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San Francisco Chronicle

El Camino Real backers rev up road’s potential

John King

Regal name aside, today’s El Camino Real is a discombobulated strip of activities and architectures that links the cities between San Francisco and San Jose.

On Saturday, it assumed another role – the subject of a bus tour by transit and housing advocates confident that the roadway cleared in the 1700s to link Spanish missions someday will mature into the urbane centerpiece of Peninsula life.

“There’s a long ways to go but the bones are in place,” said Michele Beasley, a senior field representative of the Greenbelt Alliance, a land-use advocacy group. “I’m really excited about the potential.”

The alliance was one of the organizers of the Grand Boulevard Tour, billed as a showcase of recent pedestrian-friendly initiatives near BART and Caltrain. The larger goal: to make the case for El Camino as something more than just a heavily trafficked artery that seems to widen or narrow at whim.

“We want you to see that this isn’t just a series of projects,” said Corinne Goodrich, manager of long-range planning for SamTrans. “It’s an effort to transform the corridor.”

The transformation is still a work in progress, judging by the morning tour attended by public officials, environmental organizers and regular people with an interest in planning.
Planning for the future
As the bus rolled down from the South San Francisco BART Station, it passed bare hillsides and a lumberyard, single-family homes and 161-acre Golden Gate National Cemetery, strip malls and the See’s Candies central kitchen.

In Millbrae, tour organizers touted two five-story condominium complexes a block apart from each other within a short walk of BART. There was no mention of the clutter between, where a long-closed movie theater sits alongside a psychic adviser and a shop offering “body piercings/tattoos/urban clothing and much more.”

None of this ruffles proponents of the Grand Boulevard Initiative, a collaboration of 19 governmental bodies that was established in 2004 to work toward a future where El Camino “reflects our region’s dynamic profile.”

“This isn’t a five-year project. The idea is to create a vision that’s going to last 20 to 50 years, that people can work toward,” said Steve Dostart, a Palo Alto developer who serves on the Grand Boulevard Task Force. “Each city is going to find its own way.”

Indeed, the initiative studiously avoids any call for a unified plan or design along El Camino – mindful of local hegemony on what remains Highway 82, with a homey feel in some stretches and a freeway tone in others.
City’s tallest structures
On Saturday, the emphasis was on success stories such as San Bruno’s redevelopment of a former Navy engineering command site into an area dubbed the Crossing, where 1,063 housing units fill five-story buildings that are the tallest structures in the city.

The 40 people on the tour walked from one residential cluster to the next, asking questions and taking photographs. They also listened to speakers in Village at the Crossing, where the 229 senior apartments are rented at below-market levels.

“I’m inspired to appreciate that there are this many people interested in seeing that housing is provided for the community at large,” said Karen Cameron, 66, a 15-year San Bruno resident who moved into the Crossing when it opened in 2007. “What’s more basic than having a place to live?”

That’s the future of El Camino Real in the view of San Bruno’s mayor, Jim Ruane. While it may never become a stately boulevard, El Camino can evolve to serve the increasingly complex communities along its route.

“It’s a thoroughfare, but it’s a neighborhood thoroughfare,” Ruane said. “The potential is here to really do something over time.”



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