Park in the Sky or Pie in the Sky?

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.

7 Comments

  1. Get to work on the crime problem before some citizen has to shoot a burglar to effect some action. D6 has had several home invasion burglaries, some where firearms were involved and where homeowners were hurt. As a councilman, that should be your priority, not 3 meetings about fantasy park plans.

  2. More housing and more of a drain on resources that are being cut or that are shrinking because of city service employees fleeing. Just like clockwork this guy pounds out another mindless self promoting blog entry. We keep asking ourselves when does the insanity end with these city leaders. It really cant get any worse can it? And then, yes it does get worse. I will not direct any comments at him by his given name as he does not respond anyway. I actually believe he might lay low after his public spanking that was dealt by the city “manager” I believe Al Davis would have been a better manager to this city than Figone, but thats another topic….

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful post PO. So here’s what I, an actual taxpaying, property owning resident of San Jose think.
    San Jose’s character has long been defined as suburban and low-density. That’s what we are. But we’re continually being told by the Urban Village “experts” that we should be ashamed and that we need to change.
    I think we San Joseans should take a hint from the gay community and come out of the closet. Instead of trying to hide our suburban nature and apologize for it let’s instead come to terms with who we are and celebrate it. I’m tired of these progressives and their bigoted campaign to change our orientation.
    We’re loud, we’re proud, and we like our R6 zoning!

    Quit making San Jose affordable. We have no obligation to do that. Let property values rise. Those who can afford to live here will live here. Those who can’t won’t. City Government will do just fine because of the reduced demand for city services by all the takers. We’ll finally be able to get our spending priorities straight and enjoy those big parks and that complete interconnected bike path along the major creeks.
    Every other major city in the world is moving toward the urban village model. There’ll be plenty of those. Let’s do something truly different.

    • I hear you John, but San Jose will always have suburban options. Younger people entering the workforce are primarily looking for urban locations where a car is not required, there is easy access to restaurants and cultural facilities, and they’re surrounded by a vibrant atmosphere. We need these workers to keep our tech companies at full steam which in turn drives our economy.

      There is also the factor of being able to offer resources and services more efficiently to San Jose residents, and this requires a higher level of density.

      Urban villages and a focus on expanding development in Downtown SJ, North First, Japantown, and Midtown areas are going to be key to growing in smart way that will retain and attract young talent to San Jose without adding more congestion to our streets.

  4. does this “Fairy Tale ” City even have a public safety to speak of??? because in the real world, the Now. You , this corrupt Mayor and morally bankrupt council have decimated our public safety , here and now !

    ???Urban village ??? are you high?? This City continues to build low income condensed housing but are NOT adding any new jobs!

    If I want to go for a ride then Ill go to Disneyland , This ride you, Reed and the rest of your regime are taking san jose residents on , is about to derail , with thousands of casualties

  5. Just focus all the growth downtown, not San Jo or anywhere else!  Downtown needs all the growth and attention to increase vitality.  Why are you vigorously defending sprawl?!!