San Jose’s general plan review hindered by online meetings
Members of the General Plan Review Task Force talk over Zoom during their last meeting on June 25.

As online meetings become the new norm under shelter-in-place orders, some community leaders and advocates say meeting remotely has hampered plans to revise one of San Jose’s most critical documents: its General Plan for 2040.

“(The online format) puts a lot of pressure to keep the meetings at a reasonable time,” said Jason Su, executive director of the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy. “It doesn’t give everyone the full time that they need to discuss.”

Su is a member of the General Plan Review Task Force, which changes members and reconvenes every four years to review the city’s General Plan established in 2012. The committee meets once a month to discuss changes to the plan needed to achieve certain housing and transportation goals. The document is considered the blueprint for the city’s future growth.

The General Plan is the city’s “land-use roadmap,” according to Teresa Alvarado, local impact chief of urban planning think tank SPUR. Alvarado co-chairs the task force, which had its meetings interrupted when the shutdown order was enacted to protect residents from COVID-19.

Alvarado said June 25 is the first time the task force met online, a break of about four months from its previous in-person meeting in February. The change in format required the group to shorten the duration of the meetings, Alvarado added, from three hours to roughly one hour, and address fewer topics per meeting.

“A three-hour meeting online starts to make you uncomfortable,” Alvarado said.

Alvarado said the June meeting was also the first time that real-time public comment on the General Plan was accepted virtually. Despite the shorter meetings, Alvarado said the online format makes it more convenient for people to attend and participate.

“There are more people who can participate, rather than having to go physically to a meeting,” Alvarado said. “At the same time, I know that we’re still not involving all the voices that we need to.”

The people most affected by changes to the General Plan are not easily reached virtually, according to Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network.

“It doesn’t really get to the kind of people that are most impacted… in truth, I don’t know how they would do that,” Perry said. “I can’t even organize other people to go to (all the meetings), because there’s so many of them.”

At an in-person meeting, Perry could add a disruptive element to his and others’ public comments — such as handmade signs — to draw more attention to concerns. However, in the COVID-19 era of virtual meetings, Perry can only write to the City Council and other public officials — and he said his messages to the council regarding the General Plan have been ignored.

“I did send a letter to all councilmembers and the mayor, to explain what I thought was wrong with the plan,” Perry said. “I’m used to being able to disrupt meetings, and you can’t do it when you’re online.”

In addition, the terms and methodologies referenced in the General Plan meetings alienate most of the general public, who are largely unfamiliar with technical planning and land use jargon.

“The General Plan is kind of a complicated issue,” Perry said. “There’s a lot of math involved, a lot of figures… a lot of (information) gets buried in all those figures.”

While virtual meetings may be more accessible online, more work needs to be done to make them comprehensible to the general public, said Aaron Eckhouse, regional organizing director of pro-housing group California YIMBY.

“The General Plan task force is not really set up to optimize broad public participation,” Eckhouse said. “For the lay public, I think it’s a harder process to participate in.”

Su said the lack of physical distance between the public and meeting facilitators also makes it difficult for organizers to read the room and adjust the pace of meetings.

“Without seeing the public, it’s hard to get an idea of how many are watching, how many are paying attention, do we need to ensure that more time is being given to them,” Su said. “There are certain things lost when you’re not in person.”

The next General Plan Review meeting will be held 6 p.m. on July 30. Readers can learn more about San Jose’s General Plan for 2040 on the city’s website.

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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