In a study session Tuesday, City Council members made some preliminary -- but very significant -- moves in planning the El Camino Real of the future.
If council members' direction Tuesday is any indication, an El Camino Real "precise plan" drafted for approval by year's end may allow higher density development in four "activity centers" at major intersections, along with bike lanes on portions of El Camino Real where street parking isn't needed, and some incentives for the development of shallow and often long-vacant lots, all while requiring "sensible" building heights against neighboring homes.
The four "activity centers" included the shopping center areas at Grant Road and Highway 237; a large area where El Monte and Escuela both meet El Camino; the north sides of the intersections at Showers Drive and San Antonio Road, and a large stretch between Castro Street and Shoreline Boulevard. Other intersections, such as those at Sylvan Avenue and Rengstorff Avenue, would be "medium intensity" areas.
Among the challenges in redeveloping El Camino Real is the large number of shallow lots (over half the parcels on El Camino Real are less than an acre) where there's little room for buildings with parking. Several have been vacant for years, notably on the stretch between Calderon Avenue and Castro Street.
"Do we want to provide any favors to people" interested in redeveloping these sites "or do we always want the (vacant) Tasty Freeze to be on El Camino -- and the (vacant) car lot next door?" asked council member Mike Kasperzak of two sites that have been vacant for many years.
The environmental planning commission recommended "auto-oriented uses" on the shallower lots, while Kasperzak and others disagreed. Council member Ronit Bryant said the lots were destined to become sites for town homes, while Mayor Chris Clark said some should be open space.
"I personally have issues with 'car-oriented' stuff," Kasperzak said, echoing the opinions of other council members, adding that it did not fit into the regional vision for a "Grand Boulevard" on El Camino that is walkable and attractive. "Jiffy Lubes and gas stations -- that doesn't make sense to me."
Others interpreted "car-oriented" to simply mean uses that require street-level parking lots.
While council members have hinted in the past that they would allow higher densities to encourage the redevelopment of long-vacant lots, the shallow lots would remain in "low intensity" areas, according to plans council members supported. That's partly because many of them are next to single-family homes, and council members agreed with the planning commission's recommendation that new buildings have transitions so that they are only one story higher than nearby homes.
In the "activity centers" where development density could be higher, the intensity would be limited by "floor area ratio" which is a way of measuring a building's intensity by comparing its square footage to the size of the piece of land under it. Council members indicated support for going up to 1.85 FAR, up from 1.35 before, and only above that with permission from the City Council and significant public benefits.
"El Camino with very low buildings is a very unattractive place," said council member Ronit Bryant, who also complained that uniform building types and heights create a "tunnel effect" that is unpleasant. "With taller buildings it feels like a better place to be a person there."
Bike lanes get some support
"We think El Camino Real is an excellent potential corridor for bikes in Mountain View," said Colin Heyne, deputy director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. "Research has shown bicycles are more likely than drivers to stop and go shopping."
Council members were asked to decide whether to focus bicycle lane improvements on El Camino Real or the parallel side streets of Latham and Church -- or study both options. Bike advocates wanted both, noting that it was impossible for bicycles not to ride on the busy street in order to get to many destinations on El Camino and nearby. "A bicycle boulevard on Church and Latham is an excellent project but not entirely sufficient." Heyne said.
Kasperzak asked Heyne which option he'd choose if he had to pick one, to which Heyne responded, "El Camino." When asked if he'd ride with children on El Camino, a common concern among council members, he said "not in its current configuration.
Despite the safety concerns about bicyclists riding next to higher speed car traffic, in the end council members seemed amenable to a "phased approach" to putting in bike lanes on El Camino Real, as suggested by Mayor Clark.
"There's no reason why we can't start phasing in bike lanes where we don't have a lot of parking," Clark said. "Between Phyllis and Castro, there's very few cars parking on the street." Clark said that the parking could be incrementally moved off the street as El Camino redevelops.
Council members also decided to study bike improvements along Latham and Church, where bike advocates want to see a bike boulevard like those in Palo Alto -- a route that would connect with one to the north.
City planners said Tuesday that in order to better connect neighborhoods divided by El Camino, three new crossings would be studied with new traffic lights on El Camino Real. They would be located at Bonita Avenue (between Calderon and Castro), Crestview Drive (between Bernardo and Sylvan) and Mariposa Avenue (between Shoreline and El Monte). Some members had concerns that new lights could slow traffic.
"Are we making El Camino car-oriented, and go as fast we can, or a more pedestrian-friendy, bike-oriented place?" asked member Margaret Abe-Koga. "I don't know how we can do both."