Town Uses

  • Urban Land Institute
  • August 1, 2001
  • Jane Bowar Zastrow

A mixed-use, infill project is giving San Bruno the makings of a small town.

The last step in what was considered an almost picture-perfect smart growth development plan was taken in early June when voters in San Bruno, California, approved a ballot measure that granted the necessary height approval for a new $320 million city center. Earning 72 percent of the vote, well in excess of the 51 percent required to pass, Measure E gave the project’s developers the go-ahead on an urban core mixed-use project, the Crossing, to be built on 20 acres of a former Navy base.

A year ago, San Bruno voters turned down a similar height request because there was no definitive plan for the site. By investing $2 million to $3 million on the plan and an environmental impact report (EIR), presenting voters with what they asked for, and doing it "according to the book," San Bruno and a citizens’ advisory committee (CAC) brought everything together in a comprehensive and inclusive process. "Voters are quite willing to approve something when they know its impact and what it’s going to look like," says San Bruno community development director George Foscardo.

The transit-friendly project has many smart growth features, including a collaborative planning process and the reuse of a compact infill site for a variety of uses. The plan and its hotel, senior and multifamily housing elements, office and retail space, and a parking structure were approved unanimously in January by the city council. "We’ve always wanted a first-class hotel, we’ve had a longstanding need for senior and other housing, we’ve wanted a TOD [transit-oriented development] and, at the time of the original planning, there was a high demand for office space and employment opportunities," points out Foscardo. The original plan, tweaked in its final version to accommodate some automobile traffic, was purely pedestrian-oriented and took advantage of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station being built one-third of a mile from the site, which is located at the juncture of two major freeways, is on a bus line, and is a little more than one mile from San Francisco International Airport.

In November 1997, the federal government had announced it would close the Navy base at San Bruno, at one time a major feature of the city. In operation since the 1940s, the base had dwindled in size from nearly 2,000 personnel to about 200. Its designation as surplus property opened to the public land that had for decades supported barracks turned into offices, as well as large-scale swaths of asphalt, all surrounded by a chainlink fence. Faced with the loss of Navy-related jobs, San Bruno fought to keep the base open. When its lobbying efforts failed, the city set out to draw up a specific plan that would emphasize the needs of the community. A CAC of 13 was assembled, which included members of the planning commission and stakeholders from adjacent residential, retail, office, religious, and public school properties. Led by San Bruno associate planner Steve Padovan, the CAC met over a period of 18 months, its members bringing diverse talents to the table and spending considerable amounts of time going over potential land uses and their layout. "The CAC members worked well together," says Foscardo. "We had a really diverse group and one or two members who had differing opinions, which was great."

This type of collaborative planning undertaken by San Bruno is gaining momentum all across the country, says Gary Binger, director of the California Smart Growth Initiative, a three-year proj-ect directed and funded by the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the Bank of America, and the James Irvine Foundation whose offices are in San Francisco and Los Angeles. "[Collaborative planning] is taking place much more frequently than in the past and allows all stakeholders, including staunch environmentalists and social justice groups, to find common ground on which to build profitable projects that are sensitive to community concerns and that provide more livable communities," says Binger. Although the movement is gaining strength in all types of locations, he suggests it is strongest in urban infill situations where there are greater numbers of neighbors voicing strong opinions.

The Crossing has proved to be an anomaly—there was no identifiable opposition to the project—in a state known for its willingness to vote against anything for just about any reason. A San Bruno ordinance, which dictates voter approval for any building taller than three stories or more than 50 feet high or for any above-grade parking structure, was the only obstacle developers faced when bidding on the proj-ect. "The developers knew what the risks were and came on board knowing this was a good development opportunity. They were willing to put effort into gaining community acceptance," says Foscardo.

Last October, after the partnership of Regis Homes of Northern California and TMG won the bid with a $25.5 million offer, the two companies were invited to present their backgrounds to the CAC and appear before the planning commission and city council "at least" three times, according to TMG partner David Cropper. "Until the January 10th city council approval, we were in constant contact," he recounts, noting that they also talked to citizens about the project benefits, knocking on doors, and making telephone calls about Measure E.

The development team lauds San Bruno officials for their visionary approach to planning the Crossing. "By being proactive, the city did great service to the site and to the community. It did its homework and had a vision before the project was sold, and because those uses have been embraced, there is no conflict between what the developer wants and what the city wants," maintains Cropper. "We knew what the uses were to be and we’re doing what we can to make sure the site gets built that way," he adds.

"This project represents enormously forward thinking," comments Steve Worthington, design director for the San Francisco office of Hellmuth Obata + Kassabaum Inc. (HOK), the consulting architect on the project. "They’re taking the worst kind of site, lifeless and without character, and making something out of it.

The June vote allows Regis and TMG, which closed escrow in March, to move forward with the development of a 500-room hotel, 210 units of multifamily housing, 190 housing units for seniors, 300,000 square feet of office space with underground parking for 250 cars, 15,000 square feet of retail, and an above-ground parking structure that will accommodate 1,000 cars. HOK will design the office, retail, and parking structure portions of the project and Guzzardo & Associates, a landscape design firm in San Francisco, will provide site design. Ground breaking is scheduled to take place next year, after the Navy’s lease expires at the end of this year. Demolition of the existing buildings and construction of new infrastructure should take six months; construction is expected to take 18 to 24 months, with the project planned to be up and ready to go in three years.

The seniors’ housing component of the project is considered particularly critical for San Bruno, which has a large older population living in single-family homes. With no housing currently available for seniors in the city, Regis’s project manager Drew Hudacek says that many older homeowners have been forced to sell their homes and move to new cities once they can no longer care for their family homes. Plans for the seniors’ housing portion of the project include one- and two-bedroom units and parking for about 100 cars.

Another key component, according to Hudacek, is the hotel. Because San Bruno currently has no banquet or meeting facilities, groups such as the Rotary Club hold their meetings in nearby cities. In addition, the city will be able to take advantage of revenue generated by the transit occupancy tax, an amount that Hudacek estimates could be in the neighborhood of $2.5 million a year—half of the $5 million the project is expected to generate annually through property, redevelopment, and retail sales taxes—as well as an estimated $4 million in one-time development fees.

A third piece of the project, the 210 units of multifamily housing with parking for 300 cars designed by San Francisco’s Sandy & Babcock Inc., includes one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments that range in size from 750 square feet to 1,200 square feet. The specific plan calls for 15 percent of the 400 multifamily and seniors’ housing units to be designated as affordable housing, but Hudacek says the developers and the city are studying an option to provide 25 percent of the units as affordable.

The developers found no potential for serious contamination on the military site, which served mainly as an office facility. No jet fuels were used and, Cropper says, all the government information the developers have indicates that there is no unexploded ordnance. There are asbestos and lead paint in the buildings, which will be demolished, and the federal government is indemnifying any residual pesticides on the property. The draft EIR provided by the city, which was almost complete by the auction date, cut almost a year from the developers’ timetable. "We saved [the developers] a lot of money and time in doing the environmental work," says Foscardo. Though Regis and TMG ultimately will pay EIR costs of $250,000 to $300,000, Foscardo points out that the partnership avoided paying any interest to the financial partners on costs that would have been incurred during the planning process.

The Regis/TMG partnership is working with the city on the requisite development agreement. "We’ve had initial meetings on structuring the agreement and at this point we’ve agreed on a general format and hope to conclude a development agreement within 30 days after the vote," says Foscardo. "We don’t see anything that can’t be worked out."

The city’s original plan for a purely pedestrian development was modified somewhat. "We convinced the city it was viable to have cars but with controls," says HOK’s Worthington, noting that most pedestrian-only areas, unless in major urban areas, are not as successful as areas that allow some cars. In addition, the development team suggested that an above-grade parking structure be built, one that could be shared by office users, hotel visitors, and shoppers alike. The structure minimizes the number of cars on site and spreads out demand during the day. It also serves as a buffer, sheltering the Crossing’s park from Interstate Highway 380. Retail shops and meeting room space mask the garage itself and mature conifers run through the east/west two-acre linear park. Shops and residential stoops face the park area and a one-way street loop allows cars to circulate and park for short periods at shops and homes. This layout, says Worthington, contributes to a lively street scene, whereas having "everyone parked in a structure doesn’t help a street." An extension of a one-block street supports the site’s utilities infrastructure and dictates the axis that separates the parking and homes from the offices.

The access-rich site allows drivers into and out of the Crossing without clogging surface streets, says Worthington, plus there is almost immediate access to interstate highways 101, 280, and 380. In addition, the city is contemplating adding a new intersection on El Camino Real, a part of a San Bruno/Caltrains improvement project. The new intersection could help to improve traffic flow and eliminate weaving and U-turn movements in and out of the adjacent regional mall.

To encourage the use of mass transit, the site plan includes the county’s bus line, SamTrans, which serves the Crossing’s homes, offices, shops, and the hotel, also within walking distance of the BART station. The Caltrain station is one-quarter of a mile from the site, and the new community is within minutes of San Francisco International Airport. City officials hope the Crossing residents will take mass transit to and from work, and that business travelers traveling through the airport and staying at the new hotel will use BART to visit downtown San Francisco or Caltrain to make the trip to San Jose. "We’ve heard from hotel developers that they see mass transit as a competitive advantage," says Worthington. "We’re doing everything we can to encourage mass transit."

The Crossing, with its mix of seniors’ housing; rental housing; and small amount of retail, office, and hospitality space, demonstrates a positive way that infill land can be put to use. "The Crossing is fairly small and any one element on its own would be nothing," says Worthington, "but by putting together a variety of uses, San Bruno has the makings of a small town that I’d love to see in many more places in the United States."

Jane Bowar Zastrow is a San Francisco–based real estate writer.