Cupertino Downtown and Housing

[Comments made during the July 23, 2001 City of Cupertino Planning Commission meeting]

On July 17, 2001 we heard loud and clear from longtime residents that they didn't want Cupertino to be another San Jose. In fact there was a clearly articulated preference for Los Altos, not Mountain View, as a model for Cupertino. It is important and gratifying to see people turnout at community meetings to express their opinion. It is equally important that we weight their input in proportion to the percentage of the population they represent.

Unfortunately, from the turnout at the meeting one might think it represented 98% of the views in the community. Absent were many voices from our large and grown Asian community, and of course, from the community of people who work here and can't afford to live here, from the elderly who can't afford to stay, and from the young families who would like to move here.

It is equally important that those who attended, particularly those people who are most incensed at the direction, either real or perceived, that Cupertino is taking, leave room in their opinions for the possibility that they are either wrong, in whole or in part, or that they may be on the minority end of the stick when it comes to future plans for the city.

We have other sources of community opinion, in particular from the Godbe survey of May 2000, and from the Local Links Community Congress of last year as well. At the community congress housing availability and the creation of a "downtown" were chief among concerns. These issues are intimately related. To understand how let's look at some history.

Cupertino was designed as a suburb. It has a suburban geometry with no downtown. It is part of the sprawl problem that plagues America. Anyone in doubt as to the negative impacts of suburban sprawl should read the following:

Sprawl can be characterized by the following:

  1. Automobile dependence that is hostile to walking and other forms of transit.
  2. Segregated uses. Housing one place, shopping another, industrial another.
  3. Very low density. 4 units per acre and sometimes lower.
  4. Automobile-centric design. Garages instead of porches in the front of the house. Wide streets instead of narrow. 30-foot radius corners for high-speed car turns. Long streets with few stop signs. Serpentine streets. Cul-de-sacs. Feeder and collector roads that force all traffic onto a single main artery instead of using the maximum street surface to move traffic.

Suburban Nation outlines a recipe for fixing the problems of sprawl through a concept called New Urbanism. It is this concept of New Urbanism that is at the center of Cupertino's current Heart of the City plan and other plans.

At this point I would like to clarify some misperception from the community meeting held last week. One gentleman asked, "how many general plans are there?" He held up the 1993 revision and the Heart of the City plans as evidence that Cupertino has a multiplicity of ideas about its future direction. This is incorrect. There is just one General Plan. It is the 1993 revision that is up for review at this very moment. The general plan is the master plan from which all other plans derive. The General Plan process is mandated by state law and administered by the Governor's Office of Planning and Research. In OPR's guidelines, derivative plans, called variously Area Specific Plans or sometimes overlay plans are encouraged. The Heart of the City plan is an Area Specific Plan. It is more detailed than the General Plan, but is consistent with the General Plan.

Cupertino also has an Area Specific Plan for the Monta Vista business district. In my view, Cupertino does not have enough Area Specific Plans. I would like to see one for every neighborhood in Cupertino. A plan that would involve the most elemental building blocks of our community, and set the plans for future development or preservation of those neighborhoods.

Back to New Urbanism. In order for Cupertino to achieve both more available housing at affordable prices and a downtown, Cupertino must reach a critical mass of people to attract businesses to the area. The bookstores, cafes, theaters, and other services that Cupertino desires to have within walking distance must have enough customers to survive and thrive. Cupertino does not possess any historical downtown as such, so if we want one we must create one from whole cloth. We can achieve this critical mass along the corridors identified in the General Plan today. Along Stevens Creek and also De Anza Boulevards. Not only will more people in these areas attract good, retail shops, but it will lead to the vibrancy and animation that is necessary to make a downtown come alive with activity. Anyone who witnessed the failure of Passeo de San Antonio in downtown San Jose can attest to the fact that buildings and shops are necessary, but not sufficient. There must be people.

And why do we need more housing? Only by increasing supply can we lower prices. There may be a few below market units or subsidized affordable housing, but to make a large quantity of housing available to help reduce overall pricing, we must build many more units than we have historically. Of course, we can stick our heads in the sand like Los Altos has and pronounce ourselves to be done with growth and the last one in close the doors behind you. But I believe this to be civically irresponsible, and not in the spirit of making room in the boat for anyone willing to do their share.

To be sure, housing is a regional problem, and must be tackled by all Bay Area communities. Every house not built in Cupertino is another plot on Tracy farmland or Fremont hilltop that will be turned into yet another hideous example of sprawl. Cupertino must do its share.

Who are these people who want to live in this town? They are the people who teach our young, fight our fires, police our streets, serve our meals. They are our parents who want to stay here with their friends, but live in something smaller with less maintenance than the house they reared their kids in. By denying housing to these people we force them to live in Gilroy, across a bridge or over a mountain, and we put more commuter automobiles on the road.

We end up with tired, commute weary workers in our town, and we unravel the social fabric as these people eventually give up the drive and the dream of a home in Cupertino and move back or out to Denver, and Texas and Illinois.

I personally don't feel that we need any more corporate campuses or big box retail. What we do need are more opportunities for those who work here to live here at a reasonable rent. These additional people will make it possible to support a vibrant, animated, walkable downtown. In this way the most visible parts of Cupertino will change. Our neighborhoods, where the vast majority of people reside will change little. At the borders between these two is where the most unease will occur.

If we subscribe to the New Urbanist vision already largely enunciated in our general plan, then we must recognize the border issues for what they are, and not succumb to the political expedient of attempting to appease everyone.