San Jose mayor proposes plan to build housing on school property, gets pushback
Grass and trees surround Piedmont Hills High School in San Jose’s East Side Union High School District. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

A proposed move by San Jose to make it easier for school districts to sell and develop their land has irked some education leaders who say the city is overstepping its authority and keeping them in the dark.

At stake are coveted and valuable properties that could be developed for housing, bring in cash for education and help address the city’s housing shortage.

The brainchild of Mayor Sam Liccardo, the proposal sets guidelines for converting vacant school district properties to residential and commercial uses. It is expected to go before the City Council in April.

But the idea comes as a surprise to some school officials.

“All parties, whether or not they have yet expressed interest in the topic or have plans underway, need an opportunity to participate in the discussion and receive clarity with regard to the rationale for the proposed policy, the timeline for the process and the short and long-term implications on student enrollment patterns, finances and sustainability,” said Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan.

Land is a big moneymaker for school districts — they can sell or lease their property and use the money to provide school services — but restrictions on how certain spaces can be used pose a challenge to districts looking to profit from their property.

Currently, San Jose school districts cannot build housing or commercial projects on their land without going through a year-long process known as a General Plan amendment, which needs approval from the Planning Commission and San Jose City Council.

The current land-use designation allows for schools, colleges, government yards, private recreation, public services facilities and homeless shelters to be built on district land, but it doesn’t allow for residences or retail.

Deputy Planning Director Michael Brilliot said some school districts, including San Jose Unified School District, Cambrian School District and Campbell Union High School District, have lobbied the city to change the land-use policy so that school land can be used for housing or other commercial uses.

The three districts could not be reached for immediate comment.

“Generally, housing development is the biggest and best use — it’s the one where people make the most money and that’s because we have a housing crisis,” Brilliot said.

He said school districts faced financial challenges even before COVID-19 due to lack of enrollment in public schools. Some districts are considering selling excess land to make a profit or using that land to house teachers, he said.

Liccardo said the city needs to have rules in place for handling conversions.

“Rather than considering these applications in a sporadic, uncoordinated way, we ought to be public and transparent about a principled approach for deciding which conversions make sense and which don’t, and apply those rules consistently,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight.

The conversion would also help the city achieve its goal of increasing affordable housing in San Jose, Liccardo said. To convert land, the new policy would require developers to pitch projects that include affordable housing, low-income rentals or for-sale housing that has at least 20 dwelling units per acre.

Because the policy affects how San Jose school districts use their land, Dewan is urging the city to hold off until education officials have a chance to weigh in. She said most of San Jose’s superintendents have not been invited to provide input on the plan which could have a significant impact on the school district’s finances.

“Given that the city is considering how to legislate the ways in which San Jose school districts use their land, it is my request of the policy discussion cease until a meeting is held with all of San Jose’s superintendents and school boards in order to obtain their input on your proposal,” Dewan said.

Rolando Bonilla, vice chair of the San Jose Planning Commission, agreed education leaders need to be at the table.

“You can’t bring a policy forward that impacts San Jose schools without first having a conversation with them,” Bonilla said. “In an environment where school districts are extremely underfunded, they must be supported in their efforts to think out of the box, to generate revenue that will go directly into supporting the classroom experiences.”

Liccardo told San José Spotlight that several school districts have been informed about the new policy.

Because SCCOE doesn’t own any land directly impacted by his proposal, Liccardo said he wouldn’t expect them to know about it.

“SCCOE has never been engaged in these discussions in the past because SCCOE does not have any authority in this area, and individual school districts are independent of SCCOE’s decision making on this or other related issues,” Liccardo said.

The mayor said he informed Dewan of the plan Jan. 22 and staff will ensure other superintendents are notified before it comes to the City Council.

Liccardo said the city’s planning staff will meet twice with officials from each school district and will host a public meeting which may include affordable housing developers and those interested in using district land.

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter. 

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