Our View: The BART Environmental Report

The members of the San Jose Downtown Association (SJDA) appreciate the opportunity to comment on the BART Phase II Draft SEIR/SEIS.

 

Over the past 17 years, SJDA has supported three transportation measures that have included local tax funding for bringing BART to the South Bay. Our members remain committed to the long-term potential of San Jose as the center city of Silicon Valley, including the improved mobility, access and overall land-use density a BART subway serving downtown will bring.

 

We are also committed to protecting our businesses, residents, pedestrians and visitors from a massive, eight-year construction project that will produce severe adverse impacts on downtown’s vitality, economy and livability.

 

Can we reap the long-term gains of BART without devastation during the short-term pain of construction? (Many of our members wouldn’t consider an eight-year construction period “short-term,” however, this reference is made in context of BART as a 100-year-plus public works investment).

 

Project Options

 

Our comments concern the impacts in downtown exclusively, with a focus on the Downtown San Jose and Diridon stations. Unless otherwise specified, we assume the twin-bore methodology so our comments can address its more detrimental impacts on the downtown community. For the Downtown San Jose station, we acknowledge outright the superiority of the West Option and concentrate our comments on this station. For the Diridon station, our comments focus on the superior North Option.

 

The Draft SEIR/SEIS is deficient and inadequate in four of the project’s most essential elements:

 

1. Socioeconomics
2. Construction Mitigation
3. Historic Architecture
4. Parking

 

Socioeconomics

 

The report correctly states the socioeconomic impacts are “adverse during construction,” resulting in “disruptions to nearby businesses and a potential loss of income while access is limited and detoured.” (5-132).
The construction impacts would “last up to 8 years” (5-134). This is an eternity to local communities living day-to-day through the construction. The Draft SEIR/SEIS offers a thin gruel in addressing the “potential” severe economic losses facing businesses and landlords: construction will be phased; there will be a “comprehensive” education and outreach plan; pedestrian access will be maintained “whenever feasible;” and construction workers may become new customers of local businesses (5-133).

 

The report does not mention a financial relief package for BART socioeconomic impacts.

 

Locally, large and small transportation projects have offered financial reparations to mitigate construction impacts. The light-rail construction downtown (1985-88) provided monthly rent subsidies for businesses and as recently as 2015, VTA established a financial assistance program for Alum Rock businesses in the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project path that paid up to $50,000.

 

Both the light-rail and BRT financial relief programs were reactive programs established well after construction impacts had escalated during their project schedules.

 

It would be reasonable to assume the 8-year construction of a BART subway beneath downtown San Jose will have much more dire impacts on businesses than BRT. The cumulative effect of road closures, detours, sidewalk closures, noise, dust, haul routes, loss of parking, utility interruption and the inevitable emergencies/delays/unforeseen items will impact every business, residence and property in vicinity of the station boxes – from Mucho’s to SAP Center. To not proactively plan for a financial impact program in the document is a profound omission.

 

Construction Mitigation

 

While the report provides some quality mitigations (the dust control section is excellent), the overall construction mitigation approach seems mailed in from other projects and does not appear customized for the rigors of an eight-year BART project, particularly the subway section through downtown. The “to be determined” nature of the report assumes the details for effective mitigation are forthcoming while many impacts identified as “adverse” are left unaddressed.

 

Santa Clara Street is the single street that traverses the entire downtown east/west. No comprehensive downtown circulation and access study has been conducted or is cited in the Draft SEIR/SEIS that provides analysis on projected road closures.

 

For instance, the report (Table 5.2) acknowledges “one block and one intersection” or “two blocks and one intersection” closures for “up to 3 months” on Santa Clara Street. This includes “full and partial closures” of Autumn, Montgomery and Cahill streets that would have devastating impacts on SAP Center operations.
For the downtown West option, a two-month closure of Market Street is proposed. For the light rail closures, the bus bridge would operate three months on First Street, then three months on Second Street.

 

Nowhere is the cumulative impacts of these closures aggregated with the bus re-routing; temporary station locations; truck haul routes; downtown calendar of special events, races and parades; delivery needs; commute peaks; construction staging areas; sidewalk closures; loss of parking and SAP Center schedule.

 

The implication in the report that steel plates will be placed over a four-block long cut-and-cover station box hole on Santa Clara Street and traffic will continue to freely flow does not align with the number of closures, lane reductions and other “adverse” impacts identified. For long periods of time, all traffic, including BRT and up to 16 local bus lines, will be re-routed to other downtown streets. These adjacent streets have not been analyzed for their impacts and other than the truck haul routes, have not even been identified in the Draft SEIR/SEIS.

 

In Figure 5-2, the dramatic impacts of trucks hauling dirt out of the twin-bore station boxes are estimated: 24,000 individual truck trips (14,750 Downtown and 9250 Diridon). That’s 462 truck trips every week (52 weeks) for an entire year with 8 trucks operating in a single hour during peak volumes at the Downtown station (Table 5-1).

 

The haul routes in 5-12 were not coordinated in advance with the downtown community. The preponderance of Downtown station haul routes crisscrossing the northwest district of downtown on Market, St. James and Notre Dame will have severe impacts to San Pedro Square and newly built/under construction/entitled high rise housing projects Axis, Centerra, Silvery Towers and North San Pedro with persistent noise, exhaust, dirt tracking and fugitive dust. For Diridon, the haul routes out Montgomery and Autumn Streets directly in front of the arena are unacceptable unless agreed upon in advance with SAP Center operations, including strict work hour moratoriums, cleaning, security and contractor penalties for non-compliance.

 

While we understand the Draft SEIR/SEIS considers different alternatives for construction staging areas, it is obvious for many of the above stated reasons that staging areas in street right-of-way on Market Street and Second Street are unacceptable options. The oversized staging area along Autumn Street for the Diridon north/twin-bore option should be reduced to minimize impacts in the vicinity of SAP Center.

 

Without comprehensive analysis of downtown’s circulation and access, it is difficult for us to have confidence in the Draft SEIR/SEIS and a reasonable assurance of how people, buses, bikes, cars, delivery vehicles, haul trucks, construction equipment, pedestrians, pedicabs and emergency vehicles are going to maneuver downtown for eight years of BART construction.

 

Furthermore, our experience with projections in documents like this Draft SEIR/SEIS is they turn out to be rosier than on-the-ground conditions, and “up to 3 months” from a 2017 report ends up being 6 months or more in the midst of construction in 2021.

 

The mitigation efforts outlined in the Draft SEIR/SEIS are insufficient. The typical education, business survey, website update approach outlined in TRA-CNST-A thru C are not robust or proactive enough for the BART project. There is a need for another level of mitigation with this project:

• direct engagement and integration with existing social, email and other established communication modes downtown, especially with residents, office tenants and ground floor businesses;
• creative wayfinding to address “diminished pedestrian and vehicular access;”
• coordination with Groundwerx and daily cleaning assignments with contractors;
• graffiti abatement on construction sites, barricades and equipment;
• contractor parking;
• side streets, haul routes and secondary street impacts coordination as traffic moves off Santa Clara Street;
• separate SAP Center protocol during arena operations;
• coordination of deliveries and loading for businesses;
• daily access issues procedures;
• emergency notification procedures;
• advance scheduling for detours, closures, utility interruption, etc. and minimum notice requirement for change in work;
• Be Barrier Beautiful program participation;
• shoe shining and window cleaning services;
• holiday season and special event coordination;
• construction hour adjustments (such as “no jackhammers” at lunch in front of restaurants) or early morning hours in front of residences;
• security issues around temporary/relocated bus stops, construction barricades, etc.;
• weather disruption delay notifications;
• monitoring/reporting of construction contractor compliance, including noise levels and ongoing maintenance (such as uneven steel grate “popping” sounds when vehicles pass over them, etc.);
• transparent complaint resolution procedures;
• minimize any tree removal;
• coordinating locations and minimizing impacts of above-ground station system facilities like the TPSS (auxiliary power substation), fresh air intake and exhaust shafts, emergency ventilation shaft, and emergency exits;
• financial relief package application recruitment and management;
• ongoing committee/oversight group with regular reports to San Jose City Council and VTA Board.

The City of San Jose should condition the project through its encroachment permit process to ensure complete Transportation Management, Construction Mitigation and Community Outreach plans are adopted in advance and followed. Strict compliance measures should be written into all construction agreements with BART contractors and subcontractors, including escalating financial penalties for repeated non-compliance. Funding will be needed to independently monitor contractors for compliance measures during the entire eight-year construction period. For targeted mitigation and outreach at Alum Rock, Downtown and Diridon, contracting directly with established neighborhood/business groups already engaged with their impacted communities would be the most effective long-term mitigation strategy.

 

Historic Architecture

 

It is difficult to believe the Draft SEIR/SEIS reaches a “no adverse effects” conclusion with constructing a four-block long subway station in the midst of the San Jose Downtown Commercial District, a National Register of Historic Places (NRHP)-listed historic district.

 

There are 19 buildings around the Downtown station plus Cahill Station and train underpass at Diridon that are NRHP eligible. Many of the historic buildings have basements extending under the sidewalks on Santa Clara Street that will be directly impacted by the BART construction.

 

In 4.5.4.2 the Draft SEIR/SEIS acknowledges impacts of station portals and elevators but since these facilities are built on sidewalks dismisses their impact to the historic buildings. As other above-ground systems in the historic district are acknowledged, like ventilation shafts and “canopy structures,” each is equally dismissed without even “indirect adverse effects.”

 

It makes no sense that a 160-foot long canopy structure at the northside Downtown station portal directly in front of the historic San Jose Savings and Loan building (4.5-21) would not even have “indirect adverse impacts” despite acknowledging it would have “visual impacts.” Apparently, the scale and “transparent materials” of the canopy would minimize its “visual impacts.” Such detail of the canopy structure begs the question where are the drawings and schematics that show it has “no indirect adverse impacts?” They are not in the Draft SEIR/SEIS.

 

How is it possible to say ventilation shafts that are 15×20 feet and 12 feet high for exhaust and fresh air will not adversely impact the district? These shafts will disrupt views, create noise, emit smoke and exhaust, and create dead spaces in the urban environment, impacting the context of the historic district. Furthermore, the station portals could be up to 40 feet long, 24 feet wide and 15 feet high. These one-story facades would have an impact to the historic district context and adjacent historic buildings.

 

The location of the TPSS auxiliary power substation in either the Mitchell block or the “Freddy J’s” building at corner of 3rd and Santa Clara would both have impacts on the historic district context. At Diridon, these above-ground systems facilities would be blocked from public view by a nine foot wall or fence, which simply means that an out of context nine foot wall or fence would now be in public view. Nothing is this area is “out of public view” especially in the vicinity of Cahill station and the train underpass.

 

Construction of soil cement or slurry diaphragm retaining walls and other elements of the station box will expose many vulnerable historic buildings to excessive vibrations. For instance, the Bank of Italy building at the corner of First and Santa Clara Street is right on top of the station box, has an extended basement, and is vulnerable to cracks and vibration with terra cotta ornamentation on its exterior façade. The location of stationary equipment (mixing plants, generators, cranes, etc.) will also potentially impact historic buildings in the district, the severity dependent on placement of the equipment.

 

The Draft SEIR/SEIS conclusions of no adverse impacts and no indirect adverse impacts to the historic district are unsubstantiated and flawed.

Parking

 

Illogically, the Draft SEIR/SEIS concludes that eliminating 715 parking spaces (635 off-street and 80 on street) across the street from SAP Center will have “no adverse effect on parking” (5.5.2.7). This conclusion makes no sense.

 

It isn’t just the parking that BART will remove, but also the demand it will generate. Where is the BART parking at Diridon? Not a single replacement parking space is offered in the Draft SEIR/SEIS. Where are the construction workers and BART employees going to park? Where are the BART riders who take personal vehicles to Diridon going to park? What analysis of the BART parking impacts to the Diridon area and SAP Center events was made (because it isn’t in this document)? Clearly this subject will require alternative analysis.

 

The Downtown station will lose 370 spaces (310 off street and 60 on street). Like the Diridon station, the Draft SEIR/SEIS says construction mitigation measures will somehow result in “no adverse effect on parking” despite not conjuring a single replacement space, offer of free validated parking to merchants or use of the free DASH circulator shuttle to move customers, employees, convention-goers and residents around downtown during the 8-year construction period.

 

Clearly the parking section of the Draft SEIR/SEIS is insufficient and will have to be supplemented.

 

Finally, we found the Draft SEIR/SEIS conclusion of “of moderate liquefaction potential” in the soils (4.8.2) should be shared with the California High Speed Rail Authority staff who have had trouble figuring out how to study an underground alignment into San Jose.

 

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this vital regional transportation project.

Sincerely,

 

Scott Knies
Executive Director