For months, a long-winded battle over the appointment of a new commissioner to San Jose’s Planning Commission has had the city’s East Side community up in arms, as they demand the city’s leadership for equal representation on the powerful committee that makes important planning and land use decisions.
Days before the City Council is set to decide on two new commissioners, community nonprofit SOMOS Mayfair and Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco held a news conference Thursday calling for a fair process and racial representation on the commission, at a time when the East Side is facing growing rates of displacement due to a spike in new development.
“Our neighborhood has been rapidly changing within the last two years. The number of proposed developments for the Alum Rock corridor has exponentially increased,” Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, executive director of SOMOS Mayfair, told San José Spotlight on Wednesday. “For generations we’ve been wanting investment on the East Side, but how do we make sure these investments are actually benefiting San Jose residents — especially residents that have been long overdue for access? For a community that is facing such rapid, rapid gentrification, we need planning commissioners who are more thoughtful in that process.”
The highly-contested appointment of former San Jose Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio sparked outcry from East Side community leaders months ago, who were hopeful that the newly-vacant seat would be filled by a person of color. The leaders criticized the city for replacing former commissioner Ada Márquez with a white male from affluent Willow Glen, as Oliviero became the fourth representative on the 7-person commission from District 6. Since then, two more commissioners — Namrata Vora and John Leyba — have also resigned, reigniting the debate over representation on one of the city’s most influential commissions.
Then, after City Clerk Toni Taber said the pool of applicants would not be widened, a new contender was added to the mix. Last week, Attorney George Casey was named the fourth entrant to be added to the list of finalists alongside Mariel Caballero, Louis Barocio and Rolando Bonilla. East Side community leaders denounced the last-minute move, alleging that it jeopardized public trust and robbed the community of any input.
The decision to include a fourth person in the mix was done “in the moment,” according to Carrasco, and was troubling to her because the new contender was not vetted by the entire City Council like the other three had been.
“The process happened last minute. And we already had three candidates that had been advanced after a complicated process where the entire council votes on it,” Carrasco said in an interview Thursday. “These three candidates were moved forward by the council. They got enough votes. So the fact that they reopened (the process) is troubling — it’s concerning to me. It lacks transparency.”
Despite the highly-politicized turn of events, East Side leaders say they’re not going down without a fight, as they demand that the City Council respect their concerns during a period where the community is facing an increase in rapid investment and major change. East San Jose is the only corridor with form-based code planning, which allows developers to expedite projects based on the appearance of the building, not land use.
In effect, developers can sweep into a plot of land and use commercial land for housing without re-applying for a new zoning permit, go through community meetings or have their plans voted on by the City Council.
The San Jose Planning Commission approves the project as long as it meets building code standards, regardless of whether it’s used for residential or commercial use. In form-based planning zones, development applications can simply be approved by the city’s Planning Commission. That’s one of the many reasons, Llanes-Fontanilla said, that equal representation is necessary.
“It’s really important to have both a councilmember but also a planning commissioner who understands the complexities of what’s happening on the East Side and can represent that kind of perspective,” added Llanes-Fontanilla. “The majority of people currently being from Willow Glen and quite frankly, not spending so much time on the East Side, are getting to vote on projects that are having a huge impact on our neighborhood without any understanding of what’s actually happening on the ground.”
At the news conference Thursday, several East Side residents held signs expressing support for more community engagement, reading “prioritize community voice” and “no decisions without us.”
Longtime resident Daniel Casanova, who has been living in East San Jose for more than 20 years, said locals like him are struggling to stay, often working two or three jobs to afford the skyrocketing cost of living. Without representation at the city level, Casanova said he fears his community will be forced to leave.
That’s why he thinks it’s important that developers invest in the neighborhoods that they’re building in, with either public amenities or services that benefit the entire community. A mixed-use project is underway on the site where the news conference took place, but local residents and leaders on Thursday expressed disappointment after they were told that a long awaited charter school will not be occupying the ground floor of the new development’s commercial space, as originally promised.
“The cost of living is skyrocketing. Workers are struggling with two to three jobs just to pay rent,” Casanova said. “It is the developers’ responsibility to invest in local neighborhoods so that residents can benefit from these projects. Without good leadership, San Jose will be left behind.”
The City Council will appoint two candidates at next week’s Oct. 1 meeting. The candidates must receive six votes from councilmembers to be appointed. One finalist will be appointed to a term ending in June 2020 and the other ending in June 2023.
Contact Nadia Lopez at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: Rolando Bonilla is the chief strategy officer of Voler Strategic Advisors. The CEO of Voler Strategic Advisors, Perla A. Rodriguez, sits on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.