Silicon Valley: Jelly in the Jam


My last post was about how Silicon Valley is evolving into an urban form that’s not quite leafy and open enough to be a suburb anymore, but not really vibrant and compact enough to be a proper city either. “Too thin to be jelly. Too thick to be jam.” The story got an unusually large number of visits. I received some well informed comments that touched on the reality that Silicon Valley is a big place and I shouldn’t generalize. Palo Alto is very different from Fremont and so on. It’s not all isolated corporate enclaves. Fair enough. So here’s a quick follow up that explores the jelly in the jam.

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This is the town of San Carlos twenty five miles south of San Francisco and an equal distance north of San Jose. We all have our biases. I’m partial to the kind of walkable Main Street small town that was common everywhere a century ago. I like a place with mom and pop shops and a mix of modest cottages and grand stately homes a few blocks in each direction. For me that’s the perfect balance of city and suburb. A Main Street provides a broad range of activities while accommodating pedestrians, cyclists, and cars without prejudice. These places can also be well served by public transit – not so much to get around town, but to efficiently connect people to other towns that are also walkable. If these small towns are then surrounded by working farms and a bit of nature all the better. Toss in a nearby city for access to culture and jobs and I’m in heaven. But such places are hard to come by in America these days. Fortunately, Silicon Valley has a string of such places along the historic rail line like little gems imbedded in the post WWII sprawl.

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San Carlos sits between two major freeways and right on El Camino Real and the CalTrain line that serves the entire peninsula. It’s possible to navigate most parts of San Carlos as a pedestrian, hop on a train or a bus, or drive to just about everything in the Bay Area. You have a lot of transportation choices that are equally good. What’s more important to me personally is that being a pedestrian or cyclist is actually pleasant in San Carlos. Transit within most of the town itself is entirely unnecessary. There are areas up in the hills with a lot of twisting cul-de-sacs that are more manageable in a car, but there’s at least a continuum of housing options including small apartment buildings next to shops downtown. People can select their own personal sweet spot.

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There are relatively “affordable” $950,000 bungalows (this is the Bay Area) while the big fancy homes up on the hill with water views sell for $7,000,000. I understand these numbers seem ridiculous to people in other parts of the country, but San Carlos has immediate access to very well paid jobs so these prices are justified based on local incomes. If you have the money it’s a great place to raise a family with excellent public schools and a safe clean environment. It’s also a pretty fabulous retirement spot if you decide to age in place. And it isn’t terrible to be a young single person in San Carlos either. That little downtown and the train station make all the difference. You’ll find the same basic arrangements in similar older towns along the train line: Burlingame, San Mateo, Menlo Park, Mountain View, and so on.

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Here’s another point that’s often overlooked by city planners obsessed with making everything pretty or attracting the right demographic to their town. Every town needs some ugly utilitarian stuff. Even in a place where schmaltzy tract homes sell for a million bucks people still need plumbers, electricians, and low grade warehouses. If a town zones or redevelops these areas out of existence they induce more people to get into their cars and trucks to commute to distant industrial parks in a region where freeway traffic already comes to a complete halt during most business hours. And these suburban warehouse districts are also excellent buffers from the ugliness and noise of freeways and rail lines. No one wants to live pressed up against a diesel train or freeway interchange full of tractor trailers. It’s often a mistake to see these light industrial areas as redevelopment opportunities for dense infill housing.

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Some of the comments I received from my last post mentioned recent projects that brought transit and density to some Silicon Valley suburbs. This is San Bruno, home to tech companies like YouTube. It has all the same advantages of San Carlos: immediate access to good jobs and nearby culture, the same freeways, El Camino Real, a BART rail station, similar single family housing stock, and so on. But the two towns are very different. I would love to live in San Carlos, but I could never live in San Bruno. Here’s why.

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San Bruno was built after cars had come to dominate the landscape. There never was much of a town and everything built over the last sixty or seventy years has been organized around the freeways. A rail station in a shopping mall parking lot that’s cut off by massive twelve lane roads is just miserable for pedestrians and of little use to people in cars. There are plenty of people on foot in San Bruno, but they’re very poorly served in this environment.

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Density and transit all by themselves do nothing for a town if the public realm is completely car oriented. These new infill apartment buildings are perfectly respectable and I’m sure they’re very comfortable on the inside. But once you step outdoors you find yourself in the left over space between parking lots and highways. You can physically walk to the supermarket and the dentist and the train station so it checks off a lot of boxes on the “Smart Growth” list, but you feel like a social outcast as you schlep around the edge of speeding vehicles. The scale is out of whack with human needs because the needs of cars always come first. Adding apartments and giant parking garages to a suburban environment also adds that many more cars to the already congested roads. This kind of development bothers people who want a traditional suburb and it falls short for people who want a genuine urban experience. As I walked around this cluster of apartments I thought about how it could have been done better. What if the ground floors had shops in them? What if the sidewalks were wider? What if the roads were more narrow? What if the buildings were organized around outdoor public space instead of having the greenery sprinkled around the edges in useless landscaped berms and highway medians?

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As I made my way from one suburban train station to the next I discovered another infill project that actually made an effort to do many of the things on my list. Wide sidewalks? Check. Meaningful public space? Check. Shops on the ground floor? Check. At least a few narrow side streets? Check. Train station around the corner? Check. This place was significantly better. But… context is important.

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Here’s a Google Earth view of the area in which I colored the roads, surface parking lots, and multi-story parking garages blue. What would you call that building to pavement ratio? It looks like 60/40 to me in favor of pavement. The largest garage is owned by BART and is designed to collect suburban drivers and funnel them into the city by train for the last little stretch of the commute. This kind of train station is a highway patch to relieve traffic congestion in the city. It has nothing at all to do with “transit” or any kind of urbanism. It’s a clumsy and expensive prosthetic limb for cars and highways.

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Here’s what it looks like on the ground. This well intentioned mixed use infill project is an island in the middle of the usual suburban sprawl. I’m quite certain that the people who live in the single family homes across the street drive to the Trader Joe’s market even though it’s only a block away. If I had to choose a spot to live this place is marginally better than San Bruno, but still an order of magnitude worse than San Carlos. And I should point out that San Carlos has a downtown of mostly one story buildings surrounded by much smaller apartment buildings than these and a majority of detached single family homes. “Density” has nothing to do with the success or failure of good urbanism.

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Here’s the sad part. Even after what must have been an heroic effort on the part of everyone involved in getting this project built it still fails to cultivate enough foot or vehicular traffic to support small shops. The Trader Joe’s and the Starbucks are doing well enough, no doubt feeding off the morning and evening commuter flows from the BART station. And there is a small dry cleaner that’s managing to get by so far. But the rest of the storefronts are empty and have been so from the get go. Too thick to be jam. Too thin to be jelly. I keep wanting suburban retrofits to work, but they rarely do. The typical suburban chassis makes incremental urbanism a hit or miss affair. Mostly miss. The question is… what are the alternatives? Do we just let the cost of the existing single family homes rise until people and businesses pick up and move to Scottsdale or Orlando in search of economic relief? Do we let taxes rise on all the strip malls and gas stations until the necessary funds appear to repave all the twelve lane roads out in front of them? Or is mediocre the best we can expect from half assed infill projects that do the best they can under the circumstances?

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for, and is a regular contributor to He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.