Planning departments across the USA commonly create “specific plans” and/or “master plans” for certain streets and neighborhoods within a city. San Jose, not unlike other cities, has many of these same plans.
These plans tend to have colorful illustrations depicting what life in the future would be like, and almost always seem to be utopian in nature: happy residents walking with their animal companions in tow, people on bikes, massive parks that melt into the horizon, cafes filled with laughing people laughing, and my favorite ... children with balloons.
Most of the time these plans are put together with the best of intentions, but they end up sitting on a shelf due to their inherent lack of practicality or feasibility. For example, many of these plans depict large parks that have no funding source—this is deceptive. If a plan calls for a large park, then many market rate housing units are required to fund that park. (Only market-rate housing, not affordable housing, pays 100 percent of park fees.) In one instance in my district, Cahill Park could have been larger. However, the City Council prior to my tenure approved a housing development that was less dense, and therefore a smaller park resulted.
Sometimes staff solicits ideas from the community, and in doing so propagates a false hope that can only exist in an alternative universe separate from our fiscal reality. For example, one idea involved building a park “in the sky” over the 280 freeway, which would have ended up costing approximately $100 million. This idea should have been eliminated instantly, due to the prohibitive cost. Instead, it was kept alive by the somewhat absurd notion that San Jose voters may someday tax themselves to support a nine-figure project.
In the past, staff and ultimately the council have limited the development potential in a specific plan area when it has been deemed that residents would prefer to maintain the status quo. Case in point, based on community feedback, the 1998 Alviso Master Plan limited the construction of any new industrial office buildings to one or at most two stories on North First Street. The unfortunate consequence of the height limitation is that we have had to forgo market driven demand for taller, 5-8 story buildings. In effect, this specific restriction in the premier technology corridor of San Jose has limited the city’s economic development as a whole.
An alternative approach that would be more conducive to economic growth would involve first identifying a limited number of job creation sites in San Jose located within specific plan areas. We should then re-examine any existing limitations within these job creation sites and remove any restrictions that may block private investment, as in the Alviso example cited above.
Another reason these plans are often doomed to failure can be attributed to the fact that a private property owner may simply not want to develop their land. In other instances, residents will express a desire for a new park on land that is privately owned, and oftentimes this same parcel has an existing structure with tenants already in place. At the end of the day, America is a country that places high value, rightfully so, on private property rights. Thus, successful development is most likely to occur when the private property owners themselves initiate plans, not when an outsider who does not actually own the property injects impractical conceptual drawings into the process.
Currently, staff is planning the development of “Urban Villages,” with the goal of mixing residential and employment activities. Furthermore, the development of such villages would establish minimum densities designed to support transit use, bicycling, walking, high-quality urban design, revitalization of underutilized properties, and the engagement of local neighborhoods and private property owners in the process. Here is a map of the future Urban Villages.
Having attended three Urban Village planning meetings in October, it is my hope that the plans ultimately approved by council are realistic and allow for expedited development. However, I believe a disclaimer acknowledging private property rights should be on the first page of any proposed plan, and that ultimately development will be initiated on a timetable that government cannot control—especially if the plans are too far from market realities.
Sometimes, a proposed development is in harmony with a pre-existing plan, but just as often this is not the case. In either instance, my objective as a councilmember has always been to consider different points of view and support or oppose development based on the long-term economic benefits to San Jose as a whole.
Pierluigi Oliverio is a councilmember for San Jose’s District 6.