During the rapid economic expansion of the last decade, the communities on California’s San Mateo Peninsula experienced a time of tremendous prosperity, the benefits of which included economic growth, low unemployment, increased personal wealth and burgeoning state government budgets. But the communities throughout San Mateo County, which include the technology-reliant area known as Silicon Valley, also felt the negative impacts of this prosperity in the form of increased traffic congestion, air pollution, and a lack of affordable housing.

After a decade of rising transit ridership and improving levels of transit service, the peninsula communities are ripe for revitalized downtown living.

The economy has cooled in San Mateo, but the housing shortage has not. In a refrain commonly heard in communities where heavy growth has been accompanied by poor transportation planning, the local school districts, law enforcement agencies, hospitals, and professional trades report that it is increasingly difficult to attract and retain quality employees. The main cause is the region’s traffic and housing problems, which affect residents most poignantly through long commutes that eat dramatically into hours better spent with family and friends.

Despite this distressing condition, there is a solution on the horizon. After a decade of rising transit ridership and improving levels of transit service, the peninsula communities are ripe for revitalized downtown living. Adding housing around transit stations will help solve the acute shortage and support efforts to revitalize downtowns all along the corridor.

In addition, the areas around transit stations—often dominated by parking lots, wide streets, and underutilized properties—represent enormous unmet potential. Replacing these drab, asphalt-covered spaces with centers of community activity will further increase transit ridership and reduce traffic congestion.

“It’s growing out of the desires of the community rather than being imposed on the community. I think that’s extremely important and the key to success.”

Just as critical to the future of San Mateo is the historic El Camino Real—the region’s main traffic artery. Currently a six-lane highway, reinventing El Camino Real as a grand boulevard will help knit together communities along the peninsula.

This vision, which could entirely transform San Mateo County into a livable, sustainable model for regions across the country, is being championed by an influential but unlikely partnership: the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans), the transit authority (TA), Caltrans (the State Department of Transportation), the County of San Mateo. These government entities joined forces with the two organizations that initiated the project: Samceda, the local business organization behind the strategic plan, and its partner, the Peninsula Policy Partnership (P3).

PPS is guiding these diverse agencies as they work with a dozen towns and cities along the peninsula to identify opportunities to enliven the downtown districts around their transit facilities. By calming traffic, creating new housing, and designing grade separated rail facilities, the partners have committed to an interdisciplinary approach geared entirely towards supporting the communities they serve.

“It’s growing out of the desires of the community rather than being imposed on the community,” said Samceda/P3 President Deberah Bringelson. “I think that’s extremely important and the key to success.”

The plan and its approach are groundbreaking in their scope and philosophy. Transportation agencies are typically the key barriers to livability–in this case, they are the catalysts.

“What excites me about this process is being able to see solutions to transportation issues from the community perspective and really getting an understanding of what the community faces day in and day out,” said Caltrans engineer Bijan Ahmadzadeh. “The community has come up with very exciting solutions.”

By bringing together diverse parties with an interest in these station areas to identify problems and share plans, PPS is helping stakeholders create a vision and go forward collaboratively to achieve it.

“[PPS] gets people excited and helps them see a vision of what could be,” said Bringelson.

Through a participatory and interactive planning process, PPS has helped develop an overall “Placemaking” strategy for upgrading the areas around transit stations. This framework guides the implementation of both short- and long-term improvements by the local community, and can be formalized into planning guidelines and regulations that steer the transportation agencies’ future decisions. The recommendations—including improvements that can be made immediately and at low cost—aim to create people-friendly destinations, with mixed uses and gathering places.

The city of San Carlos provides one example of how Placemaking strategies on the peninsula are pulling together disconnected projects into an effective, broad-based effort. A recently completed grade separation project created several vacant sites around the San Carlos train station. Now the city, transportation agencies, merchants, and residents are all collaborating to redevelop these sites, creating a “sense of place” at the train station and facilitating transit-oriented development. The partnership will also work to tame El Camino Real, tying together the east and west sides of the city, all the while maintaining the feeling of a village.

The San Mateo Solution was last modified: June 28th, 2013 by Project for Public Spaces