The City Council began talking about a major new downtown transit center and Caltrain station on Tuesday, along with the big question of how to make the Castro Street train crossing safe.
Among the many things that could be included in a new downtown transit station were shops and cafes, new bike lockers, wider train platforms and an underground bus terminal.
Train ridership at the station is now more than three times higher than the 1,000 morning riders it was designed for in the 1990s, the city reports, and the platforms are often packed with people.
“I think this could be a world-class center,” said Mayor John McAlister. “Something along the lines of the Ferry Building in San Francisco; they have some great stores there.”
One member of the public suggested that a design contest for the new station be held among the world’s top architects.
Council members said they realized the importance of answering an old question before redesigning the station: How does the city redesign the adjacent train crossing at Castro Street to make it safer and improve traffic flow? The concern is that the back-up of vehicles waiting for trains to pass during rush hours will only get worse with the growing demand for train service, along with increased chances of a pedestrian fatality.
“A lot of people die at the train tracks. It’s hard to believe in this day and age we can’t prevent that kind of contact,” said council member Lenny Siegel.
Over the years council members have discussed possible solutions, from sinking Castro Street under grade-level tracks, to raising the tracks over the street, to the cost-prohibitive option of putting the tracks in a trench.
On Tuesday, some council members were leaning towards closing off Castro Street, and diverting traffic down Evelyn Avenue onto Shoreline Boulevard.
“People actually are warming up to the idea of closing Castro Street,” said council member Pat Showalter, mentioning how it is already done for special events.
“A grade separation is going to be destructive to what we’ve been building in downtown for the last few decades,” Siegel said. “The space required to go up or down will be enormous compared to the benefits we would get.”
He later added he was leaning toward closing Castro Street at the tracks, but was hesitant to take a position without studying it first.
“We should make a quicker decision and do a quick study,” Siegel said. “Tell the public, ‘We’d like to close Castro Street at the tracks.’ Get the public feedback, get the decision made and do the rest of our planning.”
City Manager Dan Rich said it was clear that council members wanted a study of the various grade-separation options done soon. The plan could be completed in 18 to 24 months, he said.
Siegel had a number of ideas for what appears to be a challenging station design on what is now a 7.5-acre footprint. He suggested building some of the station over Central Expressway and extending it west of Castro Street where light rail isn’t in the way. Someone else suggested depressing Central Expressway so portions of the light rail track could be pushed north and hang over the expressway, making room for a bigger station footprint.
“Put the parking structure and bus loop on top of Central Expressway,” Siegel suggested. “Land values are such that going vertical may not be as difficult as it used to be.”
A parking structure could help solve the problem of how to get people over the tracks, he said. “We need to solve the problem of north access to the train station. Our employment growth is to the north. Ignoring that would create all kinds of problems to the downtown area.”
Consultant Jim Litebody had told the council that putting bridge structures over the expressway would be difficult and was not in the presentation because it was deemed not worth the trouble.