San Jose lawmakers approve taller buildings in downtown
A plane leaves Mineta San Jose International Airport, passing over downtown San Jose. Photo by Kyle Martin.

More than a decade after it was proposed and following months of contentious debate, city lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously approved height increases of up to 35 feet downtown and up to 150 feet in the Diridon Station Area.

The discussion has been riddled with controversy as advocates, airport commissioners and city officials debated the impact of the proposed increase on nearby Mineta San Jose International Airport. Proponents of an alternative plan called ‘Scenario 10B’ – which would make no changes to downtown limits and only raise heights by 55 feet in the Diridon area – said an increase in downtown would penetrate the airspace required by airplanes for emergency landings during inclement weather if one engine fails. They also argued it could have a financial impact on the airport.

Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, has supported the height increase since it was proposed 12 years ago. He commended the council for finally taking action on the plan.

“When the City Council approves raising building heights later tonight up to the safe FAA standards, it will be correcting a practice that went into place 12 years ago that should have never happened,” Knies said during a Tuesday press conference hosted by the silicon valley organization.

The Air Line Pilot’s Association, which represents 61,000 pilots and 33 airlines, said the financial impact to airlines flying out of San Jose would be minimal, dispelling one of the primary concerns of opponents of taller buildings in downtown.

To offset a potential impact on the airlines, the council also approved staff to look into creating a community fund.

Mayor Sam Liccardo concluded Tuesday’s debate by reiterating his support for preserving areas like Coyote Valley and said that increasing the building heights, would be a way to do that.

“We want to stop growing out and start growing up,” the mayor said. “We’re going to preserve our open spaces, our hillsides and we’re going to grow the way cities should grow.”

Some opponents claimed the move to raise building heights was spurred by Google’s plan to build a mega-campus in the Diridon Station area. Activists from Serve The People San José staged a protest by laying  on the ground as a tin-foil airplane, emblazoned with the name Google, crashed in the middle of the group, symbolically killing them.

Serve The People San José protested Google and the increase of the city’s building heights outside Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Photo by Kyle Martin.

“I’m here because this fiasco with the backroom deals around building height limits happened without consulting the airport commission, but included Google,” said organizer Andrew Lee.

Commercial fee for housing

Earlier Tuesday, councilors agreed to study charging a fee on commercial development to fund affordable housing. Initially discussed in 2015, council voted against studying the feasibility of the fee at the time. Nearly four years later, a new council voted 10 to 1 to conduct a study with the price tag of up to $150,000. Councilmember Johnny Khamis cast the dissenting vote.

The study could include high tech offices, retail, industrial and hotel spaces as commercial development subjected to the fee. City officials will return to the council with the study’s results by next January.

Housing advocates flooded the meeting to support the fee they believe could help fuel the city’s housing stock. Many of them donned stickers reading “Hold Tech Accountable” and pinpointed Google as a potential revenue source of affordable housing via the fee.

Councilmembers Lan Diep and Khamis voiced concern with studying the fee, though Diep voted for it.

Khamis, who has been a staunch opponent of raising taxes, cemented his position that overtaxing people makes it harder to live in San Jose. He mentioned his own property tax bill that he said has 17 different taxes tacked onto it.

“We can’t keep using the same tool and expecting different results,” he said.

San Jose Light Tower Monument

San Jose is  one step closer to having an iconic landmark akin to Seattle’s Space Needle or St. Louis’ Arch. The council voted unanimously to accept Guadalupe River Park at Arena Green as the future home of an “artistically inspired” Light Tower landmark.

Environmentalists argued against the proposed location, and the city received dozens of letters ahead of the meeting stating the danger the monument could have to the ecosystem of the Arena Green area.

A representative from the California Native Plant Society said she was in support of the monument, but not in support of the chosen location. “Light Tower Corp. is reaching out to the entire world to find the perfect design,” she said. “But they have used a minimal and flawed process to pick their site.”

In a rare move, Liccardo pushed back against environmentalists.

“We have 18,000 people immediately adjacent to this park,” Liccardo said citing the nearby SAP Center. “This is a very urban space. No one has ever pretended that this isn’t a great central park for our city.”

Reporter Kyle Martin contributed to this report.

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

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