Bramson: The high price of growing up

The construction of new high-rise buildings has long been a key indicator of progress and promise for the modern city. Architectural marvels that rise to the heavens and offer to meet the rapidly growing demands of a prospering metropolis. With each new tower, the skyline forever changes, heralding the arrival of the density which is the destiny of the urban centers of tomorrow.

In the South Bay, San Jose – the capital of innovation – is really the only jurisdiction that actively promotes high-rise development in the region. And why shouldn’t that be the case? As the Envision San Jose 2040 General Plan points out, creating more high-rises makes a lot of sense for the continuing revitalization of the downtown area. With limited land opportunities and the price of real estate climbing by the second, taking advantage of the myriad benefits of these buildings will continue to be important to fully realize the long-range potential of the city’s core.

That’s why, when the San Jose City Council takes up the discussion of extending the downtown high-rise incentive program later this month, I find myself deeply conflicted about the potential implications of their decision. On one hand, there are lots of people far smarter than I am saying that this type of critical growth in our city just won’t happen without the continuation of the program’s support. And there’s no question that we need to have more people living and working downtown, reducing our reliance on our taxed roadways and continuing to evolve and strengthen what is essentially the heart of San Jose. History has shown us that for a healthy, vibrant downtown core to thrive, high-rise development is absolutely part of that equation.

On the other side, though, the extension of the incentive program will result in the potential loss of tens of millions of dollars in inclusionary fees that would otherwise go to develop affordable housing. Moreover, the housing product being created by high-rises definitely won’t at all serve the needs of our poorest residents, nor will it really create any protection from the growing specter of displacement faced by so many in our community.

So while this particular program might be needed for these monoliths to rise, we should also be asking what else we can do to get help to those who need it the most right now. In the depths of our housing nightmare, anytime a policy decision has us walking away from resources that can help – even if it is for a perfectly valid reason – it’s incumbent on all of us to think long, hard and broadly about what we must do to make up for it.

When it comes to that, there’s really only one true path: the dirt we are all standing on. Why is it that while we do everything we can to make downtown high-rises a reality, we limit where dense housing can be built in almost every other corner of the city? As a recent New York Times article noted, 94% of all residential land in San Jose is restricted to single-family homes. Really the only areas where you can even consider affordable housing at the density needed to help our current crisis are downtown, north San Jose and the Urban Villages. Each one of those options presents its own unique set of challenges from cost to legal entanglements, meaning that the hardest type of housing to develop is probably the least likely to get built there first.

Without bold new action on the side of affordable, we simply won’t see the housing we need. As many others are suggesting, we have to open up our city to create more affordable housing right now. Let’s rezone land near transit now to allow for dense residential development. Let’s remove the commercial requirements that make it so tough for our partners to pencil new developments in Urban Villages. Let’s take a look at every vacant parking lot in our inventory and dream about who might be able to live there. And most importantly, let’s limit all of these actions for 100% affordable projects, with more flexibility and preference being given to developers that are willing to serve the deepest levels of need.

The future of San Jose is right on the horizon. But while we look to the stars, it’s imperative that we don’t forget about the ground beneath our feet.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at rbramson@sbcglobal.net or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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