Palo Alto's home-grown planner finds a market for "utopian" ideals
by Peter Gauvin
On scrolls of transparent drawing paper in his San Francisco office, Peter Calthorpe captains his pencil with controlled abandon, creating two-dimensional models for a three-dimensional world. Here, on the fourth floor of a garden-variety, converted warehouse building near the foot of the Bay Bridge, Calthorpe draws plans for neighborhood blocks, entire towns and new cities for a half million people.
He seems almost cavalier with his pencil, considering the speed with which he draws lines that have the capability of changing the patterns of people's lives with every stroke. But, then again, he's a busy man whose services are in increasing demand these days.
Not only is Calthorpe--with his six-person firm, Calthorpe Associates-- the design consultant behind Palo Alto's Comprehensive Plan revision and the designer of a progressive, "transit-oriented" housing development under construction at the former Old Mill mall just across the Palo Alto border in Mountain View, but the nationally-known planner has a dozen or so other projects in the works as well.
In Portland, Ore., Calthorpe is devising a plan for the city to absorb a million more people without expanding its urban boundaries or sinking its economy. "The Portland region is now a million and a half population. The question is how could you go to 2.5 million in the next 30 to 50 years, given normal growth projections?" he said.
Calthorpe--who's been a pioneer in finding acceptability for progressive urban planning ideas such as urban villages, pedestrian pockets, and transit-oriented development--says we can keep our open spaces and our sanity while allowing for inevitable population growth.
"What we were able to show is that you can go in and take the really underutilized commercial sites, a lot like Old Mill, which will become more and more defunct over time--the strip commercial areas, the one-story retail malls with huge parking lots--and redevelop them into mixed-use projects.
"Redeveloping the existing underutilized suburban land I think can give us another 40 years of growth," he said, without conquering any more territory.
But Calthorpe still finds resistance from many developers who argue that they have to develop new land because it's too expensive to do "infill"--developing small pockets of land within existing developed areas.
"The reality is it is very expensive to do infill, especially with a lot of NIMBY's and no-growthers stalling," he said. "There's just such strong no-growth sentiment that infill is very difficult even though it's physically practical and economically and ecologically desirable, it is socially and politically very difficult."
Of all places, it is the Philippines where Calthorpe has his biggest project using the planning philosophies of what has become known as "new urbanism." There, he is designing a new city for a half million people with a combination of government and private sector investment.
"They decided that unlike the Chinese example of massive industrialization expansion, they really wanted to create a kind of unique humane and ecologically coherent place," he said.
"Basically, it's a city center with a rail connection to downtown Manila and then a series of 16 villages, each one with its own greenbelt, wet-and-dry market, schools and church, all attached to a main spine road that goes to the city center."
Calthorpe has a soft spot for Palo Alto. He grew up in two places here, near Channing Avenue and Middlefield Road and in south Palo Alto. He went to Terman Junior High School and attended high school in Los Altos.
"My father is an inventor, so he never worked anywhere. It never really appeared that he was working at all. But he made enough for us all to get along on very well," said Calthorpe, who now lives in Berkeley with his wife and two children, including a new daughter.
After high school, he went off to Antioch College in Ohio, "but I always came back to the Palo Alto area."
He was involved in the free school movement in the '60s at Peninsula School in Menlo Park and Pacific High School up on Skyline Boulevard, where he taught.
"That's actually how I got my start in architecture. I was teaching design, and got interested in architecture and helped the school build student housing. That led to the publication of a book called the `Dome Book,' which was kind of a '60s manifesto of alternative architecture. (But) I didn't like domes, so I just started designing and building homes."
A few years later he decided to get a graduate degree in architecture at Yale University. After one year, "I dropped out 'cause it was much ado about nothing really. It was all about style, not about content."
He came back to California and went to work in Governor Jerry Brown's administration designing energy-efficient buildings, primarily solar. "I discovered that solar was just one small piece of a much larger question, which was the kind of communities that we live in: How they affect the environment and how they affect our social lives."
In the early 1980s, he coauthored the book "Sustainable Communities" with Sym Van der Ryn. What followed were books on pedestrian pockets, transit-oriented development and new urbanism. "Logical progressions and maturations," he calls them. His latest book is "The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community and the American Dream."
Having been one of the first to bring the ideals of new urbanism from the pundit's podium to large, mainstream projects, does Calthorpe consider himself to be more of a planner or a businessman?
"I think the relevant issue is how these ideas, which some people call utopian, work into the private sector of developers, city governments, and financing issues. I'm a firm believer that what makes for better lives, will be infinitely more marketable. So sooner or later we'll come to our senses and realize that this suburban sprawl that we've been building for so long is not only unwise environmentally and socially, but also economically.
"It's as if the culture were investing in is an incredibly expensive and hard to maintain piece of machinery. It's constantly breaking down all the time and takes huge subsidies to make it work. No good business would do that. Well, unfortunately the culture at large and the public sector has been doing that in its land-use patterns for too long . . . and you're seeing it breaking down all over, primarily in areas like California, where the circulation system isn't working, affordable housing isn't available, and the tax base isn't large enough to cover public costs."
With projects like the Old Mill, Calthorpe hopes to reverse the tide. Situated next to a planned CalTrain commuter station, The Crossings, as it is called, will provide a range of housing opportunities and retail connected by tree-lined streets and pedestrian paths, with parks and open spaces distributed throughout the 18-acre site. It will include a combination of small-lot, single-family residential homes, townhouses and apartments.
"We're taking an underutilized commercial area right next to transit and turning it into a mixed-use neighborhood," Calthorpe said. "Adding housing around transit is the best thing we can possibly do for the region, for lots of reasons: It puts riders into the transit system, it makes coming and going from the transit stop safe--walking through a neighborhood where there's windows and porches is always better than walking through a barren parking lot. But most interesting to me is it demonstrates that we can build single-family detached, i.e. the American dream, at fairly high densities (16 units an acre). We don't have to give up one to get the other, and that may be the most important part of it."
The first stage of The Crossings is under construction, and the model homes will be opening in September.
Meanwhile, Calthorpe is still working on Palo Alto's Comprehensive Plan and recently completed its Urban Design Element.
In his words, the key concept in Palo Alto is to "take your suburban, auto-oriented commercial areas and try to turn them into mixed-use, walkable zones. That's really the fundamental idea because the residential fabric (is already established). There are a lot of other good ideas floating around, but the one really radical one is to say, `let's take these auto-dominated areas and make them like University Avenue or California Avenue.' So let's make Midtown a little more like that, let's even try to make El Camino like that . . . And if we succeed with that let's take it and link it all with a jitney bus service so that you can go anywhere in town without having to really think about it, and people will be freed of their car for a certain number of trips."
While there are some detractors, as always, Calthorpe has been overwhelmingly pleased with Palo Alto's receptivity to these ideas.
"I've found Palo Alto to be tremendously progressive, both in terms of urban design ideas and also in terms of social ideas. It's one of the few places I've ever been where the people say yes to affordable housing, yes to community services. Whereas everywhere else I go they're all running away from it. It warms my heart, to tell you the truth, that it's my home town."
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