New housing proposal revives debate over old City Hall site

Months after homeless advocates and the county came to a head over the fate of the old San Jose City Hall building, county officials are now considering using part of the site for temporary homeless housing.

The move comes after a heated debate involving homeless activists and county officials. Advocates pushed to renovate the former City Hall annex and use it for a homeless shelter, but county officials said the building was not a viable long-term housing solution. County elected leaders in September voted to demolish it and build a temporary parking lot instead.

But now county leaders want to study the possibility of also building supportive housing on the site.

“When we discussed the options, it was not a good use of funds to sink dollars into a building that had exceeded its useful life span,” said Ky Le, director of the county’s Office of Supportive Housing. According to Le, supporters of renovating the old structure and the county had different cost estimates, which ultimately “didn’t play out.”

City officials and homeless activists estimated that costs would be around $30 million to renovate the building, while county officials estimated the costs would exceed $50 million.

Despite costly renovations, the six-story building — currently in the stages of being demolished — would eventually have to be torn down, Le added.

Now, the county has directed the Office of Supportive Housing to conduct a feasibility study to determine the best possible locations for homeless housing on the Civic Center campus, including on the former site of the City Hall annex.

“That’s why we’re looking at residential opportunities in the master plan,” said Le. “We can’t use this building, but where at the Civic Center can we use some kind of temporary housing structures? Where could we provide temporary housing to individuals that wouldn’t cost $50 million? One area that we can put temporary housing is around where the old City Hall annex is.”

The study will include a “100 percent” permanent apartment-type, supportive housing building for a wide range of homeless and disabled individuals.

The study will also look at possible temporary housing structures for “15 working families, between 45-75 people,” although the plan is still in its beginning stages. Le said no consultants have been hired yet.

But some city officials and advocates argue that homelessness is a growing problem, and it needs more immediate solutions since housing is not being built at a fast enough rate. The county’s current housing proposal, they argued, would take years.

“I question the wisdom. It doesn’t make any financial sense to me,” said San Jose city councilmember Johnny Khamis.

The Sobrato Foundation and Garden City Construction agreed to provide around $20 million in funds to renovate and seismically retrofit the former City Hall annex to be used as a homeless shelter, added Khamis, but instead the county decided to “knock it down to create a parking lot and turn the parking lot into 15 tiny homes for families.”

“They could have spent a lot less money and time not demolishing,” said Khamis, who advocated alongside the Sobrato Foundation for the building’s renovation. “As a taxpayer, I question the intelligence that went into knocking down the building instead of rehabilitating the 140 unit-complex.”

Jim Salata, owner of Garden City Construction, also fought to renovate the aging building and use it for homeless housing instead of demolishing it and building a parking lot and some potential housing.

“I’m still disappointed,” said Salata, who claims that the county’s new proposal to create supportive housing at the Civic Center is  “political” and “not going to get done for a long time.”

“By this time, if they had approved it, we would have been already rehabilitating the building instead of demolishing it,” added Salata. “It still bothers me that they couldn’t figure out how to make it work.”

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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