.Would the Rail Trail Bring Denser Housing to Santa Cruz?

[This is part one of a two-part series on transportation ahead of a Jan. 17 Regional Transportation Commission vote on the Unified Corridor Study. Part two runs next week. — Editor]

If commuter trains come rolling through the county’s coastal rail corridor 30 years from now, it’s anyone’s guess how exactly those trains will look, or where they will stop. But whatever the details, there’s a decent chance that some of the buildings near those stops will be four times taller than many of them are today.

While the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) prepares to vote on the county’s transportation future later this month, there’s a growing effort to zone for taller, denser housing projects near major transit stops. Here in Santa Cruz, the RTC is getting ready to vote on accepting a Unified Corridor Study on Thursday, Jan. 17. The study outlines a scenario which includes some highway improvements, a commuter train and new bike trails. Some activists are still pushing for a wider trail with no train, given concerns about low potential ridership and high costs.

The word “density” has been known to set off alarm bells in certain circles of neighborhood activists, and the city’s corridor zoning update for taller buildings on major streets is currently on life support for that reason. The RTC will not be not be voting on building heights or any zoning issues—even as it considers future rail transit this month. It isn’t even clear if, or how, the commission would fund all of the items on whatever laundry list of ideas it ends up approving. Specific land-use decisions would be up to local governments, like the Board of Supervisors, in the years to come.

But California state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) recently told GT that increased housing density—or “up-zoning,” as it’s known in housing policy circles—should “absolutely” be part of the discussion when it comes to new transportation projects. Urban planners typically view the approach of zoning for taller apartment complexes next to public transportation as a way to build affordable housing in the most environmentally friendly way possible. It’s this kind of housing, after all, that makes it easy for everyday people to get around without owning a car.

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The backdrop here is that the statewide affordable housing crisis is now several years old, and governments around California, including in Santa Cruz County, aren’t meeting their mandated housing production goals. As a possible solution, Wiener introduced Senate Bill 827 last year to up-zone for high density in the blocks surrounding major transit stops. That original bill would have allowed developers to build as high as 85 feet. Wiener then toned down SB 827, which earned both widespread criticism and enthusiastic praise nationwide, but the bill died a quick death in its committee. This year, Wiener is back with a revised version, SB 50, which would allow buildings of up to 45 or 55 feet, depending on how close they are to a major transit hub, and the new bill has more buy-in. Each new building under the legislation would include some affordable housing.

Shortly after he finished delivering the keynote at a Monterey Bay Economic Development conference, I asked Wiener about the state of housing and transportation. He mentioned that he recently helped kill an extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system to Livermore, because the train stops would not have had the housing density to support robust ridership. “Let’s focus on the system where people are actually living and riding,” Wiener told me. “If you’re gonna make a big public investment in major transit infrastructure, you should make sure that there is housing right around the station, so that more people can use it and walk and not have to drive everywhere.”

Cars aside, there’s also an affordable housing element here. Without major changes in housing policy, it’s possible that most everyday workers would be unable to afford a place to rent near a major transit hub.

According to new research out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, communities that approve big transportation projects typically see an increase in rents and real estate values in the area as urban professionals flock to the suburbs and then commute to work by train. Hypothetically, if leaders allow for more housing, with affordable units built in, they could help ease that pain and maybe even foster a more diverse ridership pool. The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa has reported that the new Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) caters mostly to the “white and well-off.”

With a big transportation vote around the corner at the RTC, maybe now is the right moment for an honest conversation about what we’re really discussing when we talk about the future of the rail corridor, and the planning considerations that should go along with it. But Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley) suggests that may be “putting the cart before the horse.”

Stone, a former RTC commissioner, says that the land-use decisions will come when the time is right. Although wary of Wiener’s housing bills, he says it’s a given that communities around the county and state need to plan for denser housing as part of addressing the housing crisis. But he says that each area should do it in the way that’s best for them, given their own constraints and resources. That approach, he suggests, would be the best defense against legislation from lawmakers like Wiener, who want to introduce new statewide mandates.

Locally, some train supporters are nonetheless bullish on the idea of up-zoning. Barry Scott, a board member for Friends of the Rail and Trail, says that increased density next to commuter train stops would bolster ridership.

“It’s nothing new. If you go back and look at the communities and cities from 100 years ago, you had taller, denser buildings,” says Scott, who coordinates environmental education programs around the state. “You had the cobbler on the ground floor, and you lived above it. You might have had transit in the area.”

Scott, pulling up a map on his computer, sees plenty of room to build up the areas near the rail line, including in the industrial area of Santa Cruz’s Westside, as well as in parts of Live Oak and Pleasure Point.

“Yeah, that’s where we need to build,” he says.


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