San Jose appoints five new planning commissioners, expanding diversity
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

After a lengthy effort to ensure geographic equity on San Jose’s planning commission, city leaders on Monday appointed five new members each from a different district.

The commission advises San Jose lawmakers on land use decisions and under certain circumstance can approve some projects without the City Council’s review.

Months of advocacy for more representation for people of color from the East Side culminated in Monday’s vote to re-appoint Mariel Caballero, one of two Latinx members who was recently elected chair, until 2024 and appoint Jorge Antonio Garcia to a vacancy expiring in 2024.

“It goes back to validating the concerns the community brings to the table and bringing solutions that can benefit the impacted areas and not have certain portions of the community be left behind,” Garcia said.

The three other members appointed Monday are real estate attorney George Casey, preschool teacher Deborah Torrens and Housing and Community Development Commissioner Justin Lardinois. Casey’s and Torrens’ terms will end in 2024 and Lardinois was the sole appointee with a term ending in 2022.

Garcia comes from District 8, Casey is from District 10, Caballero lives in District 3, Torrens is from District 2 and Lardinois hails from District 1, according to City Clerk Toni Taber.

The newly-appointed Planning Commission members share concerns about ensuring equity for the city’s poorest neighborhoods and increasing affordable housing in San Jose. The candidates said too many people are leaving San Jose due to a lack of jobs and affordable housing.

“My daughter and her husband just decided they didn’t want to try to make a go over here,” Torrens said. “She graduated from San Jose State just a few weeks ago and moved to Utah … So it’s a sad loss.”

Casey said the key to solving these problems is boosting both residential and commercial development.

“It’s been far too long that we didn’t address the jobs issue,” Casey said. “I’d like to see more jobs in San Jose. I think it would have an environmental benefit as well. It would take a lot of cars off the freeway to have a robust employment center in downtown.”

Councilmembers questioned the commissioners about how they’d approach San Jose’s jobs-housing imbalance, which shows the city has more homes than jobs and people are forced to leave the city each day for work. Lardinois, who’s a software engineer for Google Cloud, came under scrutiny for a potential conflict of interest as the tech giant prepares to build a sprawling campus in downtown San Jose.

“I, of course, would recuse myself on anything Google-related,” Lardinois said. “I don’t think that’ll have a large negative impact on my ability to serve because Google is far from the only entity that is doing things in San Jose and will have things come before the Planning Commission.”

But as the youngest commissioner and a member of the LGBT community,  Lardinois, 26, said he could bring additional perspective to the commission.

Community leaders on Monday stressed the importance of planning commissioners focusing on ending systemic racism, discriminatory land use provisions and policies that displace people of color.

For example, East Side activists have called out form-based code planning that allows developers to build projects along the Alum Rock corridor without the City Council’s approval, as first reported by San José Spotlight in June 2019.

“East San Jose has a form-based code policy in the Alum Rock urban village that exists nowhere else in San Jose, and that’s what makes it ground zero for mass development,” said Elma Arredondo, an officer for the Alum Rock Urban Village Advocates Community Group. “The community is understandably concerned with the qualifications of candidates to include knowledge of and sensitivity to the equity.”

Garcia now becomes the second representative from East San Jose, joining Planning Commission Vice Chair Rolando Bonilla.

Last year, the City Council’s appointment of former Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio over multiple Latino candidates outraged residents of the East Side. Oliverio, a white man from District 6, joined a predominantly caucasian commission from affluent neighborhoods in San Jose.

East San Jose residents, business owners and lawmakers demanded more representation on the panel as their community became hub for major developments with limited regulation. In an effort to improve racial and geographic representation on the powerful panel, San Jose lawmakers approved a slew of reforms, including allowing only two people from the same City Council district to serve on the commission and expanding the size of the commission from a even members to 11.

Expanding the commission to 11 members requires a charter amendment change, which must be approved by voters.

Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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