Despite opposition from city planners, San Jose council supports SCU teacher housing
The San Jose City Council on Tuesday voted to amend the general plan to allow a Santa Clara University teacher housing project move forward. Photo courtesy of Santa Clara University.

A Santa Clara University project that would house hundreds of teachers and staff from local Jesuit schools is one step closer to breaking ground after Tuesday’s San Jose City Council meeting.

Councilors voted 9-1-1 for city officials to bring back amendments to the general plan, which helps guide future development in the city, to allow the project to proceed. Councilmember Lan Diep dissented and Councilmember Dev Davis was absent for the vote. The site, located at 1202 and 1205 Campbell Ave., is currently designated for light industrial use and must be changed to transit residential use in order for Santa Clara University to continue with the project application.

The 295-unit affordable housing project is part of an effort to retain quality teachers and other vital school staff in an area where rapidly increasing housing prices have pushed them out. Santa Clara University, Bellarmine College Preparatory and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School have partnered in the joint-effort that would also build a 20,000 square foot technology incubator to help spearhead research and create local jobs.

But last month, San Jose planning officials recommended killing the project, citing a conflict with the General Plan’s goals of banning the conversion of jobs land to non-industrial uses. At an April 10 meeting, the Planning Commission went against city planners by recommending the City Council advance the project. Commissioners John Leyba and Pierluigi Oliverio dissented.

San Jose has traditionally rejected requests to convert land that could be used for jobs to housing or other uses. In 2017, city elected officials overwhelmingly denied a wealthy landowner’s proposal to build teacher housing in Willow Glen on commercial land.

Chris Burton, deputy director for the office of economic development, said industrial lands only make up a very small part of the city – approximately 2.7 percent.

“It’s a very finite resource,” Burton said. “But it’s a very important part of fiscal sustainability.”

Chris Shay, Santa Clara University’s associate vice president for operations, told San José Spotlight that he disagrees with planning officials’ recommendation, saying they’re interpreting the Envision San José 2040 plan too literally.

“We have an opportunity to have a much larger effect on the economy,” Shay said about the incubator. “We think this particular conversion makes sense both economically for San Jose as well as (for) the dire housing crisis that we find ourselves in.”

Shay added that the university has seen an uptick in resignations as educators and faculty feel the pressure of rising housing prices. He said the project aims to accomplish two goals: help people who are living on couches get on their feet and give people who are commuting for hours from outside the Bay Area a place to live.

A fiery council debate

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo kicked off Tuesday’s discussion joking that his mother wouldn’t be too happy if he voted against the project.

Liccardo, a graduate of Bellarmine, said that he would normally vote against land-use conversions that flip jobs land to other uses. However, the mayor said, this project is different – it adds 295 units that are 100 percent rent-restricted and it provides opportunities for density, as well as jobs at the nearby incubator.

Councilmember Raul Peralez worried that Santa Clara University could change the teacher housing into dormitories. John Ottoboni, the university’s chief operating officer, said they had no intent to convert it into anything else.

Councilmember Pam Foley had concerns over Santa Clara University’s ability to restrict the apartments to a certain rent class.

“The university’s legal understanding is that you can provide exclusive employee housing and not be in violation of federal fair housing provisions,” said Erik Schoennauer, a land use consultant who represents the schools.

Councilmember Johnny Khamis said he worried about the city’s ability to provide jobs – not housing – near transit as San Jose’s BART connection moves forward.

“Other cities use us for a bedroom community,” he said. “I know this is not Santa Clara University’s fault and so I’m not going to pin this all on them. It’s going to take a leap for me to change my track record of voting against rezoning.”

While Khamis ultimately voted to move forward with the general plan amendments, Diep, who had similar qualms, did not.

“It’s the larger existential problem that we have as a city where we are housing the workforce of Santa Clara, Milpitas and all these other surrounding cities,” Diep said. “We shrink in the day time and they go work in other cities and they come back and sleep in San Jose.”

Aligning with planning officials’ recommendation, Diep added that the city was giving away its employment land supply – approximately 15 percent – with land use conversions.

The land use amendments will return to the City Council in the fall when councilors examine changes to the general plan.

Contact Grace Hase at grace@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.

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