Silicon Valley needs to wake up and deal with a great challenge facing us — because of the very prosperity we enjoy.
There is an unprecedented amount of construction under way. Every few weeks we learn of another proposed mega-project, from glitzy corporate headquarters to the Vallco Shopping Center redevelopment: a gigantic mixed-use complex under the world’s largest sky park. How will these projects impact the quality of life of our region? After the cranes are gone and the hubbub about star-architects and superego CEO’s has cooled down, what will our community be left with?
With some exceptions, we have been building what are essentially islands, inwardly focused and isolated from the rest of the community. Cars are the only way to connect with many of them. Traffic congestion is already terrible, and near-gridlock is inevitable at some point.
New buildings are great and add tax revenues to city coffers. But given their huge impact in traffic and housing cost, should development not also contribute toward a more livable environment?
The great architect Daniel Burnham famously said: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” In that spirit, let me propose three initiatives that could make Silicon Valley a place worthy of our heritage of innovation and economic prowess:
- Create a world-class regional transportation system.Among many contradictions in Silicon Valley, one stands out: We are a powerhouse of ideas but a basket case in public infrastructure. Zurich, Munich and other cities comparable to us in size have managed to invest in an extensive network of rail, buses and bike lanes as real alternatives to cars. Uber, Lyft and the prospect of automated cars are all great but still clog highways. How do we move lots of people efficiently between their places of living, shopping, work and school?Of course there are constraints of cost and political will. But this is a region that takes pride in disruptive technologies. Why not apply that talent to solve our transportation challenge?
- Connect communities in other ways.Atlanta, a metropolis as sprawling as ours, turned abandoned railroad right-of-ways into the Atlanta Belt Line, a network of trails and paths that link neighborhoods. This has turned neglected areas into desirable neighborhoods, attracting new housing and other development. On any day, thousands of all ages are walking, jogging, bicycling and spilling out from restaurants with terraces overlooking the trails.Let’s use our existing assets — creeks, trails and potential trails on abandoned rail lines — and build a complete, accessible and attractive pedestrian and bicyclist network around the valley. San Jose and other communities are working on trail networks, but they need a much higher priority.
- Integrate Mineta International Airport with downtown San Jose. Having an airport in the middle of a city has drawbacks, but it brings a significant benefit: ease of access.Let’s build a seamless transit system to make us the only major U.S. city where one can whiz from the airport to downtown and other employment centers in minutes. Different types of people movers and grade-separated rail have been discussed. This will be a major step toward making us a great city.I have no illusion that any of the above is easy. But if we take pride in our capacity to transform the world, let’s transform our own community. Let’s act boldly to leave a great legacy for our children and generations thereafter.
Thang Do, president of Aedis Architects and of the American Institute of Architects, Santa Clara Valley Chapter, is a former chair of the San Jose Planning Commission. He wrote this for this newspaper.