The vast majority of San Jose’s staff recommendations align with SV@Home’s Housing Vision for the Diridon Station Area, including up to 3,225 affordable housing units. But as SV@ Home’s Mathew Reed points out, without a commercial linkage fee that could help fund affordable homes, it’s unclear how the city can meet its housing goal.

By JANICE BITTERS │ janice@sanjosespotlight.com │ San Jose Spotlight
PUBLISHED: MAY 26, 2020

Developments across the region may be slowed due to the novel coronavirus, but some of the biggest land use plans in the South Bay are still inching forward, including San Jose’s Diridon Station Area Plan and Google’s Downtown West project. The two plans were originally set to get a final vote before the end of this year, but that decision has been pushed out to sometime in early 2021, after public, in-person meetings and feedback sessions ground to a halt in March. Still, city officials have released videos and surveys in lieu of the traditional public meetings, outlining preliminary visions for the approximately 236-acre area around the city’s primary transit hub, Diridon Station — and detailing how Google’s 80-acre project fits in.

“The COVID-19 epidemic has been really required us to change our outreach approach,” said Timothy Rood, a division manager in San Jose’s Planning and Building department. “We were we were just at the beginning of our public outreach process,” he added. “Now we’re at the point where we want to share our thinking … and start to get some feedback so that we can refine those concepts.”

Those videos show early thoughts by planners about how the area could see be home to up to 12,900 homes someday and up to 12.9 million square feet of office — about double the space Google said it wants to build in its project. Those are maximums, and offers flexibility for some properties to choose between housing and office — or both.

Housing in the Diridon Station Area Plan 

The early consensus on those numbers from some of the most vocal housing and labor advocates has been positive.

Silicon Valley at Home, a local housing nonprofit known as SV@Home, this year unveiled an analysis showing how San Jose could allow up to 15,000 homes to rise in the Diridon Station area alongside dense office. By comparison, the current Diridon Station Area Plan, or DSAP, approved in 2014 when San Jose officials thought a baseball stadium would rise in the area, calls for up to 2,588 homes.

“While these new city analyses only represent the start of the next phase of public input and discussions, the vast majority of staff recommendations align with SV@Home’s Housing Vision,” the group wrote in a news release in response to the city’s vision late last month.

A comparison of residential and office limits in the Diridon Station Area. Graphic courtesy of city of San Jose

One outstanding concern is around affordable housing and displacement — a hot-button topic for local residents who worry they’ll be pushed out of one of the few places they can still afford to live in the Bay Area. Mayor Sam Liccardo and councilmembers have set a goal for 25 percent of the housing built in the Diridon Station Area to be affordable, meaning that up to 3,225 affordable units could be built under the current vision for the area.

But without other plans hammered out — like an affordable housing study for the area or a decision on a potential commercial linkage fee that could help fund affordable homes — it’s unclear how the city can meet that goal. City officials are working on such studies, but some have been delayed due to the pandemic.

“There will be a lot of affordable housing because we’ve made a commitment to 25 percent affordable within the station area, but right now we don’t know how to fund that,” Mathew Reed, a policy manager for SV@Home said during a recent webinar on the issue hosted by land use thinktank SPUR. “It’s really important that a funding mechanism for the affordable housing commitment be part of these discussions.”

Both Reed and Jeffrey Buchanan, director of public policy for Working Partnerships USA, are urging elected officials to consider whether the low-income homes could be built outside of the Diridon Station area boundary, but on connected transit lines, where land is less expensive.

“If you can house more people for the same amount of money in places that are accessible to that transit — if you’re two bus stops away, if you’re a light rail stop away — what’s the difference between being in Diridon or outside of Diridon if we can house more people?” Buchanan said in an interview Monday.

Building heights, parks and transportation

San Jose planners have also outlined potential building heights, which could reach as high as 295 feet, and details about parks and transportation plans.

A comparison of various height limit concepts for the Diridon Station Area. Graphic courtesy of city of San Jose

Last month, officials said they were considering extending the boundaries of the DSAP — the land use guide that would determine what kind of development could rise in the area — to include all of the Google proposal as well as some extra space for trails and parks. The numbers aren’t final, but a starting place to gather feedback as the city draws up a draft version of an Environmental Impact Report, due out in the fall. Residents will then have another chance to tell city officials what they think of the vision, which aims to transform the Diridon Station Area from a primarily low-slung, industrial area to a tall, mixed-use hub with a revamped transit station and Google at the center of it all.

Google in San Jose

Meanwhile, the Google development, which is using a state streamlining program known as AB 900 that comes with a Dec. 30 city approval deadline, is also being pushed back.

“Obviously, we want a robust public review process for all major development projects … and given the circumstances, that is clearly not possible at this time or in the foreseeable future,” Kim Walesh, San Jose’s deputy city manager and economic development director, told San José Spotlight in an interview earlier this year.

The city will ask the state to extend the AB 900 program deadline for projects that won’t be done in time due to the pandemic. If the state agrees, that will affect not only Google, but developments around the state, Walesh said.

A drawing of Google’s proposed “Downtown West” development, which would span more than 80 acres of land — including streets — around San Jose’s Diridon Station. Photo courtesy of Sitelab Urban Studio | Google

Google’s project, if approved early next year, would bring about 6.5 million square feet of office space and between 3,000 and 5,900 new homes near the growing transit hub, mostly within the existing DSAP boundaries. The Mountain View-based tech titan’s plans are included in the revisions currently being considered for the broader DSAP.

“This concept really builds on the 2014 DSAP to create a more mixed-use urban neighborhood,” said Jose Ruano, a San Jose planner who is managing the update.

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.