Editorial: Fiefdoms imperil TOD near SJ Caltrain
- Published Sunday, July 13, 2003, in the San Jose Mercury News
San Jose City Council: 10 districts, 10 fiefdoms
One mayor or 10 mini-mayors? One coherent city policy for growth or
10 visions, ranging from clear to cloudy?
San Joseans should be alarmed by the breakdown of city council
districts into separate fiefdoms -- some council members even use
that word -- where the member functions as a kind of local mayor and
is second-guessed on district issues only rarely by colleagues, or
by the real mayor. That's particularly true in the case of land use
It's time for that real mayor -- Ron Gonzales -- to step up, show
some visible leadership, and rally the council around a vision for
the city's future. This needs to happen now, before bad decisions
cripple San Jose's ability to improve older neighborhoods, help mass
transit to work and build the housing needed to sustain the local
A crisis is looming.
A project near district lines
Along Highway 87 at the Tamien light rail and Caltrain station, two
11-story condominium towers have been proposed. The site is in
downtown Councilwoman Cindy Chavez's district, but just barely.
Across the freeway is Ken Yeager's independent state of Willow Glen.
Chavez supports the idea of high-rises at that spot. She believes
they will help her achieve benefits for the surrounding
neighborhood: safer streets, a more lively business district and
desperately needed parks.
Besides, the towers are allowed under the city's road map for
growth, which has the mind-numbing misfortune of being known as the
2020 General Plan.
Across the highway, mini-mayor Yeager has a different take. Although
he voted in 2001 to accept 120-foot tall buildings near Tamien,
including a parcel in his district, he now has written a "Policy
Statement on Building Heights" -- a proclamation that he'll approve
nothing higher than four stories in his area.
"It would be a mistake for developers to look at the general plan
and assume what's there will actually be allowed," Yeager said after
issuing the policy. "You have to check with the council member."
Long-time observers of city hall can't believe he put his "policy"
in writing. In a way, though, he's being refreshingly upfront,
telling the public what builders have known -- and suffered through
-- for too long. They can't take for granted that something in the
citywide, council-approved general plan will actually be allowed, or
even get as far as a public hearing, if the council member doesn't
Uncertainty of development rights is one of the factors that
increases the cost of housing in San Jose.
The mini-mayors' power
Council members should have a strong say in what happens in their
districts. They've always had discretion to work with developers and
discourage projects they thought would be bad. Gonzales isn't the
first mayor to grant that leeway.
But some portions of the plan have greater citywide significance
than others, and the need for transit-oriented development is the
golden example. People who can walk to transit use it in much
greater numbers than those who have to drive to a stop. If San Jose
doesn't build high-density neighborhoods around its rail and
eventual BART stations, then taxpayers are wasting the money they've
voted to spend on these transit systems.
Previous councils had a better citywide perspective and more respect
for citywide policies. Issuing a written statement like Yeager's
would have been unthinkable when Tom McEnery or Susan Hammer was
Vice Mayor Pat Dando worked for McEnery and joined the council
during Hammer's tenure.
"Over the past two years, maybe even longer, I've seen a drastic
switch to council members being primarily focused on their own
district rather than looking at city at large," Dando says. "We each
treat the districts as 10 different cities."
Several council members mentioned that Gonzales reinforces this
impression. If somebody tries to make a motion on an issue in
another member's district, Gonzales stops them and asks if the
district representative wants to make the motion.
Dave Cortese, representing Evergreen, has mixed feelings about this.
"Sometimes it results in better policy to defer to the council
person," he says. "The negative is, there's no point at which the
magnitude of a project would automatically trigger full council
The real mayor's view
Gonzales does not see a problem with the way things are. He says he
talks with his colleagues about projects. Last year he nudged
forward the plan for Taylor Towers, high-rise apartments on North
First Street, which should break ground this summer. Returning home
from Washington Thursday after lobbying for BART funding, the mayor
says he'll be talking to Yeager for sure. But he disagrees that
there's a broader problem, pointing out that San Jose continues to
build impressive amounts of housing.
While it's true lots of housing is getting built, it's often at
lower density than the general plan originally envisioned. This is
true on Communications Hill and in the area around Diridon Station.
If Gonzales doesn't see a problem, he's not looking hard enough.
Case in point: the general plan
Yeager may be the only one openly flouting the general plan, but
others barely understand it.
Cortese admits to being befuddled. Chuck Reed says density around
transit stops is expressed in a range -- 20 units per acre at a
minimum -- and as long as a proposal is within the range, it's OK
with him. But the text of the plan makes it clear that much higher
density is what's expected.
There are a number of things Gonzales could do, listed at right, to
try to achieve at least a shared understanding of the city's vision
for growth. Ideally, buy-in would follow. It has with previous
San Jose's urban growth boundary protects the hillsides and the
Coyote Valley greenbelt from development, but it ought to have a
corollary premise. It should make development easier within the
boundary by telling builders clearly what can go where.
The city has failed in that part of the bargain. And it will
continue to fail as long as it's functioning as 10 different cities
on land-use decisions.