As we live through the greatest trust exercise of our lives, our elected officials and city staff throughout the Bay Area need to extend that same level of trust and respect when it comes to community process during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We are not sheltering in place to provide politicians and city officials an opportunity to push through projects with loopholes and lack of community participation. I’ve heard from various people — politicians, city staff and community members — that you can’t let a good pandemic go to waste, and that is one way to look at this situation. It does have a cost, though, and that cost is the public’s trust.
Instead of taking advantage of a very long window of distance, distraction and public stress, politicians and city leaders need to step up and earn the goodwill and benefit of the doubt from the public.
One example of how a pandemic can provide an opportunity to push through a controversial project is the tiny home community for the homeless in San Jose’s Metcalf, Los Paseos and Basking Ridge area in South San Jose’s District 2.
The bitterness and anger from the neighborhoods are evident in this. The site was considered in 2017, but ultimately not chosen for a tiny home site. The city and state’s COVID-19 emergency declarations created a pathway to bypass some of the regulatory steps for this development, such as seeking community input at planning and housing commission meetings, environmental studies and the requisite community meetings.
This lack of a meaningful community process doesn’t hold up to the standards and level of care that Councilmember Sergio Jimenez has shown during his time in office.
His thoughtful approach of trying to find another site that had fewer impacts on his community should be applauded. The fact that he was sidelined to let Mayor Sam Liccardo take over a Zoom community meeting shows his diplomacy and that he shouldn’t bear any anger from his constituents. It will be worth watching to see if the Evans Lane site — one of two other locations being considered for more tiny homes — gets approved the same way.
A development that will change the landscape of San Jose when completed is the Google Downtown West Project. There are community concerns that staff could use the COVID-19 epidemic as an excuse to diminish the community’s comments and the need for a fully integrated project with community benefits.
But the public isn’t going to become docile and stop participating in a community process for the largest development project in San Jose’s history. They aren’t going to take on a mindset of “please do whatever you want” because we need the tax dollars that a project of this scale will generate.
City officials pushing out three videos related to the Diridon Station Area Plan and then a questionnaire without reaching out to neighborhood associations ahead of time has caused frustration. The lack of a process to allow the public to ask questions and get clarification on the presentations is disappointing. Even so, the surrounding neighborhoods will continue to do what they have done for the last several decades and work with Google and other developers in the area to provide guidance to improve their projects.
That spirit of working together will continue even while the sheltering-in-place continues. It doesn’t seem that we will have a conventional version of a community meeting for an extended period of time, into 2021. That requires a more thoughtful way of interacting with the public.
The key to all of this is reaching out to the community now and having conversations about how to make this work during the shelter-in-place conditions. This will allow for community buy-in and a sense that we are all in this together because we are stronger when we come together and work toward a common goal. I have hope that we can change paths and create this environment.
Onward and upwards.
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.