Caltrain officials want to build housing, retail and offices on the agency’s underused property, though plans for transit-oriented development will have to be balanced with the future needs of the railroad.
Those are a few takeaways from a special meeting last week, at which the joint powers board weighed in on potential future uses of Caltrain land. The agency is currently taking stock of its property and in the works are four planning and policy efforts to help guide land use decisions.
Those efforts include Caltrain’s business plan, which will guide future growth of the railroad, the rail corridor use policy, which will contain an inventory of development opportunities, the station management toolbox, a tool to analyze tradeoffs associated with development at stations and the transit-oriented development policy, which will be used to determine how Caltrain develops land available for non-railroad uses.
“I think we’ve got tremendous potential to develop this corridor land for not only housing, but commercial developments along the way,” said Board Member Ron Collins, the San Carlos vice mayor.
Collins said he wants affordable housing to be part of the plans and Board Member Charles Stone, a Belmont councilman, agreed emphatically.
“I want this policy to prioritize affordability,” Stone said. “We’re a transit agency, we want to do projects certainly that don’t interfere with ridership and enhance ridership and we want to do projects that don’t hurt us financially and improve our finances if possible, but at the end of the day what I’m most concerned about is we play a part in the affordability crisis where we can.”
Board Chair Gillian Gillett mentioned the need for all types of housing, but Stone stressed that Caltrain should prioritize affordability when it comes to housing development on its property.
“Writ large all housing is good housing,” Stone said. “I agree writ large, but as a governmental agency we have a unique position that allows us to build quantities of affordable housing or to participate in partnerships to build quantities of affordable housing that are impossible for the private sector to do. … Government land is a fairly small sector of the overall pie to begin with so if we’re going to have a policy for that fairly small sector of the overall pie, I prefer it focus on affordability rather than market-rate housing.”
Board Member Jeannie Bruins suggested affordable housing can only play so much a role in future development of the corridor.
“It’s that tradeoff in terms of how do you balance [affordable housing] with the financial sustainability goal. If you build all of this affordable housing, those are the same people who don’t necessarily have the ability to afford our price of a ticket,” said Bruins. “To pencil out, you have to have something else in there, not just affordable housing.”
Gillett also spoke about the need for a variety of uses for Caltrain property. She wants stations to become mixed-use destinations.
“Caltrain is in a position to be able to provide vibrant stations and we can do that by being an asset steward that promotes either housing or small businesses or office around our stations. Sometimes one is better than the other,” she said. “The whole point is having the stations be places people want to be.”
Anticipating potential concerns about future development proposals on Caltrain land, Board Member Cheryl Brinkman spoke about the need to effectively communicate the benefits of transit-oriented development to the community.
“Every time you say development or density it just comes with the idea of more car traffic and we need to clearly show how we’ll do that without the extra car traffic, and indeed we’ll do it by decreasing car traffic and not necessarily developing only with riders in mind, but with the community around it in mind,” she said.
There was also some discussion on selling versus leasing of land, with some board members reluctant to do the former.
“One thing I want intense discussion on is why we’d ever sell property,” Collins said. “What concerns me is the concept of loss of control. … If we’re going to sell JPB property I’d want to know all the advantages. To me it’d have to be a pretty big net gain out of it.”
Caltrain is expanding and much of its land could be needed in the future to accommodate that expansion as well as for projects including grade separations, for example. Officials will rely on the Business Plan specifically to keep railroad expansion in mind when considering development opportunities and balancing the two will be the focus of many future conversations.
Board members will continue to discuss in greater detail plans for Caltrain property with quarterly updates at board meetings, and the aforementioned policy tools to help guide the discussion are set to be complete by the end of the year.
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