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In Fremont, Urban Development Means Anything Goes

One city tries a radical approach: Letting developers do whatever they want. 


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For years, Fremont sat on one of the last great untamed tracts of land in the Bay Area: 800-plus acres of mostly unused land next to the coming Warm Springs BART station. To attract Silicon Valley companies while simultaneously creating a living community, Fremont has embraced an approach that would not play well in San Francisco: As long as developers put in the amenities for an urban center, they can do pretty much whatever they want.

In planning the Warm Springs community, Fremont was inspired by Boston’s so-called Innovation District, which turned 1,000 acres of underdeveloped land into a destination for startups by tossing out every preconception about how business districts should look, work, and act. “Anyone who has been to a business park at night knows it’s a dead zone,” says the East Bay city’s community development director, Jeff Schwob. “This generation wants a place you can live and work.”

The city’s goal is to make Warm Springs so welcoming that even people who don’t work there will want to visit. Silicon Valley offices will be intermingled with residential developments, public spaces, a school, walking paths, and commercial zones for cafés and boutiques. In exchange for underwriting these urban necessities, developers are being given carte blanche. Want to put in an entire new street? Major developer Lennar is doing just that. Want to construct half of your headquarters now and the rest once your IPO pays off ? Go ahead. Want to build something tall? No, really tall? In a move that would likely make NIMBYs breathe fire, the plan goes beyond eliminating height limits: It actually has height minimums. “When I talk to companies,” says economic development manager Christina Briggs, “I have to explain the concept three or four times. They’re amazed.”

Companies like Lennar, used to navigating the heavily regulated Bay Area, must feel as if they’ve died and gone to no-planning-commission heaven. Biotech company Thermo Fisher became Warm Springs’ first taker when it opened a giant facility next to Tesla last year. More companies are negotiating.


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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