With just days to go until a vote to pave the way for 206 below-market-rate apartments on Race Street, emails began flooding the inboxes of the San Jose City Council.
The Core Companies and Santa Clara County Housing Authority wanted to build five- to six-story buildings on a 2.3-acre site between Park Avenue and San Carlos Street. But the project would raze a popular fish market (now closed), and with no plans to replace it with new retail to enliven the corridor, Catalyze Silicon Valley sprung into action.
The pro-growth non-profit prompted an outpouring of public input, urging residents to demand that the 11-member council require commercial space as a condition of approving the project.
Catalyze SV had been keeping an eye on the Race Street development for a while. In 2017, the group issued an assessment of the proposal that praised it for its density, for the addition of a public courtyard and its mix of units for both families and seniors. But the organization determined that something was missing—that without any shops, restaurants or green space, it lacked the kind of vibrancy they wanted to see in Midtown.
The Core Companies shrugged off the group’s suggestion. So when the project was finally set for a council vote, Catalyze SV called on the community to make its message heard. The gambit worked. When the city’s elected officials weighed in on the development, they required Core to include at least 2,000 square feet of commercial space.
Catalyze SV Executive Director Alex Shoor cites that 2018 vote as an example of his non-profit’s mission in action. Founded almost exactly two years ago, Catalyze SV aims to “improve, then approve” projects as part of a broader push for local governments to build their way out of the housing crisis.
“The reason we recommend these improvements is because we want projects to be as good as possible,” Shoor says. “We want them to have as much community support and as much community benefits … and so when a developer does that within that individual project on a micro level, it means that project will be more publicly supported.”
Shoor’s Catalyze coalition is part of a growing movement in major cities to change the traditionally adversarial relationship between developers and residents known as NIMBYs—an acronym for “not in my backyard.” Over the past few years, so-called YIMBYs, which stands for “yes, in my backyard,” have emerged as a force in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland to combat residents who reflexively oppose new development as a way to keep populations down and property values up.
“We know that there hasn’t been enough housing and enough good development in Silicon Valley,” Shoor says in an interview with San Jose Inside. “We think that it’s important for the community to play a role in basically getting projects approved with community input and benefits included in them.”
The idea for Catalyze SV was born in Shoor’s living room. One evening in December 2016, the former county policy aide hosted a handful of visitors to talk about how to re-create the kind of community activism that shaped a project known as the Agrihood.
Proposed for a six-acre parcel across from Westfield Valley Fair, the Agrihood could very well have become another cookie-cutter project had it not been for local business owner Kirk Vartan. The proprietor of A Slice of New York paid out of pocket for architectural renderings that envisioned the former University of California agricultural research site as something more than a cluster of beige condos.
Vartan presented his idea to Santa Clara city officials and neighborhood associations, persuading them to consider something more innovative for the site: an urban village with a community farm, rooftop gardens and an open-air market.
Though the project has since run into delays, Shoor was inspired by Vartan’s ability to mobilize residents enough to make demands about what they wanted out of the development. Instead of having builders just check the boxes to get projects across the finish line, Shoor wanted to engage the public early enough in the process to provide meaningful input and nip NIMBY backlash in the bud.
“The Agrihood was the inspiration for a concept of how you have a better community engagement project design system,” Vartan says.
Shoor, who worked as a legislative aide to former Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager before venturing into the non-profit sector, says he’d been spending an increasing amount of time on development advocacy as a way to address the region’s storied affordability problem. As he saw it, smart growth addressed a slew of critical issues facing Silicon Valley, offering a way to reduce living costs, shrink its carbon footprint and create a more vibrant urban cityscape.
“When I came home to Silicon Valley after 12 years away and saw the downtown of my city [San Jose] with all these single story structures and expansive parking lots, I remember thinking, ‘this is not the future of a great American city,’” Shoor says.
In 2015, after his rent for an apartment on The Alameda was raised by 39 percent over a two-year span, Shoor says he doubled down on his smart-growth activism.
“That’s when it really hit home,” he says. “I realized how many people were having a hard time affording to live here, how so many of them were getting displaced and how the answer to this involved building sustainably, building wonderful, fun, dynamic and safe communities, building a place where everyone can afford to live.”
It took another year of monthly living room meetings for Shoor’s group to coalesce into Catalyze SV, which formally launched in January 2018 with a mission more nuanced than the “build, baby, build” mantra adopted by YIMBYs in SF.
“To me, a YIMBY organization is one that wants to build because we need to build,” Vartan says. “I think our message is a little bit different than that. We think we need to build, but we need to build good things, not just things.”
Shoor says he realized that the community is more likely to get on board with a project if they feel like they have a say. And while Catalyze is decidedly pro-growth, it’s by no means a rubber stamp and refuses donations from developers.
“Our approach is a total mind-shift for them,” Shoor says. “In our community we’ve had forces against housing for decades and decades. We’ve also had folks who will say yes to whatever the development community wants to build.”
Catalyze SV falls somewhere between those two extremes, which research shows is the sweet spot. In a 2017 working paper, Stanford University political science professor Clayton Nall found that most people are unmoved when told a development can reduce housing costs. If they’re homeowners, that information might even lessen their chances of supporting a project.
“Economically successful metropolitan areas have been unable to build enough housing to meet the demand of their growing workforces, resulting in higher real estate prices and hardship or displacement for poor and middle-income households,” Nall writes in his paper titled Beyond NIMBYism. “But voters who say they are concerned about housing affordability often oppose construction of the dense and multi-unit housing needed to address housing shortages in their local area.”
However, Nall discovered that there’s a contingent of people who will back a project if they’re reminded about the redistributive effects of new development.
That’s an underlying goal for Catalyze SV—to sell the community on the shared benefit of growth. “The housing crisis started because of decades of community opposition to new housing,” Shoor tells San Jose Inside. “But some of that opposition stems from people feeling that they’re not being heard, and that development is built with or without their input. Those are valid concerns, too.”
To help foster what it considers better development, Catalyze SV uses a scoring rubric to grade projects on seven criteria, including vibrancy, transportation access, affordability and sustainability. Each category is assigned a grade of 1, meaning it failed to meet “project review criteria,” to 5, indicating that the developer went above and beyond.
So far, Catalyze SV has been largely embraced by urbanists and local officials. In 2017, the Knight Foundation granted Catalyze SV $29,000 in seed money to help get the organization off the ground. Last year, another $130,000 from Knight allowed Catalyze SV to hire Shoor as its full-time director.
Chris Thompson, director of San Jose’s Knight Foundation, says that while Silicon Valley is filled with groups trying to get shovels in the ground, he found Shoor’s approach to community engagement especially promising.
“I think one of the challenges that Catalyze SV faced was that in San Jose we tend to see the same people at community meetings,” Thompson says. “They know how to work the system, [but] we need to make sure that new people are invited to these meetings.”
Jerry Strangis of Strangis Properties lauded Catalyze SV for suggesting tweaks to one of his Midtown San Jose developments: a planned seven-story building at 259 Meridian Ave. with up to 241 apartments and 1,300 square feet of retail.
The layout incorporates micro-units that are approximately 400 square feet—something Strangis calls “affordable by design.” During Catalyze SV’s review, its members applauded the underutilized concept of micro-units, but advocated for on-site affordable housing that would serve more than just singles.
Strangis says he ultimately upped the number of micro-units in response to the group’s feedback. “As a community advocacy group,” he says, “they’re pretty sophisticated.”