After a decade of legal battles, North San Jose may finally see long-desired housing construction resume
San Jose and Santa Clara are in mediation to resolve more than a decade of legal battles
By MAGGIE ANGST | Bay Area News Group | PUBLISHED: April 10, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. | UPDATED: April 12, 2021 at 4:36 a.m.
After more than a decade of legal battles between the cities of Santa Clara and San Jose, a long-sought vision of transforming industrial-heavy North San Jose into neighborhoods with walkways, shops and thousands of new housing units may finally be on the horizon.
The two cities are in the midst of mediation with the hopes of reaching a resolution that could put an end to Santa Clara’s threats to sue San Jose if the city did not make necessary roadway improvements before building new housing. Meanwhile, San Jose officials are already moving ahead with plans to eliminate a policy that for years has blocked new residential construction in the area.
Showing a united front, several lawmakers from both San Jose and Santa Clara came together last week, along with housing advocacy leaders and nonprofit housing developers, to call for “collaboration and shared solutions” between the two cities.
“Our region has really grown from a spirit of cooperation and I believe that’s how we’re going to solve our biggest problems,” Council member David Cohen, who represents North San Jose, said in an interview. “This isn’t just about building housing but about building all of the things that come with creating a vibrant community in which to live.”
North San Jose, the city’s largest employment district, is home to dozens of startups and large tech companies, including Google, Hewlett Packard and Cisco. It’s situated along the Valley Transportation Authority light rail line and has an ample amount of vacant land and underutilized industrial space ripe for conversion into housing and other uses.
Long seen as a prime location for growth and development, San Jose in 2005 adopted the North San Jose Development Policy that outlined a plan to add more than 25 million square feet of new office and industrial development, 32,000 housing units, almost 3 million square feet of retail and commercial space and 1,000 hotel rooms in the area — roughly from where Highways 101 and 880 intersect north to Highway 237.
But then Milpitas, Santa Clara and Santa Clara County sued San Jose, citing a lack of sufficient traffic congestion mitigation on roadways neighboring the North San Jose project boundaries. And, in 2006, a subsequent settlement forced San Jose to divvy up the plan into four phases, capping developers in each phase to roughly 8,000 new housing units for every 7 million square feet of new commercial space built. San Jose was also required to make specific transportation improvements like widening Montague Expressway and improving interchanges with Highway 101 as density in North San Jose increases, an obligation that Santa Clara leaders have remained adamant about.
Building permits and approvals for the first 8,000 housing units allowed under the first phase of the North San Jose policy were quickly scooped up by developers, but the policy’s phased-in approach thwarted the city from forging ahead with more housing until the cap for commercial space was reached — a threshold that the city still has yet to hit. As a result, a housing complex hasn’t been built in this section of the city for more than a half-decade, according to San Jose officials.
San Jose city planners are working on plans to drop the North San Jose Development Policy entirely — a move that would allow more homes to be built without a set cap and eliminate the phased-in approach to development. The San Jose City Council is expected to take up this matter at a meeting in August.
Michael Brilliot, deputy director of the city’s planning department, compared the decision to get rid of the policy to “taking off a straitjacket.”
“We’ve been trying to tweak the framework to allow housing to move forward for five or six years but there’s been a lot of challenges with the very tightly-wound policy,” Brilliot said. “The simple approach is to retire it and move on.”
Still, that would all be predicated on the hope that Santa Clara wouldn’t sue San Jose or a developer if they decided to build housing in the area, according to San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.
“Until we get some assurance from Santa Clara that they’re not going to sue us, I don’t think any builder is going to build there,” he said.
One of the only residential development plans submitted to the city in recent years for North San Jose came last month from a Texas-based developer looking to build a mixed-use project with more than 700 housing units and a grocery store on an 11.2-acre site near the corner of Montague Expressway and Seely Avenue, across the street from the Cadence Design Systems headquarters.
Santa Clara leaders have repeatedly demanded that San Jose provide them with a transportation improvements schedule to keep the city accountable for the promised upgrades. In return, San Jose officials have cited several transportation improvement projects already completed and others that are in the works or planned for.
After mediation in January, Santa Clara officials said in a statement this week that they believed the two cities had reached a “mutually agreed-upon resolution” but that they were “waiting for the city of San Jose to proceed with a finalization of the agreement.”
When asked for details about the resolution, Santa Clara spokesperson Maria Le wrote in an email that city officials would not comment on “what was or was not agreed to” because “we consider both cities to still be bound by the confidentiality provisions of the mediation.”
San Jose City Attorney Nora Frimann said Thursday that the two cities are “working to understand the details of how we would implement a proposed resolution,” including whether it would be through a formal written settlement or some other type of agreement.
Liccardo said that the city simply “needs some sort of declaration that Santa Clara won’t sue.”
He, along with other elected officials and housing advocates, sent a letter last week to Santa Clara City Manager Deanna Santana requesting that the city council publicly discuss at an upcoming meeting the notion of allowing housing and development to proceed in North San Jose. Santana said Santa Clara has no such plans at this time.
“Our valley’s residents are not interested in petty battles between cities,” Liccardo said. “They want us to either get along or get out of the way to address this housing crisis, so it’s time for all of us to step up and allow for desperately-needed housing to get built.
“If we’re waiting until every transportation project is built, we’ll be waiting many more years to get housing built in the worst housing crisis in our lifetime.”