San Jose puts off raising building heights — for now

In a unanimous decision, City Council leaders on Monday decided to postpone passing a measure that would increase building height limits in downtown San Jose until February.

A study commissioned by the city included four options that would allow for building height increases without jeopardizing safety measures, with “Scenario 4” being the most supported by developers and pro-business advocates.

Those in favor said that allowing a maximum building height limit would help stimulate the city’s hurting economy by increasing the number of residents in the downtown and Diridon Station areas, increasing transportation use and promoting community benefits such as a vibrant downtown and public amenities.

According to the study, any detrimental financial impacts on airline flights that could occur can be mitigated through creative solutions such as a Community Air Service Support Fund. The fund would help compensate for lost revenue, estimated at a loss of $802,000 in the first year that buildings are constructed with the proposed measure, and ultimately at a loss of about $1.5 million by 2032.

If passed, the proposed measure would allow the development of taller buildings exceeding up to 35 feet from the current limits in downtown and up to 137 feet in the Diridon Station area. Although the higher limits meet FAA guidelines, the measure has spurred contentious debate between supporters of economic development and the city’s airport commission, whose members say that the measure poses a serious safety risk and a potential economic decline for the airport.

The decision to defer the vote until February, prompted by Councilman Johnny Khamis, was to give airlines time to finish negotiating their contract renewals.

Opponents of the measure suggested Monday during a council committee meeting that the aviation study was incomplete, citing serious concern.

“The report studied departure flights but never studied arrivals,” said Jennifer Tasseff from the Sunnyvale-Cupertino Airplane Noise Group.

“Based on a 2017 FAA congressional meeting, these arrivals are partly impacted by existing tall buildings,” Tasseff added. “We ask that any San Jose vote be postponed until a supplemental aviation study is commissioned by San Jose and the FAA is consulted to confirm no possible increase in air traffic.”

Several members of the San Jose Airport Commission also spoke against Scenario 4, the city’s proposal, mentioning serious safety risks and the irreparable damage to the airport’s business with foreign airlines.

“Airlines did not appear to be considered stakeholders in this process,” said Dan Connolly, chair of the San Jose Airport Commission. “Not one commercial pilot or a contingency of airlines was invited to be a part of the committee. Meetings were held in private, members of the public and the airport commission were denied request to attend meetings.”

Additionally, allowing for the measure to pass would potentially discontinue service to important international areas. “We will lose all service to Asia, most service to Europe, and on a warm enough day to all East Coast destinations,” said Raymond Greenlee, the district 6 commissioner and a Delta Airlines pilot.

“We’re an international airport. Where is international if you take away Europe? Where is international if you take away China,” said Cathy Hendrix, a San Jose airport commissioner.

“What about the person who got kicked off that flight? They get a voucher or hotel, but they missed their dad’s funeral. I would encourage all of you to talk to a pilot. Learn about cargo. Learn about fuel. Learn about passengers. Learn about what it takes to get an airplane off this ground,” Hendricks continued.

For years, local think tanks, influential tech companies such as Google, and business advocates have actively promoted new building projects to increase economic development.

“Over the next 10 years, these areas will become large hubs for BART, Caltrain, high speed rail, VTA, and light rail,” said SPUR’s San Jose director Teresa Alvarado. “It is imperative that these future projects be coupled with world class, mixed use developments that generate transit riders. More importantly, maximizing development will generate more fees to support the creation of thousands of affordable housing units as well as community benefiting amenities such as parks.”

Other opponents didn’t necessarily criticize raising building heights, but instead suggested a different scenario. Many strongly promoted a measure that would allow for a modern increase in some building heights, with no increase in the downtown region.

That group also included Jeffrey Buchanan from the city’s Stationary Area Advisory Group, who suggested a proposal that would allow for a development fee on businesses to fund affordable housing units in exchange for higher building heights.

“Can we look at a development fee where developers can choose to participate and use those higher heights in exchange to some kind of modest feasible contribution to addressing our affordable housing rules?” Buchanan asked city lawmakers. “The issues of displacement, homelessness, and rising housing prices are at the forefront of what people care about.”

The full City Council will hear the proposal in late February.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadiia_77@yahoo.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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