Coyote Valley: New Urbanism on a grand scale

New urbanists often design infill projects in cities, new neighborhoods in the suburbs, and even create visions for growth on a regional scale. Rarely if ever do they get the opportunity to design a medium-sized city from scratch. That was essentially the task of WRT/Solomon E.T.C. in creating a plan for Coyote Valley, an agricultural area on the outskirts of San Jose.

Just 13 miles south of downtown, Coyote Valley has remained mostly undeveloped because it is geographically separated from the city. Part of it lies within the city limits, part is within the city’s urban growth boundary, and another part is designated as permanent open space. This great expanse is now in the path of bulldozers, and planners expect the valley to become home to as many as 80,000 residents and 50,000 jobs.

City zoning calls for this growth to take place in the form of sprawl, according to the WRT/Solomon planners. In 2000, the city helped launch the suburbanization by approving 6.6 million square feet of low-density campus-style office and light-industrial development. “The plan provided neither the homes to accommodate the projected 20,000 new employees nor the public transit to transport them,” WRT/Solomon’s Daniel Solomon and Stephen Hammond write in a recent Urban Land article. The collapse of the high-tech industry put the plans on hold and gave citizens and the city time to consider a new vision.

An alternative plan

WRT/Solomon was hired by the Greenbelt Alliance, funded through the Packard Foundation, to come up with an alternative plan. That effort produced “Getting it Right, a Vision for Coyote Valley,” which won a national AIA Honor Award this year. “Getting it Right” represents something of a departure for the environmental movement because it goes beyond the usual opposition to development by offering instead a highly specific vision for growth. For new urbanists at WRT/Solomon, this assignment was a unique opportunity to do detailed planning on a grand scale.

The planners set aside a third of the valley to remain in agricultural use and another third to be preserved as natural areas and parks. That left approximately 2,300 acres to be intensely developed to meet the city’s jobs and housing goals. The plan calls for a downtown core with high-rise buildings, and also calls for six neighborhood centers, employment districts, parks, schools, civic buildings, residential areas, and riparian corridors. The integrated street network devises 500-foot by 750-foot superblocks that can be further subdivided into smaller, more pedestrian-scale blocks (in some areas, such as school sites and employment districts, the larger blocks would be kept intact). Street types are carefully designed and designated to ensure that if the plan is followed, pedestrians and bicyclists will be on equal footing with automobiles. Additionally, “All uses incorporated in the plan are configured as street-defining perimeter blocks,” according to Solomon and Hammond.

The immense scale of the plan offers advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, the planners were able to preserve natural features like riparian corridors throughout the valley. On the negative side, planning for realistic staging of development is difficult at this scale. One puzzling issue is how to create high-density downtown when the market cannot support it initially. “The plan addresses this … conundrum by providing interim lower density zoning on key sites in the centers, and then ‘sunsetting’ the zoning in favor of mandatory higher densities as the market and development patterns are established,” Solomon and Hammond write.

The WRT/Solomon plan has no backing from a developer and likely will never be built in its current form, but it has had a significant impact on public policy. The city hired a planning team, headed by the Dahlin Group and including landscape architect Ken Kay, to create a new plan for Coyote Valley. Form-based code expert Paul Crawford is also expected to participate. New Urbanism is apparently providing the framework for that plan. Even if a great plan is ultimately encoded into law, there are significant challenges ahead, not the least of which is getting the cooperation of 177 landowners in the development area. “If Coyote succeeds at the scale at which it is envisioned, it will become a national model — and a breakthrough in the Bay Area,” writes Barbara Marshman, associate editor at the San Jose Mercury News.