In late 2008 I developed an idea that would bring more visitors to Fremont. The more I thought it through the more plausible it seemed. I put together a slideshow and began making one-on-one presentations to Fremont residents to establish if they thought I was out of my mind. I talked to past and present city leaders, business owners, environmentalists and civic-minded individuals. I also showed it to friends and family who are usually good at telling you if they think you’re crackers. A year and a half later the most negative comment received was “good luck” and on the other end of the scale, When can we start building it?!”
In April 2010 I had the opportunity of making my presentation to several City of Fremont staff members. In a separate meeting I showed it to a director for the East Bay Regional Park District. I was not attempting to get their commitment, which would not have been possible anyway, but to gauge their reaction. Their comments generally centered around “interesting.” I came away feeling their collective reaction was positive. At least no one suggested I consider getting my screws tightened. No one said it was simply out of the question. Now it’s time for the general public to review it and comment.
I have one request. Please take the time to read about my idea from the very beginning to better understand and appreciate how this idea developed and why I think it would be a great addition to our city.
The “Big Three” abound with attractions that make it difficult to compete against them. San Francisco is of course the top draw with the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, Coit Tower, Lombard Street and Fisherman’s Wharf, to name just a few. All three cities have an assortment of museums, institutes of higher learning and major league sports franchises.
Another major draw in the Greater Bay Area are the wine growing regions of Napa and Sonoma to the north and now Livermore to the east.
For retail shopping destinations San Francisco and San Jose’s Santana Row top the list. For the most part shopping centers are all the same, with the same grouping of chain retail stores.
So how does Fremont attract attention?
We need an attraction that no other city in the Bay Area has or could think of having. If we create an attraction totally unique within the entire Bay Area and most of Northern California we stand a pretty good chance people will seek it out.
What’s Fremont’s attraction?
Fremont boasts it is the fourth largest city in the Bay Area, but what reason is there for visiting Fremont?
Much like a shopping center needs an anchor store to attract other businesses and draw shoppers, a city needs an anchor attraction to draw people to visit.
Fremont’s current attractions are historic in nature, Mission San Jose, Ardenwood Farm, the Niles Canyon Railway, the Niles Film Museum, the Shinn House, and the Local Museum of History. Great if you’re a history buff.
Fremont has no white-water river or sandy beaches. What Fremont does have is a mountain, Mission Peak, towering above the southeastern corner of our city. At 2,417’ it is the fourth highest peak in the Bay Area behind Mts. Hamilton, Diablo and Tamalpais.
Mission Peak resides within the boundaries of the City of Fremont and is part of the Mission Peak Regional Preserve of the East Bay Regional Park District. It’s visible from San Francisco and has been part of Fremont’s official identity from the time it became a city in 1956.
Up until 1989 anyone gazing up at the Peak would see sailplanes sweeping across its slopes. Hikers on its trails would come face-to-face with the sailplane pilots and hear the whoosh of air rushing across the plane’s wings. That has been silenced since the glider airport closed that year.
Hang gliders can still be seen occasionally as they drift down in lazy, spiraling patterns off the cliff face just below the peak itself.
Both of these activities exclude a majority of the populace from participating. The only alternative if you want to take in the 360º panoramic vistas offered at the summit is to hike either the Ohlone College or Stanford Avenue trail. Both are considered strenuous climbs and require a minimum of a half day’s time to accomplish. In both cases it requires the hiker to be in good shape. While not impossible, the climb would test the limits of anyone with a physical impairment – a Fremont scout, who relies on crutches did make the climb with the encouragement of his troop buddies.
It’s time to put our attribute to use.
Mission Peak is our attribute and presents a unique opportunity that would bring recognition to our city and be the anchor attraction we need.
So Mission Peak is the attraction?
No. A bi-cable ropeway on Mission Peak would be the attraction. More commonly known as an aerial tram. It would not be physically on the Peak. It would be located approximately a half-mile south of the Peak. It would be similar to what Squaw Valley and Palm Springs have, but not as big. Bi-cable ropeways consist of two tram cars suspended on cables. While one is at the summit the other is at the base station. The weight of the one descending pulls the other one up.
Squaw Valley and Palm Springs are the only bi-cable ropeways in California. Heavenly Valley and Mammoth have monocable systems that use a series of small gondolas.
There are only 15 bi-cable ropeways in the United States. If you have done any traveling around our country there’s a good chance you have ridden at least one of them. They can be found in Juneau, Alaska to New York City. There are aerial trams in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Franconia, New Hampshire, El Paso, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia.
The most recently built U.S. bi-cable is in Portland, Oregon. It is both a tourist must-see and a commuter tram, traveling from the South Waterfront terminal adjacent to the OHSU Center for Health & Healing to the Kohler Pavilion on OHSU’s main campus. It was built by Doppelmayr/Garaventa, one of the world’s major builders of ropeways. They have constructed close to 14,000 tram systems worldwide. Aerial trams can be found in almost every country in the world.
Why would this be a benefit to Fremont?
This type of attraction would draw sightseers. Sightseers are inquisitive. Being here on their own time schedule they are more likely to visit other local points of interest while in the area such as the Niles Railway or Ardenwood. They are more likely to visit local shops and restaurants because they are not bound by a pre-determined event start time or date. Sometimes this is referred to as pull-through. You get people interested in one thing and then present additional offers to them for consideration.
Why an aerial tram?
- Operate year-round
- Allow people to visit on their own time schedule
- Be unique in the nine-county Bay Area
- Be easily accessible from major roadways and BART
- Be of interest to all age groups
- Allow those with a physical impairment and the elderly to visit the summit
- Generate repeat visits
- Generate visitor traffic for other Fremont points of interest
- Generate business for local dining and retail establishments
- Create interest from Bay Area, national and international news organizations
- Create interest among travel writers
- Generate interest among film and movie producers looking for scenic shot locations (business would be generated with room rentals, equipment rentals and food prep for the production crews).
An aerial tram would allow Fremont to stand apart from all other cities in the Bay Area including the “Big Three.” This attraction would be unrivaled in the Bay Area and a major portion of Northern California. Trying to build a tram on one of the other local peaks would be difficult for a variety of reasons including geographic location and distance from population centers.
The best way to get a feeling for the viability of such an attraction is to watch a few of the home videos posted on YouTube of tram riders in Juneau, Portland, Franconia or Atlanta (Stone Mountain). Watch the videos and you can hear the thrill in the peoples’ voices as they rise above the surrounding countryside and glide silently up the mountain.
This attraction can be educational as well, with a nature center at the summit offering information on the area as well as guided hikes. The summit viewing station could include photographs taken of Fremont in its earlier days to graphically depict the development of the city and surrounding area.
CONCERNS RAISED BY SUCH A PROJECT
It will create too much traffic in an already congested area.
The Mission Peak Regional Preserve parking at the end of Stanford Avenue already experiences overflow on weekends. Residents in the gated community at the top of Stanford are upset with hikers parking on Stanford, making it difficult to access their homes.
The traffic problem can be mitigated by using a system of shuttles to transfer visitors from parking located in Mission San Jose to the base station. The shuttles arrival would be timed with the arrival and departure schedule of the tram. A shuttle would run from the Warm Springs BART station as well bringing visitors from San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area via public transit.
Locating the parking in MSJ has the benefit of increasing foot traffic in the main Mission District business area. Aerial tram visitors returning to the parking area are more likely to explore surrounding retail and eateries. It would also stimulate the possibility of additional businesses locating there.
The cable support towers will be an eyesore on the hillside
The estimated maximum number of towers necessary for this length tram is four, spread over the 8300 feet from the base station to the summit. There is the possibility it could be accomplished with only three.
Compare that with the proliferation of Hetch Hetchy high-voltage transmission towers visible not only on the hills above Mission San Jose, but slicing right through the heart of its main business district and the neighborhoods that have been built around and under it. An aerial view on Google Maps presents a graphic picture of their numbers. One area on the hill directly above Ohlone College has 17 transmission towers clustered over a very short distance. There are 30 more from Mission Blvd. to Paseo Padre Parkway south of Pine St. They continue up, over and across Grimmer, and across the bay.
Residents of the area would probably admit they don’t notice the towers. They have become part of the landscape. In comparison I believe the tram towers could be positioned in such a way as to be quite discreet in appearance. The tram cars would be visible, but in terms of scale their physical size compared to the mountain would make them hard to distinguish at any distance.
The summit building will be another eyesore ruining the ridge line
The television transmission antenna one mile south of the peak is over 400’ tall. There are also several other antennas and buildings. All are highly visible, even at a distance. The plan for the aerial tram’s summit facility is to keep it low profile and sitting back from the ridge line, therefore pretty much out of sight from anywhere along the base. It would be visible from a greater distance, but a one-story building’s visual impact would be minimal. Much less than the existing structures.
The landslide that occurred on Mission Peak indicates the hillside is unsafe
Geologic soil testing would need to be done. The area where the landslide occurred is much steeper and has no foliage. The area where the aerial tram towers would be placed is not as steep and has a fair amount of foliage, which helps secure the soil. There are a series of rolling plateaus in the tram’s path providing flat terrain that might serve quite well for secure base pads for the towers.
The tram would be in violation of the Hill Area Initiative
The Hill Area Initiative of 2002 was passed by Fremont voters to protect the hills surrounding Mission Peak from “sprawling subdivisions.” It is also meant to maintain the area for “agriculture, outdoor recreation and rural residences.” The tram could be considered outdoor recreation. The Hill Area Initiative does not preclude riding stables, nurseries or vineyards so it is difficult to ascertain how this project would be construed. There would not be any development on the hillside other than the supporting towers. The summit station would set back and not be visible from Mission Blvd. or nearby areas.
Construction of the towers would require access roads and ruin the hillside
Construction of the tram base station and summit facility would be accomplished using existing access roads. Construction of the towers would not require new roads. Materials and equipment necessary for the tower construction would be brought in by helicopter. This procedure is commonly used around the world in much more inhospitable environs. Squaw Valley is a good example with towers constructed on rock precipices with near 90º vertical drops and no road access. Bi-cable ropeways can be built this way, but gondolas, mono-cable systems, like Heavenly Valley cannot.
It would produce more foot traffic on the mountain
The hike from the summit visitors center to the peak would be approximately a half-mile. It would draw the interest of visitors. Similar type hikes can be taken at Squaw Valley. A majority of visitors would probably be satisfied with the view from the summit station’s enclosed windbreak area. Especially if it provided additional viewing options like telescopes.
Currently the only way to access the peak is by hiking the entire trail from either Ohlone or Stanford Avenue side. The tram would reduce foot traffic on the hillside trails although visitors may opt to ride up and hike down.
Operation of the tram would be noisy
Trams operate on electricity. There is no noise generated in day-to-day operation. If the power was interrupted a backup diesel engine would be used in emergencty situations to bring visitors down safely.
Who builds trams and how much would it cost?
The first part of this question is easy. As previously mentioned Dopplymayr/Garaventa has built close to 14,000 trams worldwide. They would be the recommendation. They are not the only tram builders, but definitely the most widely recognized. Their U.S. office is located in Salt Lake City, Utah and they have built a majority of the trams found in the U.S. such as Portland’s, Stone Mountain in Atlanta and Palm Springs.
I contacted D/G and supplied the rough data, i.e. location, topographical map, etc. Ironically, their representative in Salt Lake that contacted me had lived in Fremont (Warm Springs). He had hiked the Stanford Ave. trail to the Peak many times so he was very familiar with the location and the terrain. He supplied a very rough estimate that put the cost at $25-$30 million. That was for construction and buildings, but obviously many factors come into play, i.e. wage standards for the area, building design, number of buildings, etc. My feeling is $40 million would be a more realistic number.
That’s a lot of money
Keep in mind this is for an attraction that would operate 365 days a year. In comparison the estimated cost for the proposed baseball stadium was $400-500 million and there are only 81 scheduled home games per year or roughly 28% of a year.
The East Bay Regional Park District doesn’t have this kind of money for construction
Either one or a consortium of private firms could become involved in the construction and operation of the tram, with a portion of the revenue going to EBRPD. It is possible that one private firm would tackle this kind of project by itself.
Could it generate enough revenue to return on the investment?
This needs to be determined by someone other than me. I am not a “numbers guy.” Here’s my wild stab at it:
- Ticket price – $15 (average, lower for juniors/seniors, higher for other adults)
- Daily operation hours – 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. (eight hours) (more would be nice)
- Avg. number visitors per hour – 100 (this will fluctuate given weather conditions)
- 800 visitors per day x $15 per rider = $12,000 per day
- 365 days x $12,000 = $4,380,000 per year
Note I said “wild stab.” All kinds of holes can be shot in this estimate; the number of visitors, weather conditions, holiday closures, equipment maintenance downtime etc. I’m just tossing out some very, very rough numbers to provide a ballpark estimate for the revenue possibilities.
- The only “development” on the hillside are the cable support towers.
- No access roads would be needed for their construction. Helicopter drops materials.
- The base station resides on Mission Peak Regional Preserve land and is accessible by an existing road. No new road required.
- The base station has a small footprint, large enough to handle the arrivals/departures.
- The summit station will be low-profile and will sit back to minimize its visibility.
- The summit already has a road for the television transmission facility on Mt. Allison.
- Visitors will arrive/depart via a shuttle to an offsite parking area.
A Fremont visitors’ center could be a part of a tram ticket office. Information on other Fremont attractions, local restaurants, hotels, etc. would be available there.
I have no personal commercial or financial ties to this proposal. I have been a Fremont resident since 1972. I would like to see Fremont establish a presence for itself and I believe this is an excellent way to do that.