Friday, October 11, 2013

The Decline and Fall of Suburban Silicon Valley

One a recent Sunday, I found my way headed down to the Farmer's Market in downtown Mountain View. Once upon a time, this was a pleasant way to spend a Sunday morning, with a short drive through the neighborhoods to the quiet downtown. My most recent Sunday was spent battling traffic, fighting for parking, and dodging the dynamic obstacles created by people who seemed to have just managed to eek out passing grades on their driver's tests. In short, Sunday morning traffic is looking a lot like what traffic used to look like on a Friday evening.

Over the past couple of years, our quaint little downtown has been gradually transforming. Increasingly, downtown Mountain View has been getting more and more crowded. It used to be Friday and Saturday night were difficult. These days, it's hard to find a day or a time when you can just pop on over to downtown for a quick bite without running around, hunting for parking.

For those of you who are new to the area, downtown Mountain View has changed a lot over the past twenty years or so -- as with all of the downtown areas in the little cities throughout the bay area. Over the years, each city has taken their own different approach as toward managing their downtown, with a myriad of results. From the gentrified mall-on-a-street experience on Burlingame Avenue to the it's-always-changing-but-never-really-changes aspect of downtown Palo Alto, our towns always seem to be looking for the right formula to make their downtown area special.

Probably the best thing that Mountain View did for downtown was when they opened up the parking areas along Castro Street for restaurants to serve food outside. It made downtown Mountain View the land of the sidewalk cafe. This one small change quickly transformed the area from yet another little downtown to a go-to experience when the weather is nice.

The change was good for restaurant business downtown. Between open air dining and a host of start-ups that all took off back around 2006, weekends were often busy, weekday lunches were usually crowded, and there was a general excitement in the air. You could feel a real Silicon Valley vibe in the air.

Downtown Mountain View also plays as an interesting contrast to Murphy Street in downtown Sunnyvale. Over the years, Murphy Street has waxed and waned. There are times when it has been packed, crowded with bars and restaurants, full of people and activity. Then other times, you could go down there and it was like a ghost-town with empty buildings and a handful of people on the street. It's always a reminder of the contrast between there and Castro Street.

When Busy Becomes Too Crowded
It used to be that parking was easy in the lots just off of Castro. On a busy night or a weekend, you might have to park two blocks away, but it was seldom difficult. Then, on weekends you needed to hunt for a space, and even the multi-level garage filled up. Then Thursday nights got to be as bad as Friday. Now, it's common all week.

Coming home on Friday night, I couldn't help but notice the traffic. While it's not unusual to see traffic backed up on southbound 101, with crowds headed to south San Jose and points beyond, I rarely see southbound Central Expressway being equally backed up. Lawrence, San Tomas, Montague and eastbound 237 were all full of people headed from the places where there are offices to the places where there is housing. And by the time I got to Mountain View, I was blown away by the back up on southbound El Camino going into Sunnyvale -- gridlock from Bernardo back past 85. Don't get me wrong, I didn't think that they were all going to the same place, I was just struck by the volume of cars on roads that usually have much less. We appear to be in the process of a pivot from Silicon Valley to Silicon Parking Lot.

Increasing Population Density: The Beaver Dam of Silicon Valley
Anyone who lives here understands the challenge of housing in Silicon Valley. Rents are high and the cost of buying is always one exponential level higher than most salaries can afford. Our ranks our full of people who would love to own, but ownership tends to be the super-thrifty, the one-time windfall recipients, the speculators and the people who bring a fat wad of cash from somewhere else. With all of this pressure on the market, housing is scarce.

The solution to this used to be further and further out of the area. Development in Pleasanton and Livermore pushed out into the central valley, while south San Jose pushed into Morgan Hill and Gilroy. Locally, there has been an ongoing push to higher density housing and development in places that didn't have housing before. I remember a quote from one of the Mountain View city council members when they approved the first zero-lot homes between Dana and Villa, "I was skeptical that anyone would buy them, but then I was surprised how quickly they sold."

And with the success of Santana Row, cities and neighborhoods throughout the area keep building these types of developments, celebrating the idea of mixed use property and two-to-three story townhomes. In a few years, this style of building may be more common in the area than the iconic Eichler. In the downtown Mountain View area, we've seen the blocks that used to be the lumberyard or single story office buildings leveled and replaced with three-story residential buildings. In the area that I used to work in Milpitas near the Great Mall, they have dozed entire blocks of single story commercial properties and they're replacing them with three-story housing.

While you might think that all of this housing would relieve some of the pressure on the housing market here, it hasn't. There are bidding wars on houses, lotteries to get into some of these developments, and demand to consume the growing supply.

What it all adds up to is a lot more people in the area. More people, more cars, more traffic. And at the same time, we're not really adding any infrastructure. No new lanes on the freeway, no wider roads, no new trains or subways, no new bus routes. In some cases, we're adding more parking, but that doesn't really count. And while it's true that we probably have more people driving electric and hybrid cars in our area than other parts of the country, they are all still cars.

We are drowning in traffic. The flood of vehicles on the roads, of people in lines at stores and restaurants. And it's not something that can really be managed on the local level. Here in Mountain View, we can't keep them from zoning more high-density housing in Milpitas. And while we're happy to see a healthy Google bringing jobs and supporting the local economy, the idyllic park-like setting around Shoreline is looking more and more like urban rush-hour all the time.

The Relationship Between People and Infrastructure
While I would love for this to be a "You Kids Get off My Lawn" post, that sort of assumes that we have lawns. But seriously, there is a real world relationship between the infrastructure and the number of people it can support. Imagine if Silicon Valley was a stadium. There are only so many seats in the stadium. You get to a point where, it doesn't matter how many people want to come inside, you can't sell more tickets than the stadium can support, because there are real world limits -- bathrooms, seats, exits. Right now, we're in a situation where people just keep printing and selling tickets into the area.

Is it reasonable to accept a future where all of our roads are crowded like the Bay Bridge at rush hour? Can we find some place to put a "lot full" sign on the area?

Realistically, I don't think we're going to be able to manage or limit the number of people coming into the area. Instead, I think we need to come to terms with what this increasing density means on our transportation infrastructure. Otherwise, we can look forward to the day when VTA Slow-Rail -- the light rail train from Mountain View to San Jose takes about an hour -- seems like Elon Musk's Hyperloop. That is, assuming that you can get a seat.

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