in this valley,” Bradley said. “There needs to be more emphasis where possible in regard to walking and cycling, as well as access by wheelchair.”

Jayme Ackemann, a 20-year transportation industry expert, said the plan carries on the “Grand Boulevard Initiative” legacy, which envisions multi-use housing, retail and transit-supported communities along Silicon Valley’s “main street.”

“Santa Clara has always been a place where multiple transit modes have long been planned to come together and so it makes a great candidate for a mixed-use, transit village,” she said. “Not only would such facilities better serve the stadium and local businesses that support it, but it would also be a great resource for Santa Clara University and provide improved local access to other regional amenities.”

Contact Natalie Hanson at [email protected] or @nhanson_reports on Twitter.

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