Chester: Urban Villages aren’t a housing solution 
The 1950s-era Cambrian Park Plaza will be redeveloped as an urban village, but the iconic carousel sign will remain. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Throughout San Jose’s mayoral race, one of the primary concerns for candidates, rightfully so, is housing. Affordable housing. Housing for currently houseless. Senior housing. All types of housing have been discussed during mayoral forums, views differing greatly from being against more housing via SB 9 to being a dense housing advocate only within current Urban Village limits.

The latter is among the most important views to examine as a housing solution for multiple reasons, not the least of which because multiple county supervisor and mayoral candidates have spoken about this policy as a solution to the area’s housing woes.

How much housing can Urban Villages provide?

As always, it’s complicated. San Jose has 58 designated Urban Villages of varying acreage. Per the city’s 2040 General Plan, Urban Villages can provide 250 homes per acre. How realistic is this in practice? We can perform a quick case study on District 9’s Urban Village that’s been under review for over four and a half years without so much as having the approval to even prepare for construction.

Cambrian Village is a little more than 18 acres in size and, per San Jose’s General Plan, would have a maximum housing capacity of over 4,500 homes. The most recent proposal has 454 homes proposed, less than 10% of the maximum allowed. Of those 454 homes, only 15 — or less than 4% — are allotted for some type of affordable housing. Additionally, 27 of those appear to be Accessory Dwelling Units which could be options for future buyers assuming they are purchased prior to construction.

When we look at the Urban Village minimum of 55 housing units per acre, when there is a “significant residential component,” Cambrian Village also doesn’t measure up. That’s because of a clause allowing for less density when combined with non-residential uses and the project is “to be compatible with adjacent land uses.”

This examination is not to say the current design is not the best the development company came up with, nor am I saying that the maximum housing density fits the location. Our public transit system, which deserves to be better, doesn’t work well enough for the maximum density to be justified yet.

When we look at developments near Cambrian Village—1371 Kooser Rd, Bascom Station, 3090 S Bascom Av, S Bascom Ave Care Facility are examples—there is an average of 81 homes per acre. This average would lead Cambrian Village to provide over 1,400 homes, furthering the assertion that the development is under-providing what it’s capable of building.

Of the projects mentioned, only two building at a density greater than 100 homes per acre have all the units designated as affordable. Is it realistic to expect the greatest density construction to be all affordable? Is it realistic to expect the cost of land acquisition to be low enough that affordable housing can continue to be built?

Basic economics is a problem for the policy of having all dense housing within the Urban Village boundaries. First, downtown San Jose, Willow Glen, Santana Row and Japantown are all vibrant commercial areas, which the cost of housing implies people find incredibly desirable.

If Urban Villages are to attempt to replicate these types of commercial districts, especially Santana Row, is it reasonable to expect developers to build much, if any, affordable housing, particularly for employees that work at those locations?

Supply and demand suggests there are not enough Urban Villages, and certainly not enough mixed-use properties which have a realistic chance of redevelopment, to offer any kind of solution to housing. The exceptions Cambrian Village has used are an example of how Urban Villages cannot be expected to solve a housing crisis. And it certainly won’t solve any traffic problems millions around us experience.

Anyone offering a single policy as a solution to housing is selling you beachfront property in Wyoming. This problem dates back decades and cannot be solved without a commitment to transportation simultaneous with housing construction.

The best possible answer also includes an even larger zoning change that allows, and encourages, mixed-use construction throughout much more of the city than currently exists; it’s actually the only solution which addresses climate change. This answer is ardently opposed while advocating for climate change solutions, solving the housing crisis and expressing some kind of concern about the unhoused.

The causes of our biggest crises today are linked to policies dating back roughly 100 years ago. They will take a long time to correct. Correcting these must also take different policies.

If you take one thing away as we vote in the 2022 election, don’t believe any candidate who implies Urban Villages are going to solve our housing crisis. They aren’t being honest or don’t have a full understanding about the extent or the problems we face.

Gordon Chester is a husband, father, and lifelong San Jose resident with a background in development in the county.

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