The Mercury News
Debate over single-family zoning rules heats up
Councilman wants city to shift focus and make it easier to upzone, develop areas near transit lines
With the debate intensifying over what some city leaders are calling one of the most pivotal decisions they’ll make for years to come — whether to eliminate traditional single-family zoning in San Jose — one council member has come up with an alternative proposal.
On Wednesday, Council member Matt Mahan said he’ll be asking his colleagues to reject the idea of making residential neighborhoods across the city denser and instead focus on making it easier to up zone and develop areas around transit lines.
“At the end of the day, a one-size-fits-all upzoning in an expansive, sprawling city like San Jose, which already has some of the worst traffic and least effective transit in the country, is simply a flawed approach,” Mahan said when unveiling his proposal during a news conference. “For every additional person it houses, it’ll put another car on the road, more time in our commutes and more pollution in our air.”
The City Council in October is to consider whether and how to proceed with a controversial zoning change that would allow up to four dwelling units on lots designated for single-family homes — a concept San Jose refers to as opportunity housing. Coupled with a new state law that allows three additional granny flats on multiunit properties, the proposed city zoning change could potentially turn a lot with a single home into one with as many as seven housing units.
In San Jose, 94% of the city’s residential land is zoned for single-family homes only.
The council already has expressed general support for allowing duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes on single lots in residential neighborhoods around major transit corridors, which the city refers to as urban villages. But this summer, the 2040 General Plan Task Force recommended
that the city consider allowing upzoning in every residential neighborhood.
Whether the council decides to follow that recommendation or Mahan’s proposal, any rezoning
won’t be immediate. The Planning Department then would have to spend the following 18 months or so gathering public feedback, studying the potential displacement impacts and creating design guidelines before the council takes a final vote by the end of 2022.
Mahan’s proposal — dubbed Smart Growth San Jose — calls for preapproving design guidelines and environmental impact mitigation measures within all 68 designated urban villages with the goal of fasttracking the issuance of permits so developers can build projects in a matter of weeks or months instead of years.
He also wants the city’s Planning Department to set and publish goals for issuing permits and making inspections in a timely manner. The city would give discounts or waive developers’ fees if it fails to meet those deadlines.
“We’ve identified all the areas that can and should sustain smart growth, but you know the city bureaucracy has maintained all the barriers to building housing in them,” Mahan said. “… This (proposal) is a positive vision of San Jose’s future. It’s one that’s scalable, sustainable and can offer something for everyone.
“This is the future we should be fighting for.”
Opponents of densifying residential neighborhoods across the city argue that the shift would worsen traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, decrease property values and generally deteriorate residents’ quality of life and neighborhood character.
Sandra Delvin, a resident of San Jose’s Almaden area, voiced her support for Mahan’s plan at Wednesday’s news conference. Delvin, a board member of the grassroots group Families & Homes San Jose, emphasized that she doesn’t oppose development across the board but instead favors “smart, infill growth.”
“This plan shields our neighborhoods while providing both market-rate and affordable housing in a reasonable and planned manner,” she said.
Meanwhile, supporters of expanding the opportunity housing concept citywide see it as a promising way to boost the city’s housing stock for moderate-income earners and open up the schools and resources in high-opportunity areas that haven’t been available to many residents because of old, racially explicit, exclusionary housing practices and single-family zoning restrictions.
If the zoning is changed, city officials have said they’ll keep current building height restrictions, limit how close houses can be to the property line and ensure historic protections remain.
Aaron Eckhouse of the group California Yimby said he supports a lot of Mahan’s ideas but rejects the notion that the council has to choose one housing policy over the other.
“We obviously have a very large need for housing in San Jose and around the Bay Area, and we need to be pulling a lot of different things into our tool kits,” he said. “Opportunity housing is part of that.”
In the end, he said, people traveling from the Central Valley to work in Silicon Valley because they cannot afford to live there will increase traffic and create more greenhouse gas emissions more than building multiplexes in San Jose neighborhoods.
“You would be giving kids opportunities to attend school in these districts, giving essential workers the chance to live in those districts and providing more people currently commuting from Los Banos, Tracy or Antioch the opportunity to live and work in San Jose,” he said.