Today’s Solutions: February 08, 2023

From San Jose, California, until San Francisco along El Camino Real you can find stretches a six-lane road outfitted with an endless stretch of strip malls and enormous parking lots. In its current state, the street doesn’t necessarily welcome pedestrians to walk alongside it, as it has been initially designed as a car-centric route between the two cities.

A solution to the housing shortage

With that said, the space could help provide one of the best solutions to the Bay Area’s ongoing housing crisis — and a model for how to breathe new life into underused commercial strips in other parts of the country that lack housing.

According to some estimates, the street could provide room for about 250,000 new apartments, which could be built above the commercial real estate with the least disruption. And there are about 700 miles of similar types of streets in the five most populated Bay Area counties, where there’s room for up to 1.37 million new homes, reports Fast Company.

“There’s a lot of underutilized land there,” says Peter Calthorpe, co-founder of Urban Footprint, the urban planning agency that calculated the potential for the space. “Old strip commercial is now overbuilt, underused, undervalued, largely because we shop online. We don’t go cruising down the strip anymore to get what we need.”

Redeveloping such streets wouldn’t involve taking away the strip malls but rather creating mixed-use buildings that could keep the retail space on the ground floor while adding housing on top. On the street side, some lanes of traffic could be adapted for public transit use, while the sidewalks could be widened to make room for café seating with separate bike paths on the side.

The benefits of adding housing on top of strip malls

Adding new housing in these areas could decrease commutes and reduce traffic on the roads, especially since they’re so close to major employers in Silicon Valley. And there’s also the efficiency advantage of apartments over single-family houses: people would use 39 percent less energy and use 62 percent less water compared to those living in an average home in the area. What’s more, they would spend 50 percent less on utility bills and transportation.

Plus, redesigning these streets could encourage people to ditch their cars and walk more, thus providing them with opportunities to socialize with each other and create communities.

“It’s a beautiful, comprehensive way to come at a systemic problem because it solves the transportation problem,” says Calthorpe. “It solves the workforce-housing problem, it solves affordable housing. And it’s a big solution in terms of carbon and climate change.”

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