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December 23, 2009 > Painting the town Green - Fremont's Midtown

Painting the town Green - Fremont's Midtown

By Steven Wyant

The latest concept plan for Fremont's downtown was presented to the City Council at its last meeting of the year. The new plan is all about being green.

Midtown's goal is to create a higher density, pedestrian and transit friendly mixed-use development, and provide a memorable identity for Fremont. This plan also introduces "sustainability" as a core concept, with the ultimate goal of obtaining a LEED Neighborhood Development (ND) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

LEED ND certification incorporates more than just green building techniques and energy conservation plans. It takes into consideration the overall neighborhood planning and design; linkages to public transportation; auto, bicycle and pedestrian accessibility; streetscape design with an emphasis on open space and shade trees; storm water runoff design; and other criteria. LEED ND certification is rare. If successful, Fremont would join a handful of other developments in Emeryville, Oakland and Sacramento to achieve this in Northern California.

Fremont Community Development Director Jill Keimach kicked off the work session of the Redevelopment Agency by outlining a new "focus area" within the larger Central Business District (CBD), now called Midtown. The area is bordered by Paseo Padre Pkwy, Walnut Ave, Fremont Blvd, and Mowry Ave. Midtown was described as the "heart" of the CBD. According to Keimach, the purpose of having this focus area is that there are more vacant areas available, and the city owns about 20 percent of the total space. "It's ripe for development" she said.

A major part of the plan, presented by architectural firm HOK Group, TMG Partners, and numerous consulting partners, proposes breaking up the large city blocks by adding new streets and extending existing streets. Capitol Ave. could be extended to both Fremont Blvd. and Civic Center Dr., and a new parallel street just southeast of Capitol, creating a new thoroughfare from The Hub to BART. According to Keimach, density of intersections is a critical measurement for the LEED ND certification.

The smaller block sizes are intended to promote circulation with pedestrian and bicycle use, along with shuttle services. This proposed concept was compared to Town Squares in Sonoma and Healdsburg. A trolley system was suggested as a possible future solution, similar to one in Portland Oregon.

At the center of this "heart" of the CBD would be a new City Hall. According to Paul Woolford of HOK, various options would feature large open spaces, and could include either multiple 4-6 story buildings, or a single 10 story building; a 1,000 seat performance hall and parking structure.

Parking density is an important component of the LEED ND certification. Parking lots currently occupy about 50 percent of the area. New parking solutions would be concentrated in shared parking structures (possibly underground as suggested by Council Member Anu Natarajan) and on street parking.

One of the more unusual aspects of the plan involves the on street parking, described as back-in angled parking. Think of angled parking spaces going in the opposite direction of what you're used to. Like an abbreviated version of parallel parking, proposed signs direct you to signal, stop, and back in.

Benefits touted include greater visibility and safety when exiting the space for both the driver and oncoming traffic, and safer trunk loading for shoppers. "I've never seen back-in parking, and I think this sounds brilliant" said Mayor Bob Wasserman, "The only difficulty I see in it is the initial backing in". Other council members also appeared captivated by the idea, suggesting testing the concept could be done soon. Seattle and Vancouver, Washington are 2 examples of cities that have utilized this technique.

Councilmember Bill Harrison stated his general support for the plan, and asked about the green certification requirements for any existing buildings that would remain. HOK representative Crystal Barriscale responded "there's a menu of items that you could do (for LEED ND certification), so you don't need to do everything, just do the elements that work best for you". She added that requirements for private sector structures are not necessary.

"Some other communities who have done LEED ND in the pilot programs were basically new developments and we have the added complexity of trying to do good sustainable development in an existing environment" Keimach said. "We may or may not get there but we're going to attempt to get there" she added.

The Central Business District as a concept has been around for many years, with a significant amount of time and money spent on previous plans. Natajaran commented at the meeting "These are great pictures, great drawings and great plans." She added "I'd like to see the details of the implementation program, the funding sources, how we get there and the phasing. I'd love to see that before we take it out to the community to market this plan"

To create incentives to help kick start development, Keimach stated that the council has committed to do this plan, and has agreed to provide a streamlined process for developers. "We are doing the environmental work on that, so after this process is done a developer could come in and not spend a year on environmental review and 6 months going through an entitlement process." She stated the city has also reduced impact fees, and may extend them indefinitely. Another option would be to have the city design and pay for many streetscape improvement plans, saving developers' considerable money in architectural and engineering expenses, providing "clarity of exactly what is expected" she added.

The next step in the process involves infrastructure calculations for higher density development: sewer line and roadway widths, an environmental review, and establishing a minimum and maximum density for development. In addition, creating policies to incentivize public art and getting input from property owners will be done before the revised plans go back to the city council, probably in early spring.

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