Cracking the Code

Zoning and code reform in San Jose’s urban growth areas

White Paper

San Jose is in the midst of an ambitious transformation to a more urban future. A key component of the city's Envision 2040 plan is enabling people to get out of their cars and onto transit, bicycles and their feet. As we laid out in our 2013 report Getting to Great Places, part of the effort to make those transportation choices more attractive includes building better places at the human scale, in order to make walking, cycling and transit use more appealing. This means new development must meet the challenge of connecting more effectively with streets and public spaces. This is more difficult than it might seem. Urban buildings must accommodate numerous imperatives, from utilities and loading docks to leasable retail spaces, from garage entrances to elevator cores. Meeting these needs while also supporting active, walkable streets takes focused effort on the part of developers and city officials from many departments.

San Jose has already made great strides in prioritizing denser, more people-focused buildings, especially downtown. The city is setting a higher bar for good urban design than ever before. But many projects must go through multiple levels of review and negotiation, and many other projects go unreviewed. There is no specific definition of the city’s urban design priorities. City agencies often have other priorities and may lack internal capacity to evaluate the urban design impacts of their decisions. While the city’s design guidelines lay out how to reach great design in downtown, they are aspirational, unenforceable guidelines and are often ignored or deemed infeasible.

How might the city raise the bar? As recommended in Getting to Great Places, SPUR proposes that San Jose address the ground rules of design — in the municipal code, largely under the planning and zoning code — in order to have the greatest positive impact on new development.

See a comparison of city codes in San Jose and other West Coast cities >>