Friday, May 05, 2006

Train Station First Stop in City's Plan for New Northside Neighborhood

Train Station First Stop in City's Plan for New Northside Neighborhood
By Barry Eberling

Land on the southeast corner of Peabody and Vanden roads is where a Fairfield-Vacaville train depot would like be built. (Mike McCoy/Daily Republic)

FAIRFIELD - Fairfield is planning for a train station and a whole lot more.

Building a $26 million to $29 million station at Vanden and Peabody roads near Travis Air Force Base would just be the beginning. The city is also making plans for an area within a half-mile radius.

Condominiums, townhouses, apartments, single-family homes, parks, businesses and offices are to fit in with the station. The goal is to create a vibrant neighborhood across 683 acres with lots of people walking, biking - and using the train.

Residents would have more places to walk to than the train station. They could also go to local parks, schools and a Main Street, USA-style shopping area, if the city's emerging vision comes true.

"It could be the place to be in Fairfield," City Councilman Jack Batson said at a recent council study session on the plans.

There are all sorts of names for the type of development Fairfield wants to create, among them a transit village. This "New Urbanism" concept has dense housing near a mass transit hub, as can be seen around some BART stations.

The idea is residents can walk to the station, providing customers for mass transit and causing less congestion on regional roads.

So much for the vision. The reality for now is a 10-acre lot at the corner of Peabody Road and Vanden roads where a Fairfield-Vacaville station is proposed. Nearby is a mish-mash of businesses that don't fit into the emerging plan, everything from a concrete company to truck repair business to storage businesses. There are vacant fields, some containing seasonal wetlands with rare creatures protected under state and federal laws.

The station

Fairfield's emerging vision for transforming this area starts with the Fairfield-Vacaville train station.

"It is the critical component to making all of this work," city senior planner Dave Feinstein said.

The city's latest schedule calls for the train station to be ready for the Capitol Corridor trains in 2010. These trains carry passengers between Sacramento and San Jose, with a stop near the Richmond BART station.

But then, Fairfield in 2000 had hoped to open the station by 2003 and for a mere $4.7 million - one-sixth the latest, estimated cost. The project has grown increasingly complicated. The city must meet the standards of Union Pacific, which owns the tracks and wants to make certain its freight service is unimpeded.

"We in essence become a guest once we build a station in their right-of-way," city Transportation Manager Kevin Daughton said.

Among other things, the $29 million cost includes $12 million to $14 million to build a bridge that would elevate nearby Peabody Road over the tracks. Under existing conditions, drivers must wait when the crossing arms go down and a train passes.

Union Pacific wants the road elevated over the tracks for safety reasons, to remove any chance a train might collide with an auto, Daughton said. But Daughton also sees advantages for motorists who would no longer have to wait for the trains. More than 20,000 autos use this busy road each day.

Another cost is building an underground passage at the station that will come up to a boarding platform between two sets of tracks. Union Pacific no longer allows passengers to reach the platform by stepping over tracks, a common design for stations in past eras.

"Suisun's station is an example of walking across tracks," Daughton said. "But it was also established prior to the 1900s."

One thing the stop won't get for that $29 million is a building. The ultimate vision of a stop with businesses and depot will come in a later phase. So will a parking structure, with the stop initially having a parking lot.

Daughton expects the station to serve 400 to 500 passengers daily when it opens.

The Surrounding Land

Fairfield officials have spent months working on a plan for the land near the station, so they can create an entire community. They will put on the final touches in coming months.

The draft calls for a Main Street, U.S.A.-type business district anchored at one end by the train station and at the other end by a library, park and town square.

Stores would be built between, with parking in the rear to avoid spoiling the Main Street atmosphere. This commercial hub would be located at the northeast corner of Peabody and Vanden roads.

Businesses could include a grocery store. Don't look for a big box store like Wal-Mart, though.

A community built around the train station could support stores serving the neighborhood, consultant Leslie Gould told the City Council at a March 14 study session. But it couldn't support bigger, regional stores.

"It's really too far from the freeway," Gould said.

Townhouses and apartments would be near the train station and commercial center. Farther away would come single-family homes.

City Councilwoman Marilyn Farley had a question after viewing a version of the plan.

"Where are the jobs?" she asked.

The retail and office jobs are the main ones in the study area. Farley hoped for something with higher salaries.

Planner Feinstein pointed out the study area is next to the city's proposed technology park business area.

A portion of the train station planning area could be left as open space. Some places have wetlands and are home to the rare Contra Costa goldfield flower.

For example, the latest plans preserves a large vernal pool on the north side of the planning area. Walking and bike trails would pass by this area, giving people a chance to enjoy the scenery.

But people wouldn't be allowed to walk among the sensitive wetlands and Contra Costa goldfields.

Reshaping the landscape

Fairfield's plan reshapes land uses for the area as if the properties were blank slates. But about 33 percent of the land is already developed.

Businesses have gone up along Peabody and Vanden roads over the years. Such things as a landscaping company just don't fit in with the city's vision for the area that's developing on paper. They got built with the approval of Solano County, which governed the unincorporated land.

"They're not all going to want to move out tomorrow, just because you developed a plan," Gould said.

Some may not want to move out at all. For example, a city study said the Syar Industries concrete plant wants to stay on 15 acres across the street from the train station, at least for the next 10 years.

"Any business that's there will have the right to stay," Gould said.

So Fairfield's new vision could be developed in pockets over coming decades. Existing businesses could stay until rising land values convince them there's more money to be made by selling the property and leaving.

James Ewing owns Self Storage Unlimited on Peabody Road in the study area. He also owns 10 acres east of Peabody Road and 9.5 acres fronting Peabody on the west side.

"I see the train station as being an economic boom . . . I see a lot of positives," Ewing said.

He wants to keep the self-storage business, which he said was built 11 years or so ago to city standards and is no eyesore.

"A good deal of the homes going in there will be my future customers," Ewing said.

The latest city plan shows homes on the property. Still, Ewing said, city officials have told him he can keep the business as long as he wants.

He'd also like to see his vacant land along Peabody Road zoned commercial instead of residential. This land has prime commercial exposure and people living west of Peabody Road wouldn't have to cross the street to reach it, Ewing said.

There's a couple dozen property owners in the train station planning area. All have a stake in what uses the city decides to allow and where.

City councilmembers expressed their approval of the general concepts for the train station and surrounding land. Now it's a matter of refining the details.

The public will have further chances in coming months to give their opinions. Fairfield is scheduled to unveil a recommended plan this summer and hold another round of meetings.

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at

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