New report gives San Jose and nearby cities a good grade on combating urban sprawl

Mike Swift

Those who remember the fields and orchards of the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” being paved under endless plains of cul-de-sacs and strip malls might be surprised by a word used to describe San Jose in a national report on suburban sprawl released Monday — “compact.”

According to the influential Brookings Institution, among the nation’s largest employment centers, metro San Jose — which includes all of Santa Clara County — has one of the lowest share of jobs that have decamped to a location far from its downtown.

“We are more compact than a lot of other cities of our size,” such as Austin, Texas, said Joseph Horwedel, San Jose’s planning director. “We, for a long time, have tried to grow up — not out.”

The new report sounds the alarm about the oozing spread of commercial development far from downtown areas served by transit. The liberal-leaning think tank says such sprawl could threaten the nation’s future prosperity, and make it much tougher to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

While just 20.6 percent of metro San Jose’s jobs are located more than 10 miles from downtown San Jose, more than 50 percent of the jobs in metro San Francisco are that distance from the San Francisco region’s core. That compares to Detroit, the region with the highest degree of job sprawl, where 77 percent of jobs were more than 10 miles from downtown.

Where They Work

In the Bay Area’s other large metro area — the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont region, which includes San Mateo County and the East Bay — about 57 percent of jobs are located more than 10 miles from San Francisco’s central business district.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the South Bay is doing a better job of controlling sprawl, experts say, because the federal definition of metro San Francisco encompasses a much wider geographic area, and because the Brookings report’s definitions essentially count downtown Oakland, Berkeley and Fremont as suburbs of San Francisco.

For San Jose, however, the new regional sprawl rankings do capture the changing reality of a place that city fathers of the 1950s and 1960s tried to transform into northern California’s answer to Los Angeles. Contemporary planners are trying to channel development into a few specific places. The topography of the South Bay, including the limiting factors of mountains and water, has also helped limit the spread commercial development remote from the downtown core.

San Jose and Santa Clara County have also adopted a host of sprawl-limiting policies, including growth boundaries that limit where housing and offices can be built, and the preservation of open space. San Jose got the second-best score among 89 Bay Area cities in a ranking by the nonprofit Greenbelt Alliance of anti-sprawl policies. And Santa Clara County has now preserved the most open space acreage in the Bay Area.

Many measures of suburban sprawl are based on where people live, but the Brookings rankings are based on where they work. That recognizes that the distance many people drive each day — and therefore the pounds of carbon they emit and the dollars governments spend on roads to get them there — is largely determined by where they work.

“Nationally, we have seen a trend of job sprawl,” said Elizabeth Stampe, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Greenbelt Alliance. “It’s sort of the second wave of sprawl. First you see homes being built farther and farther from the center, and then you get jobs going farther from the center. What that ultimately creates is a transportation nightmare.”

Series Of Villages

Among the nation’s largest metro areas, there was an average 2.1 percent increase in jobs more than 10 miles from the urban core between 1998 and 2006. San Jose is “decentralizing” as well, but its 1.7 percent growth in remote jobs was under the national average.

Across the nation’s 98 largest metro areas, nearly half — 45.1 percent — of jobs were more than 10 miles from downtown in 2006. In the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metro area, only one-in-five jobs are that distant from downtown, and nearly a quarter are within three miles of downtown San Jose, the Brookings study found.

The most compact large metro areas were Virginia Beach and New York City, where about 35 percent of jobs were within three miles of downtown. In decentralized Detroit, just 7 percent of jobs were within three miles of the central business district.

The San Jose city council soon will begin talking about how it could create a series of “villages and corridors” across the city, similar to Lincoln Avenue in Willow Glen, where there would be walkable concentrations of shops and offices.

“What we’re looking at now,” Horwedel said, “is how do we go through and build essentially 15 to 20 downtown Campbells in San Jose.”

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