Sunday, October 14, 2007

No easy solutions in BART plan

Transit officials, NUMMI discourage housing as Fremont deliberates Warm Springs development

When it comes to finding funding for the Warm Springs BART extension, the type of development around the proposed station is almost as important as the station itself, transportation officials say.

Whether it's apartment towers or, more likely in the case of Warm Springs, four-story office buildings, transit agencies want new stations surrounded by developments that will generate lots of ridership.

The Warm Springs project, which already has a $200 million funding gap, is more likely to qualify for discretionary transportation dollars if the city approves uses that are compatible with transit-oriented development, MTC spokesman John Goodwin said.

But that's easier said than done for Fremont.

Although the city's preliminary plan for the station area calls for transit-friendly uses, its zoning ordinance still allows property owners to build storage warehouses, business condominiums and other uses that wouldn't generate many BART passengers.

Just last month, the City Council declined to block a mini-storage warehouse proposed within a half-mile of the station.

And before Fremont can change the zoning, it needs tofind about $200,000 for an environmental study.

The BART station tentatively is scheduled to open in 2013 on land bounded by South Grimmer Road and Warm Springs Boulevard.

To assert more control over development in the station area, the council voted unanimously last week to consider new rules making it less desirable for property owners within a half-mile of the proposed station to subdivide their land and sell it for condos.

New industrial condominium projects are increasingly popular, Fremont Planning Director Jeff Schwob said. Allowing them near the proposed BART station, he added, could increase the number of landowners, hampering efforts to build transit-friendly developments.

NUMMI flexes muscles

When a new BART station is built these days, high-density apartment buildings usually aren't far behind.

But in the case of Warm Springs, an MTC report, citing opposition from the nearby New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., anticipated no new housing in the station district.

"NUMMI has strongly advised against the development of housing in industrial areas," company spokesman Lance Tomasu said. The plant, he added, generates traffic, noise and odors "not conducive to residential development."

The auto manufacturer doesn't control city zoning rules, but with more than 5,000 employees, it has clout at City Hall.

"We don't want to lose them," Councilmember Steve Cho said after a recent council meeting.

Landowners stuck

With housing a non-starter for now, David Beretta, a prominent Fremont developer, said city planners have suggested he build offices, even though the office market is poor. The city, he added, opposed his proposals for a swimming school, retail center or apartments on his parcel.

"We tried every use that we could; the city rejected it each time," Beretta said.

None of Beretta's proposals was permitted under current zoning, Schwob countered.

When he proposed a mini-storage warehouse for the Prune Street lot, city staff members responded by recommending that the City Council approve an emergency ordinance giving the city more ability to reject such projects.

The council rejected the emergency ordinance on grounds that it could be an appropriate interim use for the land, but later approved clamping down on business condominiums.

Meanwhile, Warm Springs BART remains a waiting game for developers like Jack Balch, who owns 8 acres near the proposed station. He is looking into interim uses for his site, so long as he doesn't have to pay for improvements such as curb gutters.

"I bought the land thinking BART would be here by now," Balch said. "We want to hold this land for a higher and better use."

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