September 24, 2010

San Ramon Plans for New Urbanist Infill Project

The City of San Ramon has an ambitious plan. I'll frame it, hit some key design points, show a few maps, a few stumbling blocks, and some parting thoughts. All information is from the September 23rd Staff Report on this page.

The Frame

Today the city of San Ramon hosted a public comment session on its North Camino Ramon Specific Plan (NCRSP). The planners are speaking a language I did not expect to hear in this rather conservative, automobile-embracing slice of of suburbia. From the online staff report:

The North Camino Ramon Specific Plan seeks to facilitate the redevelopment of the Specific Plan area and strives to meet sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction goals as the plan area transforms from an automobile-dominated, low-density commercial area to a transit- and pedestrian- oriented neighborhood that will be a community focal point with a mix of uses.
As a nearby resident and frequent patron of existing stores who assumed that the garbled vomit of retail surface parking megablocks surrounded by clogged arterials would never change, I'm ... stunned.

Key Design Points

  • The adoption of General Plan 2030 would re-designate all properties within the Specific Plan area not currently designated “Mixed Use” to “Mixed Use.”
  • The preliminary draft calls for displacing 2,650,000 sq ft of retail, and adding in 4,325,000 new sq ft. 1500 dwelling units (1,650,000 sq ft) are also planned.
  • A street loop will create new frontage for multi-level mixed use retail, restaurant, office, and residential uses, and enclose a linear public park: "a well-designed gathering place with site amenities and quality landscape features."
  • The Transit Center, currently hidden in a commuter's only spot in the heart of Bishop Ranch, will relocate to the southern end of the street loop.
  • Shared parking. Sounds boring, but this is a lynch-pin. Developments like these that have separate parking reqs for each tenant end up with a sea of duplicated parking. When each store has its own lot, drivers are encouraged to drive from place to place, rather than park once. Under such conditions, parking once would also be plain inconvenient; parking lots on foot are boring, unsafe, and take a long time to traverse.
  • A broad landscaped path will link the Iron Horse Trail to the Commons, Transit Center, and will be designed to assist capture and filtration of runoff. The development at Camino Ramon and Sycamore in Danville completely failed at connectivity with the IHTrail, and it abuts the darn thing. Big plus here for ped and cycling connectivity.
  • Secondary Streets. A Jane Jacobs-approved attempt at street gridding and connectivity that gives circulation options to people on foot. And increases street frontage lots for sale.
  • Bishop Ranch Consolidation. "Relocation of the existing Bishop Ranch office space from other parcels within the Specific Plan area will be encouraged to allow more intensive development of other commercial and residential use." How they plan to entice/move existing office buildings around is beyond me.
  • Diversified housing options. "Loft units, apartments over retail stores, apartment and condominium buildings, townhouses, rowhouses, and live/work units" for young professionals who like to be near commercial areas and possible employers.

A Few Maps

A bird's eye view of the North Camino Ramon Specific Plan.

The write-overs I did underwhelm in the legibility dept, so from the top down: CC Road, Norris C (Road), and "Red arrows = the only existing through streets."

As you can see, super blocks engulfing parking engulfing retail/offices. It's possible to traverse most of this area in your car without ever leaving a parking lot.

Got that spatially mapped? Here's the tentative plan, screen-captured from the Staff Report pdf.

I really wish they had done this with transparent color coding--seeing the existing built environment would be much more useful. After some tedious split screen comparing (and heck, I know this area really well), I was able to see a few stumbling blocks.

A Few Stumbling Blocks

1. The street loop/mixed use core/linear public park bisects an existing supermarket. Now as much as I'd like to see a complete street routed down the snack food aisle of my local Lucky's, this seems improbable. And if not Lucky's per se, the street might cut through Big 5 Sporting Goods, or Ruggies, or Thrifty. I don't think they'd be keen either. I'm curious whether the City can tell either a) the store, b) the developer who owns the property or c) both, "clear out, we're putting a retail, sidewalk, parking, street, sidewalk, public park, sidewalk, street, parking, sidewalk, retail sandwich right through the property you have prosperously occupied for, I don't know, at least as long as the author of this blog post has been breathing. Eminent domain? Does the City actually own that land? Can they force them out? Mmm ... property law and contract law would be useful here ...

There's also a big hunk of 24 Hour Fitness where the #10 #3 #7 triangle is on the above map. I'm sure there are more examples, but for the sake of length I'll move on. Let the record show that I cannot wait to see how they will re-build the built environment.

2. The secondary streets won't create blocks as small as downtown Danville's, which will be the reference point for just about all future users of this future "downtown" space. Smaller blocks = more walkable and browsable, but I suspect stumbling block #1 above is the reason why more streets are not going in.

3. By far my biggest stumbling block is looking at the existing land use, and reading their plan, and saying "impossible." If you've used this area, you know that this plan is the diametric opposite of everything you associate with the space.

Parting Thoughts: Visualizing the Transformation, Difficultly

I'll be back with some ground level pictures tomorrow, but I'll leave you with a closer look at the sense of impossibility I feel.

A closer look at the northwest corner. The "w," "m," and "ng" in "Crow Canyon Commons Shopping Center" mark the new street + park + retail loop route. And you can see there is very much a building in the way, and more beyond it.

All three of the secondary cross streets will be on this parcel. Hard to imagine with so many buildings in the way! I think one of the secondary streets (the one just north of "#1" on the above plan) will intersect the new street + park + retail loop by running along the line of green that demarcates the parking lot border between the clusters of office buildings south of the CC Commons Shopping Center, and north of the 24 Hour Fitness (the dark gray rectangle partially cut off by the lower frame). The other two will go north and south of that one, though how they will finagle the right of way is beyond me.

And please, please note the oceans of underperforming asphalt parking. Can't wait to see them repurposed.

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