El Camino Real’s Road to Revitalization

El Camino Real stretches for 600 miles and began in the 1700’s as a 60-mile dirt footpath connecting 21 missions from San Diego to Sonoma. Today, the 43 miles of the historic “Royal Road” that run between San Francisco and San Jose are undergoing an ambitious revitalization thanks to the Grand Boulevard Initiative.

As the population of Valley of Heart’s Delight blossomed, El Camino Real was its key corridor. Once sprinkled with fruit orchards, its initial development was erratic and it still varies greatly from city to city. Strip malls and car dealerships prevail along this pedestrian-adverse roadway though some cities have fought to minimize commercial growth opting to preserve its verdant tree-lined lanes.

As land in the Silicon Valley becomes increasingly scarce, El Camino Real is seen as prime, underutilized development space. With its proximity to Caltrain, it is a leading location for high-density housing and mixed-use development. Yet, progress and decision making is painstakingly slow thanks to the requirement of Caltrans approval on everything from sidewalks and driveways as well as working with longtime property owners along the route. Each city has different concerns, with existing business preservation being one.

The Grand Boulevard Initiative was established with the goal of transforming El Camino Real to a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. An alliance of 19 cities, counties, local and regional agencies as well as dozens of stakeholders this task force is united in improving the performance, safety and aesthetics of the Royal Road from Daly City to San Jose.

As stated on the Grand Boulevard Initiate website: “The vision is of a boulevard that connects communities by a mix of land uses designed to attract people. Cities are encouraged to design for neighborhoods that include high quality building designs and diverse land uses, preserve historic buildings and places, and enhance our economic and cultural diversity, with the broad involvement of residents, workers and local businesses. Rail stations and bus facilities are valued not only as vital transportation services, but as public gathering places and assets to spur transit oriented development. Roadway improvements will be context sensitive while continuing to meet the need to move people and commerce and preserve environmental resources. Above all, change will recognize and incorporate our history and create a sense of community.”

The Initiative has developed a list of ‘guiding principlesthat are endorsed by every Bay Area city along El Camino Real. They are:

  • Compact, mixed-use development
  • Improved pedestrian experience
  • Reduced auto use
  • Vibrant gathering spaces

They have also increased awareness of the importance of aesthetic infrastructure along the corridor including architectural street lighting, landscaping, widened sidewalks and signage to encourage a more livable, attractive neighborhood that’s close to public transit.

Mountain View’s plan for their section of El Camino Real lays the groundwork for resolving the issue of narrow sidewalks, non-existent bike lanes, infrequent crosswalks and reducing the speed of automobiles along its lanes.

Says San Jose councilman and initiative task force member Pierluigi Oliverio, “The El Camino should be a Champs-Elysées, a destination that resembles Europe, that has true, high-density mixed-use the whole route.”

The complete revitalization of El Camino Real will most likely take a generation or more as the Grand Boulevard Initiative works with city, government agencies, the local community and businesses, environmentalists, labor, and advocates for housing, transit, bicyclists, economic development and smart growth. But once completed, El Camino Real will become a “grand boulevard of meaningful destinations shaped by all the cities along its length and with each community realizing its full potential to become a destination full of valued places”.