Catalyze SV Fights NIMBY Backlash by Forging Alliances Between Residents, Developers

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.”

Alex Shoor was hired as the first full-time employee of Catalyze SV last year. (Photo by Grace Hase)

Home Grown

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.”

To learn more about Catalyze SV’s project advocacy, click here. For information about the group’s next meeting, click here

Grace Hase is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @grace_hase. Or, click here to sign up for text updates about what she’s working on.

11 Comments

  1. > 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.

    TRANSLATION: The goal is [wealth] “redistribution”.

  2. That area is already saturated with (Below Market Housing) and you can’t find any place to park and the trolley to nowhere is a long walk. Streets are narrow and traffic lights suck there, If Slimly Sam has any thing to say about it the streets will become for bicycles only. So why would anyone in the hood want to be jammed into there?

  3. Is there ever to be a discussion of limiting population growth?
    We already suffer from a lack of natural resources coupled with electricity outages and failing infrastructure.
    How many sardines can we fit into this can?

  4. I live on the perimeter of downtown in Council District 3. I have no objection to growth, hoping that more businesses and pedestrians in our area will create a livelier, safer environment. But there are two issues the city refuses to address. First, parking is in short supply because this area is a park & ride for the airport and the light rail. The city approves projects with insufficient parking on the theory that residents will take public transportation. Good idea, but it won’t happen without a whole lot more public transportation. Secondly our area has more than a fair share of housing that serves people with special needs: Folks in rehabilitation, low-income people, and people who were formerly without homes. In the interest of fairness, how about distributing permanent supportive housing projects all across the city, including Willow Glen, the Rose Garden or Almaden. Are they unwilling to house people who aren’t white? Are they scared of poor people? Is it perhaps that their city council reps wield more power than ours? Or perhaps are less ambitious?

    • Judi,
      The city began dismantling this area 35 years ago by running the cannery and frozen food industry out of town, followed by the support industry and low income housing that was abundant in the area people of all colors worked and lived together. It was the food processing area that was the valley of harts delight and we beyond, the coast, Salinas valley and the central valley. You could find your way to San Jose by the trail of smashed tomatoes falling off the trucks. The smell of tomato sauce and vinegar from Del Mounte, Sun Gardens, Mayfair, Stokely Van Camp, to name a few could be smelled for miles. Saint Agnews hospital took care of the bewildered many of whom were out patients that worked in those plants by day and night. Now they linger along the tracks, under bridges, and along the freeways, and pay for their drugs by breaking into your cars today. Today Del Mounte is a left over sign on Azura street. Stokely, student housing on Newhall St. Sears and Orchard Supple gone. Some of those others now the Employment Development Department. Fancy name for Unemployment Office. Race street Fish and Poultry once a great place for lunch if you could find a place to park or even sit, gone. Buds Barber Shop, The Powder Horn, Paragesso’s Italian, The Speed Merchant, Mel’s Sporting Goods, Down Town Datsun, A&W Root Beer. 50 years living and working in this area that was really the blue collier center of San Jose, I made a living here, it gave me a start, and I made life long friends there some who still live there. most are gone now, what will it be tomorrow,? I don’t know. You can make it a new place, I don’t know that you can ever make it a better place.

      Fond Memories.

      • Fabulous memories brought back so many of my own. The canneries were fabulous and they hired a lot of hardworking men & women who were low to middle income and students during the summer. Your recounting of the smells emanating from those canneries came right back to me. I’ll never forget apricot season.

        You were right on every point concerning the areas you mentioned. When something is demolished, something takes it’s place. In this instance, it’s housing. In (many) years to come, it will be something else.

        I agree with parts of all the posts except one. I agree with Judi regarding the transportation, but I find it the same all over SJ, including the parking. Judi, you have perfect transportation in that area with the busses and light rail. I lived in that area and know it like the back of my hand. Did you know you live in a short walking distance of a very affluent area? In fact, that affluent area has a lot of San Jose history. We used to love taking the light rail, and even the buses, until they suddenly quit operating in midday, or cancelled legs to other areas we depended on, with no notice to passengers. Passengers were stuck big time as operators left after telling them to leave. We no longer count on either the VTA light rail or busses because we don’t want to get stuck midway during a route.

        What I will say is that there is a lot of money being made in the business of non-profits. As I recall, Shoor was one of the founders of this non-profit, but then became the “first employee”? hhmm

  5. Screw permanent supporting housing projects and the Non-profit and or Public Benefit Corporations who “profit” from their existence!
    San Jose should prohibit all housing projects. No more people.
    David S. Wall

  6. He supports things nobody who lives next door to these developments support like the most high density a development can have or no parking just riding bikes or public transportation. He does not seem to really meet the next door residents to do what he says that he does. Send the fly to investigate this and you will see what I am saying. People that comes to these meetings do not live in the area. He is called by people supporting certain politicians to make the job to get the development approved. This guy probably lost his souls with so many lies at the planning commission or city council that he will go straight to hell.
    If you want an honest assessment or attendance at the planning commission meetings only neighbors who live 1000ft should be allowed s to speak or count. This guy needs to get a different job or prove to his funders that he actually met with the neighbors of these developments and have the signing sheets from these meetings.

    • TAX, I couldn’t agree with you more on ALL points. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. You described Shoor perfectly in that he wants people out of their cars, bicycling, wouldn’t live near these places, but think others are “selfish” (the new buzz word) if they don’t want them in their neighborhood, blah, blah, blah. You are 100% correct with the packing of the Planning Commission with people supporting a project where they don’t live and never have lived. I watched a Planning Commission in real time because of a project I was interested in. The way the people who attended the meeting who actually lived in the project area who were against the project were treated by some of the Planning Commissioners (yes, I can name them) with such animosity that it blew me away. It caused me to research each Commissioner. You know what I found?? As with the meeting you may have gone to where it was stacked with outsiders wanting the project to be approved, the deck was stacked against you by the very Commissioners and Chair who approve or not approve a project. Each of their interests are very easy to research online and see how some members intertwine with politicians. I found it quite interesting and eye-opening. You are SO correct!! San Jose Inside should meet with actual residents living in that area to get “the other side”.

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