As a child, San Jose’s Planning Director Rosalynn Hughey was fascinated by her father’s work.
He was a contractor, who built single-family homes from the ground up. She watched in envy as her brothers tagged along to help him create. This was the ’70s and Hughey was a girl — girls, at least in her household, were not allowed on construction sites. So she spent her childhood gleefully poring over housing plans, not knowing one day she would wind up planning the 10th-largest city in the U.S.
While Hughey once fawned over housing plans, the self-described “country girl” from rural Virginia, now nerds out over the city’s general plan, which serves as San Jose’s blueprint for transit, housing and job growth.
“I love planning because it brings the built environment and the people together,” she said. “Without people, the built environment fails — which is why it is important that the city focuses on creating more housing, community services and open spaces.”
‘Strong as hell’
Despite San Jose’s rich diversity, Hughey is the only Black department head inside City Hall, and an anomaly in her industry which is often dominated by white men.
But she brings a diverse perspective and expertise to San Jose as both a woman of color and an outsider. She lived and worked in the Washington, D.C. region for 25 years before moving to the West Coast.
Hughey began her 34-year career in the field as a development review planner in Maryland. In 2000, she took a position in Washington, D.C.’s office of planning, shortly after D.C. came out of federal government control.
Mayor Anthony Williams had just launched a new program called Neighborhood Action, which sought to connect residents with local government through outreach. This gave Hughey the opportunity to work on several neighborhood plans.
”It was a time of renaissance in the city,” she said.
She served under three mayors during her time in Washington, D.C., going from neighborhood planner to deputy director.
As a new mayor came in, Hughey decided it was time for a change. She was excited by San Jose’s plans to upgrade and expand Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). She knew positive change was possible for the city because she saw firsthand in D.C. what investing in transit could do. She is in her sixth year of service to San Jose.
“She walks into a room like a ballet dancer — poised — and like a ballet dancer, strong as hell,” Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness said. “She’s a powerful person and a powerful leader.”
While she exudes an air of confidence, Hughey said in many ways, she is still finding her place in San Jose.
“San Jose is a very diverse city and we celebrate that aspect, but honestly, when I came here, it was a different kind of diversity than what I was used to,” Hughey said. “I’m still finding my community — my African American community — to connect with.”
She said the city is being more intentional in its efforts to hire more people of color, but creating further change will require a stronger recruiting effort. She noted hires such as Carolina Camarena, who was recently tapped to be the city’s new communications director, are a step in the right direction.
A support system at City Hall
San Jose’s local NAACP blasted Mayor Sam Liccardo and city leaders for not supporting Black employees after the mayor harshly questioned Hughey in public about issuing permits during the COVID-19 shutdown.
“Ms. Hughey, because she is black and female, should not have to experience at the hands of a white male, an aggressive encounter that appears to me to be no more than a bias-filled interaction,” NAACP President Rev. Jeff Moore wrote in a letter.
Liccardo eventually apologized after demands from Black leaders.
Harkness said he and Hughey have regular coaching sessions with one another to support their respective leadership development. In one conversation following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the pair talked very deeply about race and equity.
“I was moved to really recognize that she is an extraordinary leader — despite everything that has been thrown at her as a Black woman in this country,” he said. “I felt in a completely safe space as a white man to be able to talk about my own experience of race and felt completely seen by her. … It just reinforced for me how important it is to have her as the voice of how we build this city.”
He said Hughey has been instrumental in leading discussions about race and equity internally and citywide.
Deputy City Manager Kim Walesh said Hughey has one of the toughest director jobs next to the police chief. She said it’s up to Hughey to educate, inspire and manage the “inevitable fear” that comes from long-term change and growth in the community.
Balancing neighborhood needs
Walesh praised Hughey for extending her mentorship outside the walls of work to help educate San Jose State students about urban planning. Hughey also chairs the Urban Land Institute’s equity, diversity and inclusion committee and is involved with national planning networks.
Hughey’s steadiness and emotional intelligence make her a role model for many younger women in the city’s planning department, she added.
“She’s a person that can walk between many different worlds, quite fluidly,” Walesh said. “She works with neighbors and grassroots advocates then she works with some of the biggest developers in the world. This work is very much a calling for her.”
Hughey said she’s excited about seeing downtown grow and become connected through transit and retail. Plans for urban villages in the city are “not perfect” she admitted, but the model is a strong and healthy way to keep San Jose urbanizing outside of downtown.
Planning, according to Hughey, is about balancing goals to solve citywide injustices.
“There’s going to be trade off, and that perhaps on a neighborhood level, you’re not always going to get 100% of the things you want and even on the city level, you may not get 100% of what you want,” she said. “But it clicked for me that I like working with people, helping people collaborate and at the end of it, it’s about really getting to what’s best for the neighborhood.”
Hughey lives in Evergreen with her husband and 13-year-old son. When she’s not working she could be found watching her son play golf and basketball — pre-pandemic. Her happy place is sitting by the ocean with a book.
Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.