Archive for the ‘development’ Category

Viva The Alameda

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

CIMG0344I’ve been on a little hiatus since Christmas but yesterday was 1/11/11 which I have on good authority is an auspicious time for new beginnings. Let’s get it started! Yesterday for lunch I stopped by the Louisiana Territory Cajun food truck for a Po’ Boy, selecting a “Pepper Picker” with sausage and peppers and onions and special sauce. Mmm…so good! This truck has serious El Camino cred and is a friend of this blog. My new buddy Cherie who manages the truck hipped me to this article in Metro last week about The Alameda. I hadn’t seen it. Thanks, Cherie! [Update: corrected to spelling of Cherie’s name.]

The article “Street of Dreams” by Gary Singh is about recent changes on The Alameda, focusing on A Plan for “The Beautiful Way” which came out of the community meetings and planning process I was privileged to participate in from 2009-2010. He calls out some of many businesses which make The Alameda so awesome: The Usuals, Crema, and newcomer Black & Brown.

CIMG0274Then he goes on to gripe a bit about the plan, the 100-page document BMS Design Group produced after studying current conditions and collecting community input. Singh’s biggest concern is that the plan will drive out the funky eclecticity of the Town Center stretch south of Lenzen by imposing homogeneity with matching lampposts and coordinated newspaper racks. I think his fear is unfounded. It’s not like some developer is razing the buildings to the ground and building from scratch because then, sure, you might end up with something like Santana Row which is perfect and commercial but inauthentic. The whole purpose of the community meetings was to hear from the people who live and work there what needs to be fixed (traffic!) and what needs to be preserved (bells!). I was very pleased with how BMS ran the meetings and I am more than satisfied that the plan captures the soul of The Alameda. All the technical details are designed to make the Town Center a more accessible and inviting place that will draw visitors and impart to them the special and historic character of the place.

All the same it’s great to see press about El Camino and I’m glad people are noticing all the positive changes happening. It’s noteworthy that Metro Newspapers is itself located on El Camino, in San Jose’s SoFA district. The Alameda and SoFA are like bookends on downtown, and both are blossoming into urban treasures. The Alameda has a ways to go but they have a beautiful road map.


Read “Street of Dreams” by Gary Singh,, January 5, 2011.

A New (to Me) Morgan Hill

Monday, October 11th, 2010

On Saturday, October 2 I drove down to Morgan Hill to attend a community meeting planning a redesign of the stretch of Monterey Road which passes through downtown. The initiative is dubbed “A New Downtown” and is currently in the planning stages, accepting community input on ways to improve the appearance, strengthen the identity, and support the businesses on Monterey Road. This was only the third time I had ever been to Morgan Hill outside the confines of US-101 so I took the opportunity to try and make the acquaintance of our South County neighbor. Downtown was charming, but it was the residents who made a distinct first impression I’ll always remember.

For those unfamiliar with Morgan Hill, as I must admit I was, it’s a small town of 33,000 residents (as of 2000). I always thought it was adjacent to San Jose but I just learned as I’m writing this that there’s an unincorporated town called Coyote in between. Who knew? If there’s one thing you need to know about Morgan Hill, it is this: there is no hill there named Morgan. The town is named for a fellow named Hiram Morgan Hill who eloped with the granddaughter of Martin Murphy in 1882. Their ranch on Monterey Road, inherited from the Murphys, was often referred to as “Morgan Hill’s Ranch” and the name stuck for the railroad depot and town which developed around it. The name is ironic because the most visible CIMG0492_croppednatural feature of the area is a large hill west of downtown called El Toro, but which uninformed visitors would naturally assume to be the town’s namesake.

I drove down US-101 to get there. I needed gas so I hopped off the freeway an exit early to fill up which worked out well because I could cruise into town on Monterey Road which I consider to be El Camino Real in South County. CalTrans put El Camino Real bells on US-101 down there but there’s no question they missed the mark. Monterey Road was exactly that, the historic road from Monterey to San Jose and by extension, from Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel to Mission Santa Clara.

As I drove through downtown Morgan Hill, I was met by a surprise: a couple political demonstrations on opposite sides of Monterey Road at Third Street. One was very quiet: four ladies dressed in all black simply standing and holding signs promoting peace and a desire to bring the troops back home. The other was larger and louder with people waving anti-Democrat and anti-incumbent signs: a Tea Party.

CIMG0480I had never witnessed a Tea Party rally so I parked my car and went down to check it out. Tea Partiers are of course politically conservative activists who have become known for their energetic demonstrations and activities in the last year or so. The group I saw are the Gilroy-Morgan Hill Patriots and they will be holding these Saturday rallies until the election on Tuesday, November 2. One of the sign-waving Patriots, a woman named Jean, saw that I was carrying a community meeting packet so we got into a pleasantly civil conversation about past and proposed Monterey Road development in Morgan Hill such as the newly renovated intersection at Third Street where we were standing. She expressed concern about tax dollars being spent on wasteful projects and about the evils of eminent domain. Her opinions were of course valid and reasonable and included important issues which need to be addressed in public affairs. I’m politically liberal and have found many national Tea Party positions dangerously extreme and objectionable, spanning the gamut from sinister to cynical to ridiculous. So my first face-to-face Tea Party encounter was refreshingly palatable and even beneficial. Are Bay Area conservatives kinder and gentler than their counterparts elsewhere? Or is Jean just a moderate exception? It’s difficult to say. She did express to me that her participation in the Tea Party is motivated by desire for fiscal responsibility, not race. I’m sure she was anticipating concerns I might have had (she was right; I did) and I believe her sincerity. Still I wonder if she doth protest too much.

CIMG0487By the time I finished talking with Jean the other, quiet vigil was over so I didn’t get to talk with them. I suspect they were the Gilroy Women in Black, part of an international movement of women who demonstrate silently for peace and justice. It was time then to put politics aside. I headed back to the repurposed storefront where the community meeting was being held to contribute my two cents. The meeting was not a meeting per se but rather a self-paced gathering of input on ways to improve the street. It was hosted by the city and staffed by individuals from Callander Associates, the urban design firm facilitating the planning process. They had different stations where we could share broad ideas on what constitutes a successful and unsuccessful downtown, and where we could vote for our favorite proposed changes. CIMG0484The best activity involved a scale drawing of a Monterey Road cross-section over which we could lay design elements of different sizes such as sidewalks, parking and traffic lanes, and landscaped medians. The challenge was to get everything to fit. Wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and a median large enough to hold a coffee kiosk would be wonderful but if it’s not going to fit, it’s not going to happen. I thought Jean would have liked that exercise in spatial responsibility. My end solution was to widen the sidewalk, shrink the existing median, and give up on having a bike lane.

They provided a free lunch. There is of course no such thing so while I was enjoying my roast beef sandwich from Ricatoni’s Delicatessen, I felt obligated to fill out an extensive questionnaire about everything from street parking configurations to my purchasing habits. I felt a little out-of-line making suggestions for a downtown I don’t live in but then I reminded myself that as a tourist my input was valuable. Downtown Morgan Hill has plenty of shops and restaurants that I’m sure would love to attract visitors from out-of-town. Their Tea Party isn’t racist, so I doubt the chamber of commerce is xenophobic.

CIMG0488My last assigned task in the process was to take a walk up and down Monterey Road and complete an additional questionnaire along the way. As if the “free” lunch weren’t enough, they also gave me a voucher for a free ice cream cone from BookSmart a block off Monterey Road. Full disclosure: it was the enticement of free ice cream which drew me to the community meeting in the first place. I brilliantly opted to get my ice cream up front and enjoy it during my walk so a short detour to BookSmart was my first stop. In front was a gigantic red pull-wagon which gave me a hint what was inside. BookSmart is a fun place with loads of books, educational toys, a small cafe, and of course an ice cream counter. I ordered a scoop of tin roof sundae on a sugar cone, left a tip, and made my way back to and down Monterey Road.

CIMG0495On my walk I enjoyed surveying the downtown businesses, scanning a few menus and shopping in a few windows as I went. I tried picking out with a critical eye design features I liked and disliked about Downtown Morgan Hill. I liked the abundance of trees, the visual variety and interest of the architecture, and the authenticity of the place, being heavy on small local businesses and light on generic national chains. I disliked the narrow sidewalks, some unsafe-feeling pedestrian crossings, and the relative lack of racial and cultural diversity in the population and businesses. I was ambivalent about the street art: a series of whimsically decorated fiberglass mushrooms up and down the street. I generally enjoy this type of civic icon pop art which has been quite popular for the last decade, but simply put I hate mushrooms, so there. I was happy to see that a farmer’s market was going on at Third Street, the apparent edge of Downtown. On the whole the street seemed cozy, well-apportioned, and thriving. I didn’t see anything blatantly amiss, but there’s always room for improvement.

CIMG0501I finished my walk, turned in my questionnaire, entered a drawing for some local goods and services (apparently I didn’t win), and bade farewell to Downtown. I have now participated in El Camino redesign community meetings in three different cities, the others being Menlo Park and San Jose. I think that officially makes me an El Camino wonk.  On my way out of town I stopped at the Morgan Hill House, the  former residence of the aforementioned Hiram Morgan Hill and his bride Diana Murphy. It’s now home to the Morgan Hill Historical Society. I stopped to take pictures of the El Camino Real bell in front, the only one I saw on Monterey Road. At the community meeting I actually recommended adding more bells downtown to enhance the historical identity. Someone has to represent the Royal Road! I suppose that makes me a special interest lobbyist.

I told you this was my third visit to Morgan Hill. The first was for a child’s birthday party many years ago during which I saw very little of the city. The second was earlier this year when I took a long drive up Monterey Road all the way from San Martin up to San Jose with the specific intention of laying rubber and eyes on the South Valley El Camino. That was when I first discovered the unexpectedly inviting Downtown stretch. I literally just passed through (though I did stop at an ATM) but I liked what I saw and made plans to return. This most recent visit was gratifying as I got to interact with residents, dabble in local politics, and even sample the ice cream. Having taken a deep dive into Downtown, the old cliche proved true: the third time’s the charm.


Friday, July 16th, 2010

W00t! The Mercury News reports that the San Jose Department of Transportation has been awarded a $3.1 million dollar grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to work on improving The Alameda! The city will begin implementing The Alameda: A Plan for “The Beautiful Way” which was developed in the series of community meetings which my friend Elena and I enjoyed participating in over the past year.

Work will begin on Phase One of the plan which calls for widening sidewalks, planting a raised median, creating safer pedestrian access, and generally beautifying and unifying the character of the “Town Center,” the southern stretch of mostly commercial buildings from Fremont Street down to the train  tracks. The goal is to enhance The Alameda’s appeal as a hip, strollable destination that showcases San Jose’s charm and history.

CIMG0164Elena and I go way back to her freshman orientation at Stanford my senior year. She recently moved to San Jose and quickly came to appreciate The Alameda, especially its casual and fine dining. At the community meetings she offered many thoughtful suggestions such as making it safer for bicyclists, and catering to families with young children the way Lincoln Avenue in Willow Glen has done. Me on the other hand…well my best suggestion was to save the historic El Camino bell marker. Um, that was before I even realized there are three bells on The Alameda, not one. Gold star for trying.

This is exciting news for the community and it will be fun to watch all the planning become a Beautiful reality.

What are your favorite spots on The Alameda? What’s your opinion of controversial features like the Hester Avenue pedestrian underpass, Babe the giant muffler guy, and the Race Street billboard? Should they stay or should they go? Have you ever crossed The Alameda on foot at any of the crosswalks without traffic lights, or does your life insurance policy prohibit it?

Road of Remembrance

Monday, May 31st, 2010

A few months ago I noticed a new traffic light and street sign had showed up in Midtown Milpitas, intersecting South Main Street just north of Montague Expressway. The sign read, “Mihalakis St.” I had no idea what it meant, but it was fun to say. I figured it was probably the name of the developer of the new Aspen Family apartments there, a little vanity eponym like so many other streets in the area. But then not long later, I happened to be flipping through my Arcadia Publishing Milpitas book and came across the name Mihalakis again. It was the most recent among a list of fallen soldiers from Milpitas, honored by the Veterans Memorial adjacent to City Hall.

SPECIALIST MICHAEL MIHALAKISSpecialist Michael Mihalakis of the California Army National Guard died in an auto accident in Iraq on December 26, 2003 while off-duty. His Humvee rolled over near the Baghdad airport, killing him. It was tragically ironic as he had an older sister who had recently awakened from a coma caused by brain injuries from a car accident in Denver. His parents shared the happy news of her miraculous recovery with him over the phone on Christmas Day, one day before his death. Michael was only 18, a graduate of Milpitas High School who played lead guitar in a rock band. He is survived by his parents and two sisters. He left behind in a safety deposit box a remarkable letter to his parents to be opened in the event of his death in which he consoled them that he served proudly and had no regrets as he “gave the ultimate sacrifice.” (I read the letter here but it has since been removed.)

Seal of MilpitasThe city of Milpitas has a program wherein they name streets after its fallen veterans to honor their memories. (Interestingly the Milpitas seal bears the same image of Daniel Chester French’s The Minute Man statue as the National Guard logo, but in Milpitas’ case it’s a political allegory, not  having to do with actual military service.) The soldiers so commemorated span conflicts from World War I to the present. The streets are located throughout the city but Mihalakis Street is the first memorial road to cross Main Street, part of what I call El Camino de San Jose. One block past Mihalakis at the upcoming Alexan Condos project another street is planned, Doonewey, named for Army Specialist Doonewey White. Doonewey, 26, a native of the Philippines who grew up in Milpitas, looked forward to returning home to his fiancée who was pregnant with their first child. He died of his injuries a day after a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad on May 28, 2007—Memorial Day.

As it turns out there are several programs that use the nation’s roads and freeways to commemorate our veterans. One such program is the Blue Star Memorial Highways project, adopted by the National Garden Clubs in 1946. They place markers on highways, cemeteries, and V.A. hospitals as tribute to America’s armed forces. There are many Blue Star Memorial roads throughout California including State Route 58 in Santa Margarita, part of El Camino Real.

View Larger Map

Perhaps the most significant program is the Purple Heart Trail. It is a series of roads, highways, and bridges throughout the United States legislatively designated to honor recipients of the Purple Heart, a medal awarded to U.S. soldiers killed or wounded in action. Each segment has special signs featuring an image of the Purple Heart medal, a visual reminder of the freedom we enjoy in this country and the price our veterans paid to protect it. California’s Purple Heart Trail was just designated by the California Legislature in August, 2009. It is a 115-mile portion of U.S. 101 through San Luis Obispo County. In this part of the state, U.S. 101 either is itself El Camino Real or runs directly alongside it.


Memorial Day is one day set aside for us to remember the soldiers who laid down their lives for us. A road however can be an everyday reminder, timeless, tireless, and lasting. El Camino Real bears the memories of our state, etched in asphalt.  In these solemn dedicated stretches, this highway honors the memories of California’s sons and daughters who donned their country’s uniform and served heroically, many unto the ultimate sacrifice.

New Trader Joe’s Opens in Palo Alto

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Trader Joe's

The brand new Trader Joe’s grocery store in Palo Alto will celebrate its grand opening this Friday, December 4, 2009. It’s located at Town & Country Village at the corner of El Camino Real and Embarcadero Road. There will be a ceremonial lei-cutting at 8:00 AM accompanied by face-painting, live music, and balloons. The interior is decorated with local flavor such as logos and spirit wear from nearby Stanford University, Palo Alto High, and Gunn High School. Residents have lamented the lack of grocery stores in the city, so many are looking forward to this latest addition.

Your pictures from have arrivedWithout a doubt Trader Joe’s is a happy place. My fondest memory of TJ’s is from a family vacation we took to Monterey, CA many years ago. Our son was a young toddler so we rented a suite with a full kitchen so we could keep him fed with milk and Cheerios on our own schedule and not have to deal with eating out for every meal. We shopped for our groceries at the Pacific Grove Trader Joe’s. Sure we bought staples but since we were on vacation we also loaded up on a variety of tasty snacks like party mix, trail mix, chips, and cookies. It still ranks as one of our best vacations ever.

Ever since then I always associate Trader Joe’s with treats, not “serious food,” but we have several friends who do all their everyday shopping there. We’re not quite on that bandwagon since we live walking distance to a different chain grocery store. Also it’s a recognized fact in our family that as a rule Traders Joe’ses have…the…worst…parking lots. Always small, cramped, and awkward. We think they design them that way on purpose, maybe to encourage greener modes of transportation. Well it works for us. We walk…to a different store.

Speaking of parking, I expect it will be a challenge for the new Palo Alto store. When I was at Stanford twenty years ago Town & Country was languishing. I went there for Hobee’s but that was it. In 2004 the then-51-year-old shopping center was purchased by Ellis Partners LLC who set out to transform the place by painfully terminating some longtime tenants’ month-to-month leases and kicking off a multi-year $25 million renovation. It seems to have worked. It has the same funky charm but they have managed to attract a vibrant mix of restaurants and boutiques and the village now is packed. Some might say too packed, a victim of its own success. A couple months ago I thought I’d swing by at lunchtime on a weekday to grab a smoothie from Jamba Juice. I spent 15 minutes circling the entire center twice looking for a parking spot with no success. I finally gave up and went to a different Jamba Juice that had plenty of parking to get my Razzmatazz on. The Trader Joe’s will add some new spots but at peak times I know it will be a struggle. And don’t get me started on the bizarre left turn exit onto Embarcardero.

I don’t mean to be a killjoy. I’m genuinely happy for the many Palo Altoans who will enjoy their new store. I even expect the Stanford dorm parties to start serving better fare. In my day it was inevitably giant bags of pretzels and yellow popcorn from Costco; here’s hoping for baklava and Pirate’s Booty. No excuses! So go to Trader Joe’s, bring your own bag, and when you get home raise your glass of Two Buck Chuck in good cheer. Salut!

Trader Joe’s Grand Opening

Friday, December 4, 2009
8:00 AM – 10:00 PM
855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA

[Source: San Jose Mercury News]

El Camino International Airport

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving which means that today, Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving is (cue graphics) “The Busiest Travel Day of the Year.” This is the day that many Americans hop on a plane, train, or highway to visit loved ones for the holiday or enjoy a long weekend getaway. A favorite tradition in our household is to watch the Wednesday morning television news broadcast because they invariably send a reporter to an area airport to cover this annual non-story. Usually they send the most junior reporter in what I’m sure is a rite of passage. Occasionally I think more seasoned reporters volunteer for the assignment and show up with their bags packed so they can hop on a plane as soon as the broadcast is done. It’s a free ride to the airport!

CIMG0005Our closest airport is Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport (SJC). We generally don’t fly for Thanksgiving but last month we did get a chance to fly out of the brand new Terminal B Concourse. It started out a little rough because the terminal is a work-in-progress. Check-in and security is still at Terminal A after which we had a hike-and-a-half to get to the Southwest gates at Terminal B. But once we got there I was absolutely delighted. The sweeping ceiling is breathtaking and the curved surfaces and high-key color palette are magical. There are touches which the tech-savvy Silicon Valley traveler will appreciate such as free Wi-Fi and my favorite: cushy Captain Kirk chairs with built-in AC and USB power outlets. A Geek Dad like me could live in a chair like that.


CIMG0010What really put a smile on my face is the concessions in the new terminal. They invited well-known local businesses to operate or at least lend their name to the shops and restaurants so the terminal is a reflection of the region. The restaurants are the San Jose Sharks Cage Sports Bar & Grill, the Britannia Arms British Pub better known as The Brit, and Le Boulanger selling fresh baked breads and sandwiches. The news stand is named for Sunset magazine, longtime champion of the Western lifestyle. For unique snacks and gifts, you can stop by the stylized corrugated fruit stand of Sunnyvale’s own C.J. Olson Cherries. They sell fresh fruit as well as a carry-on-friendly selection of dried fruits and nuts. That’s dried fruits and nuts dipped in chocolate. I couldn’t resist picking up a bag of their mixed pastels.

CIMG0013As our flight was early in the morning I opted for breakfast at the Sharks Cage. I sat at the bar and immediately laughed out loud when I saw how the top was cleverly crafted to look like ice. Do the bussers carry little tiny Zambonis? I ordered the Hat Trick: eggs (I substituted fruit), applewood-smoked bacon, and home-style potatoes served with three slices of sourdough toast. I’ve had my share of airport breakfasts, but this one was the best as the ingredients were all very high quality. He shoots…he scores! Hooooooooooooooooooooonk!

This new terminal is part of an ongoing airport redesign which will result in the removal of the nostalgic but horribly outdated Terminal C. The entire project—the renovation of Terminal A, construction of Terminal B, and destruction of Terminal C—will cost $1.8 billion and is scheduled to be complete in Fall 2010.

You may be wondering why a blog about El Camino Real, a city street, is covering an airport. This is not a stretch at all. First of all San Jose Airport is really very close to El Camino; the airport’s western boundary, the long-term parking lot, is only a half mile from the Santa Clara Caltrain station on El Camino. Technically it’s walking distance, though it’s pedestrian-unfriendly as you need to cross the Union Pacific and Caltrain train tracks which are very dangerous. Don’t do it, there’s a free shuttle.

CIMG0224Second, there’s an interesting historical connection between the San Jose Airport and the Santa Clara Mission, the crucial link in the El Camino Real mission chain: the Mission’s first and second sites were both located adjacent to the airport starting in 1777. The first was on the northern bank of the Guadalupe river near the current-day Trimble exit off U.S. 101. It flooded so they relocated to the second site, 1000 yards south to the current intersection of De La Cruz Blvd and Martin Avenue. Memorial Cross Park marks the site today with adobe and a cross, just over the fence from the airport employee parking lot. This site also flooded—the mighty Guadalupe was a force to be reckoned with—so eventually the soggy padres moved a “musket-shot” away to its final location at present-day Santa Clara University.

Third, the astute will note that several of the concessions in the airport’s Terminal B represent businesses on El Camino. C.J. Olson’s of course is on El Camino in Sunnyvale, and the HP Pavilion where the Sharks skate and the Brit’s downtown location are both on Santa Clara Street, El Camino’s historic stretch though the San Jose Pueblo. Le Boulanger is not found directly on El Camino but there are stores just a block or two away. The exception is Sunset magazine which is on Willow Road in Menlo Park; let’s just say it proves the rule. In a sense San Jose Airport’s new Terminal carries the essence of El Camino within it.

The fourth connection is thematic. El Camino represents the south-north transportation corridor that traverses the state. The corridor started as a footpath, then evolved to incorporate a stagecoach route, railway line, a highway, a freeway, and finally air travel. Looked at this way both San Jose and San Francisco Airports are in the corridor as well as Moffett Field, Palo Alto Airport, and San Carlos Airport, home of Hiller Aviation Museum.

So this Thanksgiving, thousands of travelers will make their way to their merry destinations along the El Camino corridor. They may depart from its airports or ride its railway tracks or jam its freeway, U.S. 101. If you join them, heed the common wisdom I learn every year from the Wednesday morning news stories: call ahead or check online for travel conditions, leave early, buckle up (there’s a CHP crackdown [PDF] this year), and be patient. Our family will be enjoying Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house a stroll away from El Camino Real in San Mateo. Whatever you do, wherever you go, we wish you a wonderful and safe holiday!

Crossing El Camino

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

There’s a stretch of El Camino Real in North San Diego that cuts through the expansive San Dieguito River Park. The city is planning to widen El Camino there from two lanes to four. The problem is that currently there’s a tunnel under the road that wildlife can use to cross from one side to the other. It’s also used by bicyclists and pedestrians. When the city widens the road, they’re planning to close the tunnel. They say it could be rebuilt later by someone else, but the city’s not going to do it.

CA Ground SquirrelThe Carmel Valley Community Planning Board is not happy about losing the tunnel. The San Diego River Park Joint Powers Authority is pressing the city for more time so they can prepare a response. The California ground squirrels, Pacific tree frogs, and Coast horned lizards living in the park were not available for comment. [Photo: CA Ground Squirrel on hind legs by Howard Cheng. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.]

I’ve never been to this part of El Camino Real, but oddly this story made me smile. Up in the Bay Area El Camino is so heavily developed it’s really refreshing to remember the parts of it that still share space with a bit of preserved open space, wildlife and all. I know that most of El Camino is undeveloped, in particular the inter-city spans along U.S. 101 between San Jose and Los Angeles, but I don’t get down there very often so frankly I forget about it sometimes.

The Alameda pedestrian subwayI’m certainly not happy to see the tunnel go. I love the idea of the little critters scampering safely across the busy road through the thoughtfully-provided underpass. El Camino is a great way to go North and South, but it does have this tendency to split land in half, to separate East from West. It’s pretty easy to cross by car; I heard once that the intersection of El Camino Real and San Tomas Expressway in Santa Clara is one of the busiest intersections in the Bay Area. But for everyone else, crossing El Camino can be an ordeal. In 1928 the city of San Jose built a pedestrian subway tunnel under The Alameda for the students of Hester School to use. The subway is dedicated to the memory of Virginia A. Frazer and Charles Loring Sykes, two students who were struck and killed by automobiles while crossing the road. It was commendable of the city to take action to prevent another tragedy. San Diego should take note.

El Camino Real is a valuable and august citizen of the state. But if you cross it, watch out.

[Source: Rancho Santa Fe Record]

The End of the Age of Automobiles

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

Sunnyvale ChevyLast week Sunnyvale Chevrolet on El Camino Real abruptly went out of business. This has obviously been a tough time for auto dealers, especially those who were dropped by struggling U.S. automakers. Along its length El Camino has a large number of new-car showrooms; the Sunnyvale Auto Row alone has ten…er, nine now. They’re not all going to disappear but the decline in the economy in general and in new car sales in particular is forcing cities and dealerships to rethink their future.

The automobile is largely responsible for making El Camino Real what it is today. After the California missions secularized and the United States won control of the state from Mexico, El Camino nearly faded into  obscurity, various stretches of it being renamed, rerouted, or forgotten. It was the inspired vision of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs at the start of the 20th century that led to its recognition and preservation along with the missions as a treasured historical landmark. However automobile clubs like the California State Automobile Association spearheaded the practical effort to make it serviceable for cars. The CSAA produced markers and maps for El Camino, lobbied for pavement and passable grading, and for a while were even responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the famous bell markers which the women’s clubs had placed along its length. Thanks to the combined efforts of the women and “automobilists” of the state, El Camino became the car-centric highway that linked the Bay Area to Southern California.

For 100 years the car has ruled the Royal Road. For the last fifty years in much of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties El Camino has taken the form of a homogeneous multi-lane commercial strip, with miles and miles of low-slung low-density commercial buildings fronted by car-friendly parking lots and frequent curb-cut driveways. It’s a form that’s frankly hostile to pedestrians and bicyclists. But now in the 21st century people are ready for change.

The commercial strip is becoming less and less viable as businesses and their customers find greater value and convenience in regional super-malls and revitalized or fabricated downtowns. But cities can’t afford to let El Camino decline into disuse so they’re proactively making plans to transform it into a Grand Boulevard. The vision is a corridor with a smoothly transitioning rhythm of zones varying from public open spaces to high-density urban mixed-use developments. The key is to impose unifying architectural guidelines that make the boulevard appealing and convenient for pedestrians first, not cars. Examples include creating lovely wide sidewalks separated from flowing auto traffic by landscaping and curbside parking, and getting rid of frontside parking lots and bringing the front doors of businesses and residences much closer to the pedestrians. Amazingly they want to slow the auto traffic down by taking away car lanes and giving new dedicated lanes to bikes and public transit.

These are ambitious plans that can’t happen overnight. An obvious obstacle is the current businesses that are doing relatively well and don’t wish to see their buildings bulldozed and their parking lots filled in. Here then is where the failed auto dealerships present an opportunity.

When the car had its heyday in the last century, it made perfect sense for  car dealerships to locate on the El Camino commercial strip. That’s where the drivers were, and drivers were their customers. That’s how I first heard of El Camino Real. Having grown up in the East Bay in the 70s and 80s I remember the infectious bouncing-ball TV jingle for a long-gone dealership: “Pete Ellis Dodge, 1095 West El Camino Real, Sunnyvale.” El Camino and the dealerships were made for each other. Design-wise the dealerships were in fact the archetypical commercial strip businesses except ironically the front lots weren’t for parking but for inventory.

But we’re at a point in history now where as a nation we’re trying to reduce our reliance on the private automobile. We still love our cars but we’re realizing our economy and ecology can’t continue to support the fuel that goes into them and the emissions that come out. Our psyches are bruised from all the time we spend in them in long, inefficient, bumper-to-bumper commutes and our bottoms are spreading from the exercise they deprive us of and the drive-through high-caloric nightmares they enable. Our car culture is looking unsustainable and is receding for a myriad of complex reasons, and a direct result is dealerships shutting down.

(A noteworthy exception to this trend is Tesla Motors,  the start-up manufacturer of fully-electric—not hybrid—plug-in cars. For reasons I haven’t seen publicly stated they seem doggedly devoted to the cities along El Camino Real. Their corporate offices are in San Carlos, they have a showroom on El Camino in Menlo Park, and they’re opening an R&D and manufacturing facility in Palo Alto. It could be they’re planting their roots in the state’s ancient road for continuity as they take us into the future. I applaud their innovations, but one must consider the economic case against battery-powered electric vehicles.)

No one wants the traditional dealerships to fail. No one wants their employees to lose their jobs, local governments hate to lose the sales tax they generate, and neighbors abhor the vacant lots they leave behind. So the closures are an unpleasant reality but once accepted they can be the bellwethers of change and cures for so many car-related ills. The vacant lots can be purchased and redeveloped according to the Grand Boulevard plan, perhaps as mixed-use residential and retail that will get people out of their cars and out walking, biking, or busing from their homes to convenient neighborhood stores, restaurants, and jobs, all on the boulevard.

This exact debate is happening in Menlo Park. A Cadillac dealership on El Camino near Valparaiso closed down and the city council, developers, and the community are working out what to replace it with. The leading plan includes retail and office space. It lacks residential space for various logistical reasons but all parties wish it could be included. Simultaneously they’re moving ahead with a plan to revitalize the city’s downtown and its El Camino segment.

I don’t know what will become of the recently-closed Sunnyvale Chevrolet dealership. Last December the city actually recommended moving the entire Sunnyvale El Camino Auto Row to Onizuka Air Force Station which is scheduled to close in 2011. The city hadn’t decided what to do with the space on El Camino, and Radio Sunnyvale reports that the whole idea is on hold for now, but it shows that cities are ready to make big changes and they’re eyeing the valuable real estate that the transitioning auto industry is freeing up as the engines of that change. There’s no future in the single-use resource-guzzling status quo; the engines of change, it’s clear, will be hybrid.

Sunnyvale Chevy

High-Speed Rail Open House

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

CHSR SF BayContinuing with the rail theme today, the San Mateo County Times reports that representatives from the California High-Speed Rail Authority will be presenting at an open house at SamTrans headquarters in San Carlos Wednesday night. Part of their report will include proposals on how the trains would run up the Peninsula: at-grade, underground, or elevated. This is a contentious topic, especially for residents and businesses along the current Caltrain corridor who would be directly affected. It’s likely to be a lively meeting.

Alternatives Analysis Open House
California High-Speed Rail Authority
San Francisco to San Jose Section
Project Environmental Impact Report/Enviromental Impact Statement



Wednesday, September 30, 2009
6:00 – 8:00 pm


SamTrans Auditorium
1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos, CA

There will be subsequent meetings in Sunnyvale on October 9 and in San Francisco on October 13.  Update: Here are the details for the other meetings. The same information will be presented at all three meetings.


Friday, October 9, 6:00 ‐ 8:00 pm


Sunnyvale Recreation Center (Ballroom)
550 E. Remington Drive
Sunnyvale, CA


Tuesday, October 13, 6:00 ‐ 8:00 pm


Milton Marks Conference Center
455 Golden Gate Avenue – Lower Level
San Diego A/B/C Rooms
San Francisco, CA

It’s instructive to think of the history of California as the progression of its ground transit systems: first El Camino Real, then the railways, then the U.S. and Interstate highways. High-speed rail promises to be the next chapter in the state’s evolution and perhaps in 50 years it will be difficult to imagine California without it. But I sympathize with the folks who will have to live with this in their backyards.

[Source: San Mateo County Times]

The Alameda Community Meeting

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

The first full-blown community meeting for “The Alameda: A Plan for the Beautiful Way” is happening on Wednesday, September 30, 2009. The full details are below. They had held smaller meetings for individual neighborhoods but this is the first at-large gathering. Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio will be there.

The Alameda Invite
Click for PDF

I attended the last meeting for the Shasta/Hanchett Park neighborhood and got a real sense for the concerns of the residents and business owners, many of whom had been in the area for decades. I’d say the number one complaint was about traffic.  Cars drive too fast in their unfettered hurry to get in and out of downtown. There are no bike lanes so the speeding cars drive the cyclists onto the sidewalks where they menace pedestrians. And the poor pedestrians can hardly cross The Alameda at the crosswalks which are unprotected by traffic lights. When it comes to transit, the Beautiful Way has an ugly side.

I heard pros and cons for some notable ideas on how to calm traffic, better serve bikes and pedestrians, and favor local businesses. Some ideas: reducing lanes, widening sidewalks, reconfiguring parking, adding pedestrian bulbouts, building or extending medians. Barbara Maloney of urban planning consulting firm BMS Design Group gave a presentation on the current state of the street, the project, and on relevant government initiatives. I even shared my own views on the street not as a resident, but as a tourist. I let them know what draws me to the area and changes I’d like to see. Hilariously I announced this very blog hoping to gain readers, but forgot to mention its name. Publicity FAIL!

Neightborhood meeting

What I gained most from the meeting was a lesson on the civic process. I’ve never participated in neighborhood or local government like this, so I was impressed and inspired to see how plugged-in and productive people can be about their community. I attended a similar meeting in Menlo Park, so I’m all fired up.

The San Jose Redevelopment Agency has put together a survey you can use to express your opinions on The Alameda.

I plan to attend this next meeting. I’ve even been reading up a little on urban design so I can casually drop terms like “setbacks” and “massing” and sound knowledgeable. Most importantly, on my way there I’ll be driving just a little bit slower. It’s a start.

The Alameda:
A Plan for The Beautiful Way

What: You are invited to attend the first meeting for “The Alameda:
A Plan for The Beautiful Way” project. The streetscape
improvement project is intended to help enliven The Alameda as
a community-serving retail and transportation center, and foster
economic and residential development. Your participation and
input will help shape the future of The Alameda.
When: Wednesday, September 30, 2009
6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Where: Westminster Church
1100 Shasta Avenue (at The Alameda)
  For more information or to complete The Alameda survey visit:
or call 408.535.8549. Surveys will also be available at the first
community meeting.