Tag: 2021-05-nn-feature

Milpitas Metro Plan takes full advantage of transit

Milpitas Metro Plan takes full advantage of transit

By Ned Thomas, AICP, and Kevin Riley, AICP, April 13, 2021

More than a decade before the first trains rolled into the new Milpitas Transit Center, the City of Milpitas embarked on an ambitious plan to transform older industrial areas surrounding the site into vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods connected by a network of linear parks, pedestrian bridges, and complete streets. Today, as the City celebrates the success of its earlier planning efforts, planners are busy reimagining transit-oriented development to create significant new opportunities for affordable housing and jobs and complete the vision of the original Transit Area Specific Plan.

The Milpitas Transit Area Specific Plan

A 2001 Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) resolution identified what would be needed to extend Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) into Santa Clara County: a housing threshold of 3,850 units within a half-mile radius of each planned station. In June 2008, the Milpitas City Council adopted a Transit Area Specific Plan (TASP) to establish pedestrian-oriented new development in the area surrounding the future Milpitas Transit Center. The City saw the Transit Center as a regional transportation hub connecting Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) light rail and regional bus service with the extension of BART into the South Bay

In one of the earliest examples of local conversion of low-intensity industrial buildings and uses to significantly higher densities, the TASP proposed that the nearly 100 privately owned properties in the 347 acres surrounding the Transit Center be transformed into a walkable transit-oriented community. New streets, parks, and public infrastructure would support thousands of new residents and visitors. But the Great Recession slowed and then stopped development in the region for three to four years.

The 2008 TASP envisioned a 20-year buildout of 7,100 housing units, 287,000 square feet of new retail, nearly a million square feet for jobs and offices, 350 hotel rooms, and the substantial public improvements needed to bring mobility, vitality, and livability to the Plan area. The Plan area’s boundaries extend to the northern edge of the Great Mall site, westward to Main Street, eastward to Berryessa Creek and Lundy Drive, and southward to the City’s border with San José.

Aerial photos (2007, top; 2019 bottom) show the dramatic change in land uses in the southern portion of the TASP area. The Milpitas Transit Center is located in the upper right corner. (Courtesy Urban Field Studio)

In 2008, there were only two multifamily neighborhoods with a total of 468 townhomes in the Plan area. Nearly 7,000 new housing units and approximately 185,000 square feet of retail space have now been entitled, and nearly all the projects are completed and occupied or under construction. By comparison, permits have been issued for only 9,260 square feet of office and employment uses — less than 2 percent of the planned total — and one 162-room extended-stay hotel.

The VTA Transit Center and Milpitas BART Station opened in April 2020, complete with new streetscape and bicycle facilities, a 1,600-car parking structure, and a regional bus transfer station. A colorful new pedestrian bridge over Montague Expressway has been completed, and two additional pedestrian bridges are planned for other key locations in the planning area.

A pedestrian bridge at the Milpitas Transit Center connects VTA light rail and BART, with new higher-density residential beyond left. (Credit: VTA)

The Milpitas Metro Plan

In February 2020, the City’s planning department teamed up with Urban Field Studio and M-Group to update the TASP to be consistent with the City’s new General Plan and to create new opportunities for future development and jobs near the Transit Center and pedestrian and bicycle connections throughout the area.

Within the Metro Plan boundaries, nearly 168 acres (48 percent of the Plan area) have yet to be redeveloped in accordance with the original TASP. That includes nearly 100 acres at the Great Mall site where the 2008 TASP had contemplated no redevelopment. The Metro Plan will guide the development of these areas. And as Milpitas updates its Housing Element, the Metro Plan will play an important role in the City’s efforts to see enough new affordable housing potential to meet its Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA).

The Metro Plan could meet much of this need with higher density residential development in the area, with minimal impact on existing lower density residential neighborhoods in the City. The Plan proposes annexing approximately five acres of adjacent property owned by the City and the Milpitas Housing Authority for affordable housing and an Innovation District proposed in the 2021 General Plan and Economic Development Strategy.

Future opportunities

A primary goal of the Metro Plan is promoting offices and jobs near interconnected light and heavy rail transit and bus service. In that vein, the City is in talks with Simon Property Group, the owner of the Great Mall, about ways to evolve that important site. Even before the onset of the pandemic, economists and retail experts were warning of threats to traditional brick-and-mortar retail businesses and large regional shopping malls from online retailing and mixed-use “lifestyle” centers. Simon first approached the City in 2019 to discuss possible new mixed-use opportunities for the site, and those talks will continue as work on the Metro Plan proceeds.

Rendering of mixed-use development envisioned by the Milpitas Metro Plan for the entrance to the Great Mall at McCandless Drive. (Courtesy: Urban Field Studio)

Financing public infrastructure

The value of a specific plan lies in the way all properties share the burdens and benefits of new development. New developments in the Plan area will pay their way through fair-share impact fees paid into a Transit Area Development Impact Fee account dedicated to public improvements throughout the Plan area. A Basic Infrastructure Program (BIP) identifies the improvements —streets, utilities, pedestrian and bicycle enhancements, parks and trails — to be financed by development fees on a per-residential-unit or per-commercial-square-foot basis. Those fees guarantee that the improvements will be accomplished through the Capital Improvement Program budget and a City-administered construction process.

The City also established a Community Facilities District in which property taxes from residential development help pay to maintain public facilities and services in the Metro Plan area. In this way, the General Fund is not — or is only minimally — impacted by residential development in the Metro Plan area while benefitting from the new revenues generated by non-residential development.

What’s next?

Planning staff and consultants expect the Metro Plan will further Milpitas’ position as a key transit hub and an important gateway to Silicon Valley. They expect to present a draft plan to the Milpitas City Council in June. Visit www.milpitasmetro.org for details of the work.

Ned Thomas, AICP, has been the Milpitas Planning Director since 2018. He holds a master’s in urban planning and design from Harvard and a B.S. in geography from Brigham Young University. You can reach him at nthomas@ci.milpitas.ca.gov.

Kevin Riley, AICP, is the Milpitas Metro Project Manager. He had been with the City of Santa Clara for 31 years, most recently as director of planning and inspection from 2005-2015. Riley holds a master of urban and regional planning from San Jose State University and a BA in public administration from the University of the Pacific, Stockton. You can reach him at kriley@ci.milpitas.ca.gov.

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Post-pandemic planning, Part 2: Insights from market research

Post-pandemic planning, Part 2: Insights from market research

By Alan Hoffman, April 15, 2021

In part one of this series, I discussed the role of Advanced Urban Visioning in helping cities and regions achieve better outcomes from their investments in transportation infrastructure. In this follow-up, I look at issues facing planners in northern California as they attempt to optimize their different transportation networks, and I suggest how to improve the projected outcomes of such efforts.

Advanced Urban Visioning is a set of techniques aimed at identifying a compelling vision of what a region wants to become. It inverts the traditional “order of planning” by beginning with transit networks, then bicycle networks, then public space and the pedestrian realm, and only then the automobile. It asks, for each network, what would maximize the usefulness of that network for the largest share of the public and elaborates a staging strategy to produce an ideal system within budgetary and political constraints.

Three key strategies can be applied to transit networks:

  1. Network Structure. Identify and link a region’s principal nodes as directly as possible. Maximize the ability of people to travel among these nodes and surrounding origins and destinations.
  2. System Performance. Systematically slash travel time and wait time.
  3. Customer Experience. Re-design the customer experience to maximize convenience, minimize perceived risk, and delight users.

What do people want?

Market research helps highlight the relative value that people give to the different dimensions of a service offering. Deep market studies conducted in various US cities have found that the customer base for transit is not monolithic; rather it comprises people with different needs and values. A study by Harris Interactive for the Metro Atlanta region classified people into four groups based on openness or interest in transit. Two transit-friendly groups represented nearly two-thirds of the metro population. To capture those transit-friendly segments, we need to understand their needs, which, from the research, can be reduced to:

“Take me from where I am to where I’m going, do it quickly with minimal waiting, and make me feel good about the experience.”

Indeed, market research has uncovered relevant factors that transit planners may not be considering and certainly are not reflected in regional travel models. Planners interested in maximizing ridership on new transit projects should pay special attention to three factors:

1, Walking. People are willing to walk farther between their origin (home) and a transit station than from a station to their destination. Though planners often use a half-mile radius as the “transit walk-shed,” this distance may be most appropriate to the trip origin. Robert Cervero found that the effective radius at the destination or work-end of a trip is perhaps a sixth of a mile, and the share of people willing to walk a quarter-mile is half the number of those willing to walk that sixth of a mile.

The distance of a work-site from a transit station may be a bigger determinant of transit use than is generally recognized — or built into — most regional travel models: Transit use is an order of magnitude lower (2.5 vs. 25 percent) at a distance of a quarter-mile than for sites adjacent to a station.

2, Door-to-door travel time is a key factor for many people, but it doesn’t drive the planning/design process. When the forerunner of San Diego’s MTS opened a light-rail extension to Old Town in the 1990s, planners re-routed express buses to Old Town instead of Downtown, thinking they were doing riders a favor. But most of these riders quit transit, as their trips now were 20 minutes longer because of the transfer.

The author compared transit travel times from the Oakdale/Palou Station on Third Street in San Francisco to key destinations within the city and in nearby counties. For the 23 nodes shown, transit is slower than the longest expected drive to 14 nodes, and is never competitive with driving off-peak. Data source: Google Maps.

3, Station design. The broader market for transit is looking for three principal attributes when it comes to station design and functioning: protection from the elements (sun, wind, and rain), protection from moving vehicles, and protection from other people. Yet we still design and build transit stations as if people’s preferences don’t matter.

That people’s preferences matter is critical. Transit is one of the few public services that actually competes for business. Most people have a choice as to how they will get to their destinations. Appeals to the public to “do the right thing” by riding transit only go so far if transit takes longer than driving, if stations/stops are inconveniently located, or if the experience is stressful. Hence the importance of asking, “What does a truly effective transit system look like?” When the attractive pull of transit is maximized, it not only shapes transportation patterns but land use patterns as well. As Robert Cervero demonstrated, the more effectively a transit system serves a metro area as it is, the more effectively it can shape the future growth of that region.

The new bus transfer station at the Walnut Creek BART station is customer-unfriendly to the point it likely discourages ridership.

The modeling challenge

Analytical tools for regions need to measure and properly account for truly optimized systems. Most regional agencies maintain detailed regional travel models that are computer simulations of how people get around and the tradeoffs they make when considering travel modes. The models are generally designed to test responsiveness to modest or incremental changes in a transportation network, but they are weak at understanding consumer response to very different networks or systems.

In the Bay Area, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) maintains a Regional Travel Model to project ridership by mode of proposed transportation projects. As this model helps determine which projects get funded and which don’t, it’s imperative that the model accurately reflects what we know about consumer behavior. Otherwise, projects that could make a real-world difference in shifting people from automobiles may fail a modeling test because the model doesn’t actually measure what the project is doing.

Funding a more robust model

This is through no fault of MTC and its modeling staff; quite the contrary. MTC’s modelers have been very diligent and responsive, but they’re also underfunded. It is in the Bay Area’s best interests to fund a more robust modeling section.

If regional leadership chooses to increase financial and staff support for modeling, these programmatic goals can guide the effort:

  1. Support the transition to new modeling tools. Bay Area modelers have worked to develop a more robust regional model, but they need more staff.
  2. Incorporate market segmentation. Not all people share the same values. Market segmentation can help identify who is most likely to respond to different aspects of service. Segmentation can prevent costly mistakes and better identify which services are viable where.
  3. Better understand walking. While the regional model accounts for the walking environment, it does not differentiate between the origin and destination ends of a trip. The differences should be explored and incorporated into the model.
  4. Better measure walking distance. Few if any regional travel models actually measure the walking distance to/from stations. They assign an average walk distance to all origins or destinations within a “Transportation Analysis Zone,” or TAZ, of which there are 1454 in the 7-county Bay Area. And as Cervero found (see above), small distances can make a major difference in transit uptake. Current models, however, will show that a transit plan that “nails” such micro-distances would perform identically to one that places stations far more inconveniently.
  5. Better account for station environment and micro-location. Market research shows that many people are far more willing to use transit if it involves waiting at a well-designed station (as compared to a typical bus stop on the side of a busy road).
  6. Incorporate comparative door-to-door travel times. No US model I know includes comparative door-to-door travel time (alternative mode vs. driving), yet research has continually demonstrated the importance of overall trip time to potential users of competing modes. Any regional travel model needs to include this measure.

Incorporating these six concerns into regional travel modeling would help the Bay Area identify and fund a more effective set of transit projects, with major implications for other travel modes — and plans for land use and housing.


Advanced Urban Visioning, built on inverting the order of planning, is a clear process that combines a deep understanding of what drives consumer choice with techniques to design transportation networks that maximize benefits for any given level of public investment. Once modeling tools reflect these insights, projects that truly achieve long-range goals are more likely to make it through the planning, funding, and implementation process.

Alan Hoffman is a founding fellow of the Center for Advanced Urban Visioning and an Equity Consultant to the Oregon Department of Transportation. He has consulted to the SFCTA on transit planning for the Bayshore community and developed TransForm’s Bay Area Regional Express Transit Proposal (ReX) for MTC. Hoffman holds an MS in planning from MIT, a master’s in administration, planning, and social policy from Harvard, and a BA in social relations from Cornell. He is the author of Sails to Trails: Reimaging San Diego’s Historic Growth Corridor, and the Federal Transit Administration’s Advanced Network Planning for Bus Rapid Transit. He resides in Walnut Creek. You can reach him at urbanvisioning@outlook.com.

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American cities should be more colorful

American cities should be more colorful

By Rachael Smith, AICP, via Next City, March 26, 2021

Tirana, Albania, May 2007. (Photo by David Dufresne / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Walk around your neighborhood and count the house or building colors you see. Four million hues of grey? Check. Lots of tans and browns? Definitely. An abundance of white and off-white? Absolutely. The occasional red door? You got lucky.

Even many beautiful brick buildings are muted canvases just waiting for a touch of hue and vibrancy in the window frames, doors, and accents. While not all buildings and homes should be altered, particularly those with historic value, there are many structures in cities that would look far nicer with a touch of color. Is that subjective? Of course it is! But I believe it is important we all take a hard look at our collective “fear of color,” manifested throughout our urban palette, and have an honest discussion about what we can do to cheer up our cities.

Much of cities’ avoidance of color is rooted in colonial and Puritan roots. In some European cultures, white is often seen as pure and good, while color has often been linked to the primitive and the superficial. Goethe, a German playwright and novelist, captured the origins of the European anti-color stance when he wrote, “Men in a state of nature, uncivilized nations, and children, have a great fondness for colors in their utmost brightness,” whereas “people of refinement” avoid such vivid and saturated colors. This historic association of good taste with quiet colors has led to neutrals as a sign of moral superiority.

These negative associations with color still exist today and are often codified in our communities. Just check out the painting guidelines in a nearby homeowner’s association or within municipal design guidelines and you’ll see this fear in play. When color is used, there is a sense that it must be controlled — a pop of neutral color is acceptable, but a large dose of color is oftentimes restricted.

We also see this tendency to neutrals playing out in neighborhoods that are gentrifying — the older houses are rehabbed or replaced with homes that are typically white or shades of gray. In Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, a 2019 exhibit entitled Peeling off the Grey at the Mexican Museum of Art explored this topic — a commentary on the new homes and homeowners stripping away the color from this traditional Mexican-American neighborhood.

With this whitewashing comes another very worrisome trend — the painting over of bright and beautiful murals that have historically celebrated the culture of a neighborhood. In one of the most notorious examples in Pilsen, a developer painted over a famously colorful mural by artist Ray Patlan at the former Casa Aztlan community center. Following community outrage, the developer commissioned Patlan to return and recreate a portion of the mural on its façade, but on only one side of the building.

The erasure of murals celebrating Chicano culture is also prevalent in Los Angeles’ rapidly gentrifying Highland Park neighborhood, where prominent murals have frequently been whitewashed, despite a 2013 city ordinance designed to protect them. The City responded to attacks from local neighborhood groups that accused them of supporting developers in mural removal by commissioning Latino artists to repaint removed murals — an endeavor that was fraught with issues of compensation and authenticity.

As America begins to come to terms with many of the structural systems and policies built on racism and colonialism, we need to ask ourselves how the aesthetics of our built environment have been impacted by these same forces and what are the things that we as planners and designers can do to combat this through urban design.

ONE: Design for changing times.

Historic preservation in cities is critical to maintaining the collective memory of a place, but the safeguarding of buildings exactly as they are, or with minor and “tasteful” updates, is not necessarily in line with the inevitable tradition of design evolution. While there are some places that should be maintained, these must be paired with a growing openness to new and different design aesthetics in areas that can incorporate some color.

TWO: Look to international inspiration.

Americans have been a fan of European plazas for a while now — what about Colombian streets and Brazilian parks as models for color in the public realm? There are plenty of examples of places all over the world that should teach us that color is nothing to fear, and in fact, should be embraced. Colorful places have historical precedent as a way to bring people joy and happiness — particularly in winter cities like Copenhagen that experience extraordinary grayness throughout the year.

THREE: See the value of color in economic and community development.

Colorful cities and neighborhoods, like La Boca in Buenos Aires and Bo-Kaap in Cape Town, have put themselves on the tourism map by being vibrant destinations.

U.S. cities like San Francisco and Charlotte have made a name for themselves with their colorful streets.

What if we saw color as an economic and community development tool — a way to attract residents and visitors and improve quality of life? As Ingrid Fetell Lee highlights in her book, Joyful, the city of Tirana, Albania, is an excellent case study of color as community development.

In the year 2000, the city’s new mayor took office after decades of high crime, corruption, and a bleak economic outlook. His first mayoral directive? Paint. Bright, colorful paint all over the city, laid on by municipal workers. That first public investment spread, and to public and private buildings alike. And quickly, there was a change far bigger than the pops of color. People stopped littering and started gathering in cafes. They took the bars off their windows, claiming the streets felt safer, and started dreaming of a new city. Nothing had changed, yet everything had changed. This place was theirs, and a greater sense of ownership and optimism emerged. It is a telltale example of the power of joy as infectious.

Design aesthetics that focus on sophistication, modernism, and order all have their place — I can’t argue with the joy of harmony. But whom does this mainstream aesthetic leave behind, and who is not welcome in that vision for our cities? Next time you walk down a city street, consider the words of Swiss painter Johannes Itten: “Color is life; for a world without colors appears to us as dead.” And then think about how you can introduce a little or a whole lot of color to liven up your community.

Rachael Smith, AICP, is the Co-founder of All Together, a women-owned design studio focused on community branding, engagement, and placemaking whose work can be found in public spaces, on signage, and along trails in communities across the country. She holds a master’s in sustainable urban development from DePaul University and a BS in art/graphic design from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. You can reach her at rsmith@alltogetherstudio.com.

A version of this article appeared in Next City. Republished with permission.

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Northern Section 2021 Awards announced

Northern Section 2021 Awards announced

By Brynn McKiernan, AICP, April 16, 2021

The results are in. Join us in congratulating the best of Northern California planning!

Our jurors were:

Ozzy Arce, City of Walnut Creek

Florentina Craciun, City and County of San Francisco

Amalia Cunningham, AICP, Contra Costa County

Eri Suzuki, SiteLab

Aaron Welch, Aaron Welch Planning

And the winners are:

Academic Award

Award of Excellence: Alum Rock Avenue Community Assessment, San Jose State University Master of Urban Planning Program

  • Team: Graduate Students in the San Jose State University Masters of Urban Planning Program Capstone Studio: Fall 2019 and Spring 2020

Award of Merit: Access Denied? Perceptions of new Mobility Services among Disabled People in San Francisco

  • Maddy Ruvolo | UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies | UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs | San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency | Senior and Disability Action

Best Practices

Award of Excellence: Innovation in Oakland

  • Team: Darin Ranelletti, City of Oakland | MTC/ABAG, Ada Chan | Urban Planning Partners, Lynette Dias and Meredith Rupp

Award of Merit: What’s behind recent transit ridership trends in the Bay Area?

  • Team: UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, Research team: Brian D. Taylor, FAICP; Evelyn Blumenberg, Jacob L. Wasserman, Mark Garrett, Andrew Schouten, Hannah King, Julene Paul, and Madeline Ruvolo | Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Supervisory staff: Alix Bockelman and Kenneth Folan

Comprehensive Plan – Large Jurisdiction

Award of Excellence: Tasman East Specific Plan

  • Team: City of Santa Clara | Ensemble/Rethink Development | Related California | Holland Partner Group | Summerhill Apartment Communities | St. Anton Communities | Greystar Development

Comprehensive Plan – Small Jurisdiction

Award of Merit: City of Gilroy 2040 General Plan and Program Environmental Impact Report

  • Team: Mintier Harnish: Jim Harnish and Brenton Gibbons, AICP | City of Gilroy: Stan Ketchum, Julie Wyrick, AICP, Cindy McCormick | EMC Planning Group: Teri Wissler Adam | Hexagon Transportation: Jeff Elia | Applied Development Economics: Doug Svensson

Grassroots Initiative

Award of Excellence: Rebuilding Downtown Santa Clara

  • Team: Reclaiming Our Downtown | Santa Clara Parade of Champion | Old Quad Resident Association

Hard-won Victory

Award of Excellence: Concord Hills Regional Park Land Use Plan

  • Team: East Bay Regional Park District | PlaceWorks, Inc.

Innovation in Green Community Planning

Award of Excellence: Lower Russian River Trail Feasibility Study

  • Team: Sonoma County Regional Parks | Alta Planning + Design | W-Trans | Green Valley Consulting Engineers | Miller Pacific Engineering Group | Alta Archaeological Consulting | Peter Baye | Rachel Kamman

Opportunity and Empowerment

Award of Merit: San Martin Strategic Development Plan and Urban Design Visions

  • Team: 12 Graduate and 38 Undergraduate students in CRP 553 and CRP 341 Spring 2020 San Matine studios, instructors Dr. Hemalata C. Dandekar and Dr. Vicente del Rio, City and Regional Planning, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo | Rob Eastwood, Bharat Singh, Michael Meehan,  County of Santa Clara, Planning Department

Planning for Health

Award of Merit: Lillian Commons – Morgan Hill Medical Campus

  • Team: EMC Planning Group – Michael Groves, AICP, and Elizabeth King, Principal Planner/Designer

Public Outreach

Award of Excellence: La Honda Public Access Working Group

  • Team: Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District | MIG Inc.

Transportation Planning

Award of Excellence: Redwood City Citywide Transportation Plan (RWCmoves)

  • Team: City of Redwood City | Fehr & Peers | CDM Smith | Bottomley Design & Planning | Wendy Silvani Consulting

Award of Merit: Richmond Ferry to Bridge to Greenway Complete Streets Plan

  • Team: City of Richmond | PlaceWorks, Inc. | Toole Design Group | CSW/ST2 Engineering | Bike East Bay

Urban Design

Award of Excellence: Balboa Reservoir Design Standards and Guidelines

  • Team: PYATOK architecture + urban design | Van Meter Williams Pollack, LLP, Architecture/Urban Design | GLS Landscape/Architecture

Award of Merit: Livermore Downtown Core Revitalization

  • Team: RRM Design Group | City of Livermore

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