Staedler: How San Jose is aligning zoning districts with General Plan
Construction in downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

    One of the largest misconceptions about the city of San Jose housing crisis is the statement that potential development of land is solely dedicated to single-family housing.

    A common tagline in stories usually states, “In San Jose, 94% of the city’s residential land is zoned for single-family homes only.” That is simply not an accurate representation of the city of San Jose’s development process. The General Plan, not the zoning, determines what can be developed. As a charter city, San Jose has not been required to align its General Plan and zoning ordinance.  The General Plan supersedes the zoning ordinance.

    Senate Bill 1333 changes that as it requires alignment of zoning districts and General Plan land use designations by a charter city. As the city’s website states, “The benefit is that by rezoning all properties so that all zoning districts are aligned with their respective General Plan land use designation, property owners will save time and costs if interested in developing their property.”

    This is a challenging endeavor. Here is the process from the city’s website:

    Phase 1: Approved by the City Council on June 25, 2019, this phase included changes to permitting requirements across all zoning districts, revisions or additions to definitions, and general organizational clean up to the zoning ordinance.

    Phase 2: Approved by the City Council on May 25, 2021, the second phase includes the creation of six new zoning districts to support a more vibrant urban form in areas that are planned for mixed-use development and high-density residential or commercial uses.

    Phase 3: Rezoning properties to align their zoning with the General Plan represents the third phase of work to bring the zoning ordinance into conformance with the General Plan. This work has also been shaped by Senate Bill 330, effective Jan. 1, 2020. This bill prohibits changing the zoning or general plan where housing is an allowable use to a less intensive use. If a property is “downzoned,” then another property must be concurrently “upzoned” so there is no net loss in residential capacity. Senate Bill 940 allows San Jose to proactively change a zoning to a more intensive use and to use the added capacity to subsequently change the zoning to a less intensive use.

    The San Jose City Council approved six new zoning districts on May 25, 2021. The six new districts are as follows:

    1. Urban Village Commercial: Supports commercial development and activity in urban villages. Development under this designation should adopt an urban and pedestrian-oriented form, and minimal parking and automobile circulation from the adjacent street.
    2. Urban Village: Supports a mix of residential and commercial development in urban villages as well as a wide variety of commercial, residential, or other land uses with an emphasis on establishing an attractive urban form.
    3. Mixed Use Commercial: Supports a mix of commercial and residential uses, appropriate commercial uses include neighborhood retail and mid-rise office. Some light industrial uses, such as food and beverage manufacturing, may be appropriate if they are compatible and do not pose a hazard to other nearby uses.
    4. Mixed Use Neighborhood: This district is intended for development with townhouse or small-lot single-family homes and supports infill development and medium-density residential uses such as stacked flats. This district also offers opportunity for live/work, mixed residential and commercial, or small-scale stand-alone commercial uses.
    5. Urban Residential: Supports medium-density residential development, mixed-use development, or a broad range of stand-alone commercial uses, including retail, offices, and private community gathering facilities.
    6. Transit Residential: Supports new high-density residential or mixed residential and commercial development, located in close proximity to public transit. This district also supports stand-alone intensive commercial employment uses, such as office, retail, hotels, and private community gathering facilities.

    The rezoning of properties is going to take a thoughtful process to balance the needs of the city and comply with Senate Bill 330.

    Newly-hired Planning Director Chris Burton’s background in economic development will be extremely useful. I’m not saying past directors couldn’t do this well, but his background gives him the ability to look at the big picture planning-wise and balance what’s best at the street level from an economic development angle.

    I’m looking forward to see how this process moves through phase three. Onward and upward.

    San José Spotlight columnist Bob Staedler is a principal at Silicon Valley Synergy, a San Jose-based land use and development consulting firm. His columns appear every first Monday of the month. Contact Bob at [email protected] or follow @BobStaedler on Twitter.

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