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Editorial: Fiefdoms imperil TOD near SJ Caltrain

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  • 7/13 SJ Mercury
    Published Sunday, July 13, 2003, in the San Jose Mercury News Editorial San Jose City Council: 10 districts, 10 fiefdoms One mayor or 10 mini-mayors? One
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 17, 2003
      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
      and development.

      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
      like it.

      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.
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