Op-Ed: How San José’s Elected Leaders Can Plan for Success

San Jose city hall arial view

Photo by Sergio Ruiz

This op-ed originally appeared in The Mercury News.


We’re fans of the maxim: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

A new San José mayor and several new council members have now taken office, and we urge our leaders to prioritize the important work of the city’s planning department. We have skilled and experienced planning staff that need to be supported, empowered and directed to deliver results that benefit our entire community.

The general plan and zoning code are the constitution for how our city is designed and functions and the basis for the quality of life, equitable economic development and shared prosperity we seek.

The planning department has reported to the City Council that it has a 15% to 20% vacancy rate. This chronic understaffing must be addressed immediately and resources provided and deadlines given to complete the backlog of essential planning and policy work.

These positions more than pay for themselves through planning fees, increased economic activity and an enhanced property and sales tax base generated by new development.

The success of the city’s Accessory Dwelling Unit permitting program — a user-friendly model for cities across the state — is a good example of what can be achieved when targeted public investments and a focus on efficiency and customer service are brought to bear.

San José’s businesses and restaurants were hit hard by the pandemic, and many were unable to survive. Fortunately, some major projects, such as Urban Community’s residential high-rises, Jay Paul Co.’s CityView Plaza office towers and the downtown Google campus are still moving forward and — if all goes well — will sustain thousands of well-paying construction jobs and provide extensive community benefits and amenities.

However, as we face threatening economic headwinds such as rising interest rates and cost of construction, there is much more that needs to be done at City Hall for development proposals of all shapes and sizes, including for smaller businesses and housing projects that aren’t self-financed and account for the majority of applications.

When the City Council adopted the Envision 2040 General Plan in 2011, it included “urban villages” as a major new strategy for sustainable and attractive growth. These higher-density, mixed-use urban infill places are intended to concentrate new offices, stores and housing in locations accessible by transit, foot or bike in order to reduce the environmental impact of new development.

Unfortunately — now more than a decade later — only a few of the 60 designated urban villages have adopted plans and projects underway and the onerous and overly prescriptive requirements for building in these places have actually driven development away to other areas of the city to avoid the red tape and delays.

We have been waiting many years for key City Council-directed planning and policy changes that would increase the production of housing, create jobs and expand city revenues, including:

• Completion of the other 47 urban village plans.

• A policy to allow teacher housing on school district property.

• A policy to allow affordable housing on church parking lots.

• A policy to expand eligibility and increase flexibility for catalytic mixed-use Signature Projects.

• Identification of residential opportunity sites to expedite the development of housing. San José was one of dozens of Bay Area cities to miss the Jan. 30 deadline to have a housing element certified by the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

The success of our city and the well-being of our residents depend on a fully-staffed and functioning planning department that guides how and where our community grows and evolves and expedites projects that conform to the City Council-adopted vision. This is how good government works and must be a top priority for our elected leaders.

Michael Lane is state policy director for SPUR. Erik Schoennauer served on the Envision San José 2040 General Plan Task Force.