How Can San Jose Bring Urban Villages to Life?
August 7, 2018

The urban village plan for West San Carlos is one of 12 that San Jose has completed to date. Image courtesy Google Maps.

In May, the San Jose City Council took an important step toward realizing the city’s general plan, Envision San Jose 2040, when it approved a framework for implementing neighborhood plans known as urban village plans. SPUR strongly supports these steps but believes that even bigger ones must be taken in order for urban villages to succeed.

Adopted in 2012, Envision San Jose 2040 lays out a sustainable vision for San Jose that concentrates future growth in transit-oriented locations. San Jose designated 70 existing transit stations and commercial centers — including downtown and areas that have already been designated for new jobs and housing — to become active, walkable places where most of San Jose’s new housing and job growth will occur.

SPUR strongly supports the urban village strategy as a means to accommodate new jobs and housing in an environmentally sustainable way. The urban villages are key to reaching the city’s goal of 25,000 new homes by 2022 to address the regional housing shortage. The urban village strategy is also intended to redesign car-oriented neighborhoods into places designed for people.

However, retrofitting suburbia is not an easy or inexpensive proposition — it will require comprehensive redesign and construction to orient streetscapes and public spaces around people instead of cars, and it will require new and better ways for people to get around. The transformation of existing commercial centers and corridors will depend on good planning and significant investment by both the public and private sectors.

San Jose has completed 12 urban village plans to date. Some of those plans do not allow housing development to move forward until their implementation and financing chapters are adopted by the San Jose City Council. Even where this requirement is not spelled out, the urban village plans will need a financing strategy that will fund the improvements to transform San Jose’s existing neighborhoods into more vital, urban spaces. For over a year, city staff members worked to draft the new implementation framework adopted by the City Council in May.

Key questions for SPUR revolve around the question of whether the recently adopted framework will be effective. As individual urban village plans move forward, how can the city realistically plan for mixed-use projects, shape new development and transform the public realm? Here are three ways to ensure that urban villages live up to their promise.

1. Prioritize the amenities and neighborhood improvements envisioned by the community in the planning process.

The implementation chapters have been the last piece to come together in the urban village plans which means, in many cases, a planning process has taken place and the community has shaped a vision for the neighborhood. Each urban village implementation plan should prioritize and create amenities and neighborhood improvements that flow from that process. While this might seem obvious, the implementation framework is written in a way that could give developers a lot of discretion about what amenities they will provide. To make sure implementation matches up with what communities have envisioned, urban village plans will need to include detailed priority lists to guide what public amenities will be built or funded, whether by the public or private sector.

2. Keep project feasibility top of mind. 

Current market conditions are challenging and it’s important to consider whether new development can afford to fund or build out the desired amenities. Recent San Jose City Council study sessions, as well as conversations SPUR has been involved in across the region, have illuminated the very real challenges of rising development costs and project feasibility at this moment in time. In the past, California’s now-shuttered redevelopment agencies provided a source of infrastructure and housing funds in areas designated for growth and change. In the absence of redevelopment dollars today, many cities rely on value-capture mechanisms, where new development projects provide contributions (either built in-kind or funded through fees) to the community in return for permission to develop larger or more valuable projects.

SPUR’s Agenda for Change calls for right-sizing fees and requirements. Set impact fees too low, and the public loses out on potential public benefits; set them too high, and no development or public benefits will be created. San Jose’s implementation framework requires an “urban village amenity contribution” equivalent to two percent of project value for residential projects. (Commercial projects are currently exempt from this requirement.)

This requirement may be viable for needed housing projects in some neighborhoods, but it is likely to be a challenge to make projects “pencil out” in other parts of the city. As we have suggested before, we recommend setting up zones with different values pegged to local market conditions. For example, Oakland is divided into three impact fee zones to enable development feasibility in all types of markets. This may result in some areas not being able to capture as many dollars for improvements, but developments may be more likely to move ahead if the contribution is sized to match the market conditions.   

3. Figure out how to pay for streetscape improvements that prioritize people over cars.

Creating great places where people want to walk, bike or take transit to get to jobs, homes, shopping and recreation is a major investment. The current implementation framework does not appear to generate enough value to implement the full urban village plan vision. The city must continue to seek other opportunities to generate funding that will help re-make the streets, sidewalks, parks and plazas of San Jose into places that are more focused around people rather than cars.

Unfortunately, private development’s contributions (whether built in-kind or funded through fees) will not be enough to fully realize the urban village plans. If the city is serious about retrofitting its car-oriented suburbs and building great neighborhoods, it needs to identify more financing tools. In addition to private sector contributions, we suggest the city consider the benefit district tools (community benefit districts, infrastructure financing districts, business improvement districts) that currently exist (and even ones the state is considering for the future), as well as city resources. Some of these tools will only work in certain markets. Others will require a certain scale of urban village — or perhaps a combination of several small adjacent urban villages — to make sense. We acknowledge that finding new financing is not an easy task, but it is worthy of further attention.

SPUR believes that the urban village strategy is critical for the future of San Jose and the region. With more jobs coming to downtown San Jose in the next decade, urban villages are more important than ever: They are both a key housing strategy for the city’s growing workforce and a critical move to reduce greenhouse gases by growing in transit-oriented, mixed-use neighborhoods that provide alternatives to driving. Figuring out how to plan these neighborhoods, and then implement the plans in a way that achieves the original vision, can also create a model for cities across the country that are struggling to transition from sprawling auto-centric cities to ones with great neighborhoods designed for people.

Read SPUR’s comment letter on the urban village implementation framework >>

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