Below the window, a personal trainer in a skin-tight, intensely blue tank top jaunts up the stairs, pausing every several paces to exhort a couple of sweat-drenched female clients. A handful of joggers in similarly bright spandex sports bras and tights sprint past them—up and down the 252 steps that have become the bane of Zora Kabic’s existence.
“This is nothing,” she says on a recent weekday afternoon, exasperated, peeking through the curtains of her two-story townhome, which sits kitty corner from the base of what Communications Hill denizens call the Grand Staircase. “You should see at night. Music, drinking, drugs, sex.”
Sounds like a good time.
“Not for the people who live here,” says Kabic, 67, a tech worker turned fragrance model (yes, that’s a thing) who shares her immaculate home with her ex-husband, a retired schoolteacher, and a gray tabby named Lucky.
One late night, she peered out the window to see two shadowy figures on the stone bench across the way.
“One on top of the other,” she says, wrinkling her nose in disgust, flipping through a binder brimming with emails, notes, police reports and photos documenting the litany of offenses. “You could tell what they were doing. Making noises. Having sex.”
Mornings are no better. Fitness bootcamps show up before dawn with their techno-blaring speakers, irrepressible exuberance and yawps of encouragement. “So early and already so loud,” Kabic groans.
Skaters, stoners, drinkers, shutterbugs, cyclists, Crossfitters, loiterers and horny teenagers. People park in the red zone, block her driveway, defecate in the bushes and litter the area with bottles, wrappers and cigarette butts. Prom-goers, fawning couples and wedding parties stage photo shoots. Kabic can’t sleep without the windows closed, some soft music playing.
When she bought her place on Mullinix Drive eight years ago, the staircase wasn’t built yet. So serene was the setting that wild animals would meander around her home—turkeys, coyotes, skunks, raccoons. A fox would frequent her doorstep for bites of raw Costco chicken and boiled eggs. She named it Bella and she keeps a photo of it in her living room.
Like many homeowners who moved to Communications Hill in the mid-aughts, Kabic had no idea that the hilltop views and majestic staircase that appealed to new buyers would turn their neighborhood into one of the trendiest fitness destinations in the Bay Area—and, Kabic murmurs, a pick-up zone for the hard-bodied, health-conscious and promiscuous. “It’s like a singles bar,” remarks a neighbor.
Sometime around 2010, word got out on social media that Communications Hill—named for the 114-foot microwave tower at the summit—doubled as an outdoor gym, with an analog stairmaster and a quarter-mile trail loop.
A Yelp page popped up with a four-star rating and rave reviews: “The hill with a lot of communication! Nah, more like cardio,” wrote a Justin P., adding that he feels bad for the residents who live there. On Flickr and Facebook, visitors post photos of stunning orange sunsets and, after dark, sparkling views of the valley floor. It became as popular as Mission Peak, a public trail that snakes up Fremont’s eastern hills. Neighborhood groups say more than 80 percent of Communications Hill visitors don’t live in the area—many come from far-flung corners of the Bay Area.
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” offers Jeremy Jones, 34, a trustee of the Tuscany Hills Homeowners Association who bought his place in 2005. “But when they do it in a place that doesn't have the infrastructure to support them, it has unintended consequences."
But the issue comes to a head this month, as the city of San Jose considers greenlighting plans for 2,200 new homes, a retail center and six additional grand staircases over the next seven years. Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen, who moved to a nearby condo in 2006, asked her colleagues on the council to consider concerns of residents before giving KB Homes the go-ahead to build out what’s currently the largest development proposal in San Jose.
“I’ve had hundreds of residents reach out to me about petty problems that add up,” says Nguyen, who walks around the trail and stairs a few times a week. “Traffic, parking, loitering, drinking in public, smoking pot—we have to address these things before we move forward. We’re using this opportunity now that KB Homes is developing the next phase to make sure they understand how critical it is that we find a solution.”
The problem for many residents isn’t so much the crowds as the lack of accommodations for them. Because the stairs were zoned as a public right-of-way—like a passage, alley or roadway—it’s open to anyone. Because it wasn’t zoned as a park, no one can enforce curfews. There are no public bathrooms, little public parking and only after the fact did the city install trash cans.
Development plans submitted to the city propose building 28 more staircases, five or six of them similar to the heavily trafficked Grand Staircase across from Kabic’s house. “More staircases would only multiply the problem,” Kabic insists. “They must do something.”
Upward of 200 residents showed up to a late August evening community meeting hosted by city planners and KB Homes, which built out the first phase of the project. So many residents complained about the public nuisance wrought by the staircases that developers ready to share a lofty vision for Communications Hill could barely get in a word.
“It was quite a show,” says Jones, who lives a good distance away from the busiest staircase. “[KB Homes] wasn’t able to have a successful meeting. They couldn’t talk about future development because they had to deal with 200 people talking about current issues.”
Though the vision of transforming the Communications Hill area into a dense urban center has been in the books for decades, its actualization caught folks off guard, says Jerry Strangis, a lobbyist who helped push for the development’s original land-use plan in the early ’90s.
“It took 10 years to get the specific plan adopted,” he says. “And that’s what we wanted: a mixed-use housing element with jobs, commercial space, connected by public transit. It’s always been a site the city wants to see developed and one they want to see developed right.”
The blueprint adopted for the area and designed by architect Daniel Solomon was modeled after Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, where a 400-step staircase draws an incessant crush of tourists walking to and from Coit Tower.
Solomon, a professor emeritus of architecture and urban design at University of California, Berkeley, has won numerous awards for helping shape modern concepts of urban design. He considered Communications Hill unique from the bulk of development in the past three decades that favored sprawl and strip malls over dense, walkable communities. Instead of spread-out homes and strip malls, he mapped out a tight grid of streets and blocks over steep terrain—row houses and flats with space for future high-rise towers and retail within easy walking distance.
“It was part of his vision for what they call ‘New Urbanism,’” Strangis says. “He was the visionary who came up with the staircases, the granite steps. What he didn’t know is that 25 years later, those steps would become the most popular fitness facility in the region.”
Communications Hill’s final project up for consideration includes 67,500 square feet of commercial-retail space, 55 acres of industrial parks, trails and infrastructure within a 332-acre swath of land.
“We’re excited for it,” says Jones, who fields public nuisance complaints for his HOA. “If the future development is done right, it can be an exciting thing for the existing community."
But residents say there has to be a better way to manage the staircases, because people keep coming. The Tuscany Hills HOA says it has shelled out more than $100,000 in the past 18 months to hire off-duty cops to patrol the neighborhood. Sgt. Jason Pierce, a SJPD veteran who spends his weekends policing the staircase, walks up and down the stairs a few times per shift, telling loiterers, drinkers and smokers to move along. “The biggest thing is just making our presence known,” he says.
Kabic has become a regular pen-pal, emailing reports to him directly instead of dialing 9-1-1. “My eyes on the ground,” Pierce says, with a laugh.
With Nguyen’s help, the community convinced the city to install parking signs and paint strips of red on the curb. That, at least, gives Pierce and his colleagues something to enforce. During his time working for the HOA, Pierce has counted 10 arrests for outstanding warrants, 80 arrests and detainments for drug and alcohol offenses and 400 parking citations.
“It’s a start,” Zabic concedes. “The parking problems aren’t as much now.”
She recently added a few signs of her own, imploring visitors to be mindful of the $50,000 worth of landscaping the city planted. They read: “Respect our community, please do not walk through the bushes!!!”
Zabic spies a trampled bush a few strides away and sighs. “They don’t care,” she says, walking away. “It’s not theirs, so they don’t care.”