San Jose developer in tune with GreenTRIP by day, in front of the mic at night

Shannon Tracey Headshot

GreenTRIP’s goal is to make the Bay Area a place with more affordable homes and less parking. But that can’t happen without the partnership of people who actually do the building: developers. 

To hear a developer’s perspective, I spoke with Joshua Burroughs,  Senior Development Manager with Barry Swenson Builder, a San Jose-based firm whose Vendome Place Apartments Phase 2 earned GreenTRIP Certification in 2012, and who recently became a founding sponsor of GreenTRIP Connect

He’s also one of the namesake brothers in the Burroughs Brothers Band, a classic rock cover band.  But we’ll get to that later.  Here’s what Josh had to say about building housing in the Bay Area, parking metrics, and more.

Projects that don’t fit inside the box

What is Barry Swenson Builder’s vision? 

We are particularly focused on high density transit oriented development (TOD). Our firm pioneered this approach through San Jose's first high density residential tower TOD, Vendome Place Apartments, which is also a GreenTrip Certified Development.

...We’re also big advocates of housing adjacent to the actual jobs – so that would be NO commuting. Walking to work.

What are you most proud of in your work as a housing developer? 

Our ability to navigate complex entitlement processes and push the limit on current standards, highlighted through our dedication to urban infill development and successful mixed use and TOD projects in the Bay Area. We tend to take on tough projects that don't fit inside the box, and excel in creating projects that are affordable by design.

Affordable by design?

That’s one philosophy that we’ve used.  How can we lower the total project cost to deliver more high-quality product, but that’s accessible to not just the super wealthy?  And that ties into [our overall approach as] a design-build firm and really looking at costs from day one.  It’s a full life-cycle approach to be able to deliver workforce housing without breaking the bank – for either the developer, or the buyer or renter.

Numbers and metrics speak loudly

How has GreenTRIP helped your company be more successful at developing housing? 

On the Vendome TOD project in San Jose, we utilized GreenTRIP to move the conversation forward in regards to visualizing the real impacts of a transit oriented development with community groups, the planning department, and City Council.  GreenTRIP was integral in advancing high density TOD in a neighborhood that was in transition, but had the infrastructure to make the project successful. 

What have you learned from working with GreenTRIP?

We learned a lot about the true metrics behind parking alternatives and the impacts of TOD projects compared to traditional auto oriented developments.  TransForm was able to put [those metrics] into a medium that was easier to read for a lay person or city councilmembers with graphics – compared to reading a 10-page traffic study with 40 pages of addendums.

“True metrics” – what do you mean by that?

On Vendome, we were trying to explain that if you build next to transit, you can have a lower parking count and residents aren’t going to have one space and park three other cars in the neighborhood. There are actual metrics and studies that show that if you build it in the right place, they will figure out how to have just one car. 

What’s surprised you about GreenTRIP, or about the way you work as a result of GreenTRIP? 

Numbers and metrics speak loudly and it’s changed the way we analyze new TOD projects, especially high rise developments in the Bay Area, weighing the cost / benefit impacts of parking.

Would you recommend that other developers work with GreenTRIP?  Why or why not? 

For the right project that fits within the box, we absolutely recommend other developers utilize the GreenTRIP platform of solutions, not only to move the conversation forward with constituents, but to get a different perspective on the cost/benefit analysis of different parking alternatives.

Parking metrics drive a project’s design

What are some of the challenges that housing developers face, that people might not know about? 

Most developers will tell you that parking metrics drive a project's design, and impact the ability to finance, rent or sell units.  Developers have to work within a certain box to appease multiple entities, whether that’s a city's building and planning department, a lender, an equity partner, or the end user.  Pushing the envelope on parking ratios or financial incentives for transit passes can be a difficult sell depending on who you are speaking to...it's just a very complex negotiation. 

At times there can be a large information gap between developers and advocates, so the more collaborative we can be with the sharing of information the better both groups will be at achieving the same goal.

How do you see GreenTRIP solutions helping people in the communities where you work?  How about where you live?

I live downtown and work next to a Light Rail Line.  I see GreenTRIP solutions moving the needle forward on the amount of projects that utilize mass transit proximity and other incentives as a viable alternative to a sea of parking.  Once a critical mass of projects (in the right locations) use this approach, we'll see an increase in the quality of life of people in our communities...hopefully shorter commute times, less stress, less pollution, etc.

What are you looking forward to gaining from GreenTRIP Connect when it is available?

I think it’ll help when we look at new building opportunities and we start the discussion with the architect – it’ll help give them direction in what to design.  One of the first questions they ask is how much parking.  Parking really drives development of the project, it’s one of the first conversations you have.

What kind of impact do you think GreenTRIP Connect might have on housing in the Bay Area as a whole?

I think it’s going to have an effect on policy and parking ratio minimums in different cities.  It’s going to educate policy-makers, planners, city councilmembers on looking towards the future.

Down the road you could see much fewer than one parking spot per unit in certain locations.  Right now that’s not allowed in most jurisdictions.

Men (not) At Work

What do you like to do when you’re not at work? 

I'm in a classic rock cover band with my brother and my boss, Case Swenson, which is a ton of fun...we primarily play benefit concerts in the San Jose area.  I'm also very involved in international service through the Wheelchair Foundation and Rotary International; since 2007, I've had the honor of delivering over 2500 wheelchairs to those in need in over 7 countries.

Do you think you’re more aware of design standards for people in wheelchairs because of your work with the Wheelchair Foundation?

I’m definitely more aware of how lucky we are to live in a country that has [Americans with Disabilities Act] standards.  Most countries I visit are decades behind the U.S. as far as infrastructure, and advocates in those countries are just now using the U.S. as a framework to implement protections for the disabled.  Most of the time we’re delivering wheelchairs in villages, off-road tires for dirt roads.

Last question: does your band cover “We Built This City”?  Because it sounds like that’s what your firm is doing.

[Laughs] We should.

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Learn more about GreenTRIP and GreenTRIP Connect, an online tool that will allow city officials, developers, and community members to instantly see the traffic, health, and economic benefits of implementing GreenTRIP strategies in their communities.

With a matching grant offer from the Knight Foundation, we are currently seeking funds by May 2015 to develop GreenTRIP Connect in 2015 and launch by 2016. Join the visionary council of founding Connect sponsors!

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TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.