Mountain View Voice

Opinion - February 12, 2010

A question of density

As the city's leaders look into the way planning and zoning rules will shape housing patterns for the next 20 years, they are coming down solidly on the side of taller, denser buildings in three locations — El Camino Real, North Bayshore, and the San Antonio shopping center.

During a work session last week on what is being called the 2030 General Plan, the City Council and Planning Commission agreed that these are the best places to absorb a population projected to grow to as high as 98,900, up 35 percent from today's 73,000 residents. A less aggressive scenario was considered, but the higher density won the most support.

This line of reasoning makes sense: Why not funnel population growth into taller buildings along El Camino Real, close to transit, or in the North Bayshore area, close to job centers?

But before any plans are approved, the city needs to address concerns expressed by council member Jac Siegel and planning commissioner John McAllister, who worry that more density will result in traffic gridlock. It's a legitimate concern, and although the General Plan ideas are not permanently in place yet, they should account for the fact that strong traffic mitigations will be needed before packing thousands of new residents into four- and five-story buildings along our busiest thoroughfares.

Stanford University has already provided us with one good example of how to manage such traffic impacts. The university, which has maintained its total car trips at 1989 levels despite extensive growth, supports a convenient shuttle system both on and off campus, and in some cases actually pays workers to leave their cars at home and use mass transit.

A shuttle service is one of many good ideas for reducing car trips. At a minimum, too, the city should make sure all new residents have grocery stores and other necessities within walking distance, and that commuters have a good way to reach transit points such as Caltrain. Indeed, a denser but well-designed city could actually improve, rather than diminish, residents' quality of life.

There are other factors that could be improved with well-designed growth, including the bottom line. According to city forecasters, increased housing stock could mean a positive impact on the General Fund balance — up to nearly $30 million under the most aggressive plan, or $24.3 million under more modest growth, by 2030.

So far, the city's General Plan rewrite, which could have been a deadly dull process, is surprisingly lively and on topic. Earlier discussions of sustainability were timely, and looking out at the next 20 years gives us an idea of where the city can and should grow. But the meetings aren't over yet: Focus areas to be discussed include Old Middlefield Way, the Whisman area and Moffett Boulevard.

We urge residents to take part in these discussions, and to share their thoughts with planning commissioners and council members, before city leaders vote on this important blueprint once and for all.

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