SPUR Talk: How to Get More out of Rail

California is embarking on a huge rail construction project--but does it have the tools to exploit the real estate potential around stations?

The front of Kyoto Station, Japan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The front of Kyoto Station, Japan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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“Who has been to Kyoto Station in Japan?” asked Kate White with the California State Transportation Agency during a SPUR panel this afternoon about how to properly develop around the state’s growing rail network. Kyoto Station, as seen in the lead image, is an incredible agglomeration of shops, department stores, and intense commercial development. The Japanese railway system, by encouraging such intense developments around hub stations, captures every last bit of value created by the presence of the rail lines. “We need development tools so you don’t just get off the train in California and there’s nothing there but a platform…or a parking lot and a Costco.”

This is the challenge facing lawmakers and policy analysts as the state builds out its State Rail Plan, of which high-speed rail is the centerpiece. This is especially an issue in the Central Valley, in cities such as Fresno, Madera and Bakersfield, which will suddenly find themselves a short journey from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose.

“We need to think differently about the Central Valley,” said Egon Terplan, SPUR’s Regional Planning Director, who hosted the panel. In Central Valley cities, there “…continues to be pressure for outward growth. Land is cheaper, so Bakersfield and Fresno haven’t seen as much infill as we’re starting to see in Southern California and Bay Area.”

A map of California, by time instead of distance, before and after HSR. Image: CaHSRA
A map of California, by time instead of distance, before and after HSR. Image: CaHSRA

The cities of the Central Valley all have historic cores based on the train systems of old. And those cores stand to become very valuable real estate again, when they are a short train ride from San Francisco (see map above to get a sense of how distance and time will change). “A lot of them have a downtown core that got hollowed out in the freeway-building era,” said Terplan. But with HSR coming, they have a chance to revitalize and grow their downtowns. That’s going to require early work now, expanding street grids, improving sewers and other infrastructure, and just generally preparing for development.

But local and state laws make it hard to concentrate development around stations. That’s not just a problem in the Central Valley of course.

Terplan cited North Berkeley BART as an example of how badly station-area development can go. “Think about the investment in underground rail, and four decades later we have no developments? The local community got the transit but there was no oversight to achieve the development.”

The region spent a fortune putting BART underground through North Berkeley–and ended up with no development around the station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If the state wants to achieve its goals of reducing car trips and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there can’t be any more North Berkeleys–certainly not on the high-speed rail system. For its part, SPUR developed its Harnessing High Speed Rail report, with guidelines for policies and approaches for financing and building good station areas. But good guidelines and plans are meaningless without financing, incentives, and sometimes mandates. “Rail operators need an explicit role in governing the districts and being able to value capture,” said White.

That’s why lawmakers such as San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu are working on legislation to streamline development around stations. “We don’t need acres and acres of surface parking lots,” said Judson True, Chiu’s Chief of Staff.

He pointed out that even when station-area development is done well, it takes too long under current laws. “It’s taken 20 or 30 years to make the Fruitvale Station happen.” Assembly Bill 2923, (“Bay Area Rapid Transit: Transit-Oriented Development Zoning Standards”) co-authored by Chiu, would require BART to establish TOD criteria that local jurisdictions would have to follow. This is to avoid having local municipalities tie up projects because they demand nothing but parking at stations at the expense of housing and commercial development.

True explained that local officials who push against denser transit-oriented development mandates generally complain about the loss of local control (as they did with State Senator Scott Wiener’s SB-827, which intended to override local density limits around transit). But with Chiu’s bill they’re not taking away local control–“we’re shifting it to a different locally elected board, the BART Board.”

A view of the HSR station in Lyon, France, a city about the size of Fresno. Photo: SPUR
A view of the HSR station in Lyon, France, and its integration into the fabric of the city. Photo: SPUR

The panelists suggested this might be the right approach for similar legislation intended to make sure development happens around HSR stations–in other words, let the regional transit agencies determine the criteria around the stations.

True said these bills are just the start of a conversation about getting more housing around rail stations. One audience member, however, pointed out that most recent development around the downtown Oakland stations and most of what is planned for West Oakland is commercial real estate. The reason: the lack of any more capacity on BARTs core system means there’s no longer room to move more people from the East Bay to jobs in downtown San Francisco. The hope is that by focusing on building offices instead of housing in Oakland, BART trains can start carrying more people in the off-peak direction to jobs.

But that just speaks to the tight bond between good development and good transit. “Long term we need more Transbay capacity–and that’s also part of our state rail plan,” said White. True added that they want the tools to create both housing and commercial development around stations. He said that despite California’s incredible growth, it’s still saddled with “terrible land-use policy” left over from the age of automobile-oriented development. And that, of course, is what everyone on the panel, and in SPURs audience, are striving to fix.

The SPUR panel. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

For more information, check out SPUR’s ‘Harnessing High Speed Rail’ Report.

For more events like these, visit SPUR’s events page.

  • Kevin Withers

    “But with Chiu’s bill they’re not taking away local control–“we’re shifting it to a different locally elected board, the BART Board.”

    You’re taking away local control. Aside from BART board being an excellent example of dysfunction, it’s a regional, Bay Area board and absolutely does not equate with having city/municipal concerns.

    BART leadership consistently serves as a perfect example of what NOT to do.

  • artnouveau

    “The panelists suggested this might be the right approach for similar legislation intended to make sure development happens around HSR stations-in other words, let the regional transit agencies determine the criteria around the stations.”

    That’s great in theory. In Fresno, the transit agency is the City of Fresno.

    Just recently (Oct. 21, 2017), a six-mile stretch of Fulton Street in downtown was re-opened to vehicle traffic since that section became The Fulton Mall in 1964-an outdoor pedestrian mall, the hope being this would prompt just the kind of development mentioned in the article above. The transformation cost taxpayers $20 million.

    A little more than six months later, very little if any activity redevelopment-wise. A few retail establishments and/or restaurants closed up shop/closed their doors.

    Meanwhile, a hop, skip and jump to the west, right-of-way for California HSR is being cleared.

    My sense is: if anything prompts downtown Fresno development, redevelopment, revitalization, it will be HSR.

    And, just for the record, there has not been a rail line built anywhere in the San Joaquin Valley that I can think of since the very early 1900s. California HSR will be the first since that time and IT’S ABOUT TIME!

  • Richard_Plantagenet

    Bart should focus on improving the train system and keeping the criminals off the cars. Oh the fares are a rip off which is why more and more people clog our streets with Lyft cars. Let’s stop more high rises on Bart where all the people will just take Lyft anyways.

  • Richard_Plantagenet

    Exactly . Ridership is down due to ridiculous rates and crazy people on the cars… and streets are a mess due to more Lyft and uber vehicles.

  • HSR isn’t going to do one darn thing for revitalizing downtown Fresno. It’s a regional rail system, not local transit. Those who live within a few miles of downtown will drive like they do now. I can hardly see anyone from Stockton loading up the family for a HSR trip to downtown Fresno for the day. I also don’t see companies relocating to downtown Fresno because employees would have to drive to get there because how many people take public transit there?

  • It’s definitely a lose/lose situation. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 18 years and during most of that time have relied solely on public transit (BART, Muni, etc.). BART is sinking fast. Deferred maintenance aside, it is spiraling down a pit that will take a miracle to get out of. Knee jerk reaction is always to jack up fares which only alienates more riders. Ride hailing alternatives are more and more attractive especially in a wealthy region where disposable income is high for many folks. Why spend $6 on BART, wait forever for a train, and deal with the filth and foolishness on the trains when I can spend $15 on door to door service. This situation with BART reminds me a lot of the NYC subway demise in the late 60s-80s.
    As for more cars on the streets due to Lyft/Uber…you reap what you sow. When you don’t have a decent infrastructure in place and maintained then riders look elsewhere to get from point A to point B. Keep this is mind when Muni closes the Twin Peaks tunnel for 2 solid months beginning in June…riders won’t deal with shuttle bus replacements…they will take Uber/Lyft.

  • SPUR is completely useless. At one point in the distant past I honestly thought they cared and were a force to help solve the problems and plan for the future. The future came and problems weren’t solved. Transit remains fractured. No tangible solutions in place. Congestion continues to worsen and cost of living is through the solar-paneled roof. Those panel discussions only get you so far.

  • crazyvag

    There’s a balance between how clogged streets people will tolerate before taking transit – either underground or via bus lanes. Clearly traffic is not yet bad enough and gas/tolls expensive enough.

  • Claude

    On the other hand, whether employees drive, ride or walk, land is cheaper in the Fresno area and Fresno has a good university.
    I can see tech companies expanding to a satellite campus in Fresno and only sending a few key people to visit every week to keep the campi coordinated.


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