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Santa Clara’s Future: Balancing Housing, Job and Transportation Needs

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“Santa Clara’s Future –Your Quality of Life” was the topic of a panel discussion sponsored by the Santa Clara Chamber Political Action Committee (SCCPAC) on May 18 at the Mission City Center for Performing Arts.

Moderator Ken Rowell from Bay Area Builders introduced the three panelists, experts in housing and transportation issues: Tim Cornwell, a principal of the Concord Group; Bruce Fukuji, an architect and urban planner with Urban Design Innovations; and Brendon Harrington, transportation manager for Google, Inc., Mountain View.

The panelists’ expert opinions and insights highlighted the urban planning challenges that Santa Clara, as well as other Bay Area cities, faces. In a nutshell, the problem is an imbalance of housing and jobs coupled with a lack of coordinated regional transportation. Jobs are available, but there are few dwelling units available–at any price–for workers to live in. And wherever one lives, it’s hard to get to work.

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Transportation-oriented development is viewed as a key to quality urban life in the future. Additional and diverse types of housing are required to meet the needs of demographically different residents. This will require land use change–rezoning to allow for high-density dwelling units, including mixed-use developments that are, ideally, convenient to transportation.

Panelist Tim Cornwell started the conversation, discussing demographic underpinnings: Who is going to be living and working in our communities and what are their needs, both now and as they age? The focus is on the millennial generation, those born between 1980 and 2000.

“We’re asking 25-year-olds what they want to do and where they want to live,” said Cornwell. “Few can afford to buy their parents’ homes….and even high-income people are renting.” There is a projected need of 15,000 dwelling units in the next five years.

Bruce Fukuji addressed the “livability challenge,” listing criteria that make a community livable: quality open space, which lowers stress and reduces chronic diseases; well-funded city services, which Santa Clara has; and reducing isolation through fostering shared community ties within Santa Clara’s diverse population.

Also, transportation needs to be multimodal and accessible. The present auto-oriented environment (76 percent of Santa Clara’s working residents now commute alone by car) needs to be retrofitted to make it more pedestrian friendly. Employment and commercial activity need to be accessible. Overall, building designs need to be attractive, walkable and green.

Fukuji singled out Vancouver, Canada, as a city that has successfully met housing and transportation challenges. He held up Tysons Corner Center (www.tysonscornercenter.com) near Washington, D.C., as an example of a successful urban development that combines retail, housing and business space and is connected by train to anywhere in the DC Metro area.

Santa Clara has VTA and light rail. Fukuji stated that the problem is that there is a mismatch of transportation and where the employment and housing are.

“Sixty-seven percent of people [polled] want high-density, mixed-use, walkable and transit oriented developments,” said Fukuji, noting that this is especially attractive to “young brainiacs” and “urban DINKS”–double-income couples with no children.

Brendon Harrington, using Google as an example, stated that there is plenty of job growth but it is not commensurate with housing growth. He emphasized the need to get involved and advocate for more housing.

Big gaps in housing force people to commute longer and longer distances. Fifty percent of the employees at Google’s Mountain View headquarters commute by car and ten percent bike or carpool. The remaining forty percent–about 10,000 riders on a busy day–take shuttle buses. While in 2009, Google had 30 buses, today 200 buses make 120 stops in nine different counties as distant as Marin and Stanislaus.

“Buses are a business necessity,” said Harrington. “They are a symptom not the cause of the problem.”

Another consequence of the housing and job imbalance is that companies, even Google, are having trouble recruiting employees. People are turning down jobs, and current employees are leaving, seeking jobs outside the Bay Area or out of state.

Another issue is how to coordinate existing transportation on state, regional and local levels. Right now, bike lanes and transportation projects end at city boundaries. The twenty some different transportation entities don’t connect or work cooperatively.

“We’ve just heard a lot of great information. We need to think about living and transportation differently,” said SCCPAC Chair Dave DeLozier.

A video-recording of the panel discussion can be viewed in a couple weeks on the SCCPAC website: www.sccpac.org.

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