Fremont, a community in the San Francisco Bay Area, was hit by a major earthquake in 2010. The sprawling New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) plant, a collaboration between General Motors and Toyota, announced that it will be closing its doors after decades of producing hundreds of thousands of cars a year and employing hundreds of well-paid people.
“No one had ever thought of doing anything different than leaving a bunch of space around NUMMI for them to remain as the enormous employer and force that they were,” Joel Pullen, the city of Fremont’s planning manager, says. “This dark hole was created when they stopped down operations.”
The worst fears of legislators like Pullen were soon realized when the Union Pacific Rail Road revealed its intention to purchase a portion of the site for a massive railyard. BART officials had long planned for the carmaker to build a new station, and there were few less transit-friendly possibilities for its new neighbor than a labyrinth of rails and train sheds.
After more than a decade, the consequence appears to be considerably different. The Warm Springs Innovation District has replaced an industrial area that was formerly planned. Tesla bought the NUMMI factory and turned it into a manufacturing monster, employing thousands at the site over the next decade. A surge of development has resulted in the construction of thousands of residences and a new elementary school.
“The speed with which we were able to do what we did out here was quite amazing,” Pullen says. “For a long time, it’s been a bright spot in our development.” Construction prices have risen as a result of post-COVID modifications, but they’re still building it out and people are still moving in.”
At the height of the Great Recession, Fremont’s community visioning process resulted in a proposal for the region around the future BART station (which opened in 2017) to be home to 20,000 jobs and 4,000 residential units. In 2015, the master plan and zoning regulations were implemented.
The Warm Springs innovation district’s construction is around 70% complete today. The majority of housing complexes, both market rate and cheap, have been completed, with additional units on the way. The elementary school is welcoming to all children. All of the new construction is connected by a system of parks and greenways that allow pedestrians and bikers to navigate the property. The roadways are designed to allow automobiles, cyclists, and pedestrians to travel safely.
According to Pullen, a 2012 Urban Land Institute panel aided in the planning process by providing “real heavy-hitting credence” to its transit-oriented development decisions. According to him, the panel’s affirmation piqued the interest of the development business and drew political attention.
That’s when Casey Case, who handled a lot of the project’s landscape architecture, became involved. Her firm, Gates + Associates, worked on the Lennar Corporation and Toll Brothers market rate housing complexes, as well as the St. Anton affordable housing development, the Lila Bringhurst park, and the public plaza at the BART station.
Case describes the project as distinct from others she has worked on in the area. That’s why it was such an exciting opportunity: the chance to work on a project that didn’t prioritize vehicles and instead encouraged inhabitants to use other modes of transportation.
“There was such an emphasis on transit and walkability, as well as a higher density than had been done previously in Fremont,” Case explained. “There was a focus on [making sure] people felt safe, connected, and socially engaged with their neighbors, as well as the option to possibly not have five cars per home.”
Despite its achievements, the Warm Springs Innovation District is confronted with numerous problems. Multiple Union Pacific rail lines separated much of the mixed-use construction on the west side of the BART station from the transit junction. For commuters and locals, this has made life more difficult than it has to be, but a new pedestrian bridge that opened this fall is supposed to alleviate the problem.
Then there’s the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in a drop in public transit usage across the country. BART is no exception, and as the Omicron variety spreads at breakneck pace, ridership may be jeopardized once more. Warm Springs’ mixed-use and transit-oriented ideal could be shattered if ridership takes a long time to recover and BART is compelled to curtail service owing to fare losses.
Pullen, on the other hand, is upbeat. He expects that as the epidemic progresses, ridership will level down and eventually return to pre-COVID levels.
“If the pandemic turns into a lengthy slog, and it’s a reoccurring annual event,” Pullen adds, “then transit ridership will normalize, and all the problems associated with transit-oriented development will even out.”
He’s also optimistic that BART’s expansion plans will be carried out, perhaps bringing additional riders to Warm Springs and its employment center. For a long time after the transportation system’s inception in the 1970s, this line terminated in downtown Fremont. The Warm Springs extension, as well as the Innovation District that accompanied it, became the southernmost stop.
Two more stations opened in north San Jose in 2020, removing Fremont from the line’s conclusion. Downtown San Jose stations are expected to open in 2029 or 2030.
“You’ll have folks going both directions and coming through Fremont when it gets to San Jose,” Pullen says. “Will this enhance the number of people that visit Fremont on weekends?” How many people who work in San Jose have other options for where to live? When it reaches both San Jose and San Francisco, the dynamics of many of these once end-of-the-line stops will change.”