In Bay Area, Mass Transit Inspires Project

  • The New York Times
  • June 17, 2001
  • Morris Newman

Former Navy site near airport is to be mixed-use neighborhood

San Bruno, Calif — Reflecting the increasing popularity of mixed-use projects near transit stations, a pair of Northern California developers are planning a $200 million development that combines housing, retail and office space in this city 12 miles south of San Francisco.

Known as the Crossing at San Bruno, the project is being planned on a 20-acre property a few blocks away from the site where the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system is expected to open in the fall of 2002 as part of the line's push south to San Francisco International Airport.

Although San Francisco area developers have already built a number of so-called transit-oriented developments near existing train and bus stations, the Crossing is one of the first to be built in anticipation of a future BART station.

The developers, a partnership of Regis Homes of Northern California, and TMG, plan to start construction next year on 300,000 square feet of office space, a 500-room hotel, a shopping street, a two-acre park and 400 residential units, nearly half of which are to be assisted-living units for older people.

The project is the result of several years of planning by city officials, who have long envisioned a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood on a site formerly owned by the Navy.

Bordering the edge of San Francisco International Airport, San Bruno is a bedroom community of 42,000 in San Mateo County. The project's name acknowledges its location at the intersection of Interstate 380 and El Camino Real (Route 82), the legendary road of the 18th-century Spanish friars, which is now a state highway.

Although the city of San Bruno does not have a direct role in the project, its officials served as midwife for the new development through a long planning process.

Dominated by military uses and hemmed in by major roads, the site has been something of a dead zone in the small city. Until last year, the property was occupied by the Navy's Western Division Naval Facilities Engineering Command, housed largely in former military barracks built in the early 1940's and converted into office buildings.

The Navy announced in 1997 that it would close the command. Sensing an opportunity to change the nature of the entire district, San Bruno city officials spent the years since then preparing a development blueprint to make over the naval property into a mixed-use neighborhood with several kinds of housing and commercial activities.

"Clearly, this is a case of a land use that had gone through its life cycle, and now it's time for this type of site to be redeveloped," said Andrew Hudacek, project manager of Regis Homes.

The city's first goal was to prevent construction of a large retail center on the site, according to George Foscardo, the city's community development director.

Despite interest from several retailers, "we did not want another big-box center and all the traffic associated with that," Mr. Foscardo said. At the same time, he said, "we wanted to create the city's first transit-oriented development."

The city's plan envisions a combination of uses. "We needed the economic benefits that the hotel would bring and the social benefits of the housing," Mr. Foscardo said. "At the same time, we recognized that for developers office space would be the main interest."

The city's plan was in place last spring, when the United States General Services Administration sold the property to the current owners in an auction for $25.5 million.

A major selling point of the site was its "access richness," according to Mr. Hudacek, who cited the proximity of the former Navy property to the San Francisco airport, freeway connections to both San Francisco to the north and Silicon Valley to the south, and the presence of two commuter rail lines within walking distance: BART and Cal-train, a private rail line that connects the Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

"Building along mass-transit corridors is really the way the development in the Bay Area will need to go for traffic to remain at a sustainable level," Mr. Hudacek said.

"What's exciting to us," he added, is that "a business traveler can stay at our hotel and never rent a car."

Although BART had no role in the Crossing, a spokesman said the transit agency had assisted a number of comparable development projects on land it owned.

"We believe that development around BART stations is going to enhance the access to the system, because riders will be right there," said Michael Healy, a BART spokesman.

Currently, 26 percent of the system's ridership involves people who walk to the BART stations, according to a study sponsored by the transit agency.

"Basically, it's putting people and transit together," Mr. Healy added. "You take out the middleman, which is the automobile."

The developers intend to fashion an entirely new neighborhood, with several new streets, that will resemble older neighborhoods in the Bay Area, according to David Cropper, a partner in the Martin Group.

Specifically, the developers want 15-foot-wide sidewalks, lined with storefronts and "stoop housing" ø row houses with steep front steps. Parking would be available at the curb and in a large parking structure, not in surface parking lots. Lofts, another popular housing type here, would also be available.

"We're taking a suburban location and providing it with San Francisco references of traffic-sidewalk-building," Mr. Cropper said.

The urbanity of the design is a sign of the times in the Bay Area, where big-city locations are more attractive to many tenants than traditional suburban office campuses. Tenants "want to be urban," Mr. Cropper said. "They want to look across the street and see an apartment building."

Master planning a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood was challenging, in view of the project's none-too-pedestrian-friendly-surroundings.

The former Navy site is bordered by the Interstate on the south, El Camino Real on the east and a large brick-and concrete building owned by the United States Marine Corps on the north. East of El Camino real is the Tanforan Park Shopping center, a suburban-style regional mall dating from the 1960's, surrounded by acres of asphalt.

On the west end of the site is an 80-foot-wide water easement - a reservoir pipeline runs underground — which must remain undeveloped. Tall pines and other mature indigenous trees are present throughout the site that the city wants to preserve.

The master plan of the Crossing, prepared by the San Francisco office of the St. Louis-based HOK Inc., reflects the constraints of both the manufactured and natural world. To accommodate the water easement, the architects have proposed a formal park, framed by a pair of twin office buildings.

Running down the center of the plan would be an esplanade parkway; the green space would serve both as an organizing spine of the master plan and as a rationale for preserving existing trees on the site.

Row housing and a shopping street would line either side of the esplanade, which is 49 feet wide. The storefronts would conceal an above-ground parking structure for the seven-story hotel.

Even before construction starts at the Crossing, city officials expect the project to serve as a catalyst for the makeover of a somewhat barren area.

The most immediate opportunity is the Marine Corps property directly to the north, which could undergo a similar redevelopment if the property ever became available.

The Tanforan mall may also benefit, according to Mr. Foscardo, the city official. Construction of a hotel and market-rate housing, the presence of a new BART station on the mall itself, he said, will encourage the owners of the aging mall to upgrade the shopping center as well.