An ongoing dispute involving a 488-unit apartment project in Millbrae and the state’s high-speed rail plans came to a head last week as Millbrae City Council initiated proceedings to acquire a piece of land which could push housing forward but throw a wrench in high-speed rail plans.
California’s high-speed rail project, envisioned as a 200+mph train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, has been in the works for decades, and a stop is proposed at Millbrae to join the city’s existing station that serves both the BART and Caltrain Runners.
But Millbrae officials, pointing to the myriad disruption the train could cause locally, as well as other uses of key town center real estate, called for the tracks and station to be built underground.
And in recent years, the sticking point has been apartments, which would be included in a huge project with two 10-story buildings and one nine-story that would also include nearly 300,000 square feet of office space. The city approved the project in 2018, but it was not built in part because the city was unable to acquire land from Caltrain on which to build a planned road to service the development.
“We need these 488 units to move forward,” Mayor Anne Oliva said. “That’s the crux of this whole thing.”
The city council this week approved a resolution of necessity, the first step in an eminent domain legal proceeding, that could allow the city to acquire the thin strip of land in question.
The resolution states that the subdivision is a “more necessary public use” than the high-speed rail, which the city may have to prove to gain control of the plot. He also wonders if the train will ever materialize given the lack of funding for the Bay Area section.
“It will be many, many decades before the high-speed rail arrives,” said City Manager Tom Williams, who highlighted the housing emergency declared by Governor Gavin Newsom.
The city’s plan is to reroute an existing portion of California Drive closer to the Caltrain tracks and extend the street farther north before turning it into El Camino Real to create a four-way intersection connecting Victoria Avenue. The city has already acquired several other parcels needed for the task that were previously owned by BART. The Caltrain-owned parcel spans about three blocks, however, only a half-block section is needed for the road.
The high-speed rail project intends to use the parcel for tracks, a roadbed and a pole to support electrical infrastructure, said Gale Conor, an attorney for Caltrain, who added that the use was “clearly not compatible with a city street”.
The High Speed Rail project was approved by voters in 2008 with a proposal which detailed the route and stops and at the time it was proposed that the section through Millbrae would be built underground. But with cost estimates exceeding the initial estimate of $40 billion, the tracks are now planned to run above ground alongside the existing Caltrain line where they can share electrification infrastructure.
Steve Silva, an attorney representing the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the governing body overseeing the high-speed rail project, pushed back against the city’s framework that completion was an uncertainty.
“High-speed rail is not a speculative use in the future, it’s happening,” he said. “Unfortunately, this particular road acquisition jeopardizes the authority’s use of this property.”
Construction is currently underway on a 172-mile stretch to connect Merced to Bakersfield. But without funding for the rest of the project, now estimated at more than $100 billion, some have given up hope that the train will ever link the two largest metropolitan areas in the state.
Silva, however, pointed to other major infrastructure projects in the state that spanned decades and have been speculated about not being completed, such as BART and Interstate 105 in Los Angeles.
“With all due respect, this is an infrastructure project of national and frankly national significance and constitutes the greater public use than this street project,” he said. “Not to take away the use and importance of housing in this market…critical infrastructure of statewide significance simply by sheer magnitude is of greater public use.”
The city originally approved the California Drive extension in 1998 and sought for years to redevelop the area near the station. A development with housing and offices to the east of the tracks is currently underway, but the western part in question has remained filled with aging and unused industrial buildings and vacant land.
Council members expressed concern that some of the structures are being used as shelters by homeless people, which could pose a fire risk, and that the area currently lacks adequate drainage to deal with flash floods. .
Additionally, of the planned 488 units, 73 would be offered at below-market rents to be affordable for low-income residents.
“That’s where housing should be,” said Oliva, who added that she was limited on what she could say for legal reasons. “There is obviously going to be some kind of litigation here.”