Staedler: The perils of form-based zoning, like in Alum Rock
Alum Rock Avenue in East San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

    The Alum Rock Urban Village form-based zone process has spurned controversy in the last month.

    As reported by San José Spotlight, the form-based zoning came to be in the early 2000s with the hope of attracting new investment.

    Planning officials said this type of zoning was going to be implemented citywide, but that obviously did not happen.

    Let’s get to the heart of this issue: What a form-based code is, per

    A form-based code is a land development regulation that fosters predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. A form-based code is a regulation, not a mere guideline, adopted into city, town or county law. A form-based code offers a powerful alternative to conventional zoning regulation.

    This process creates a streamlined approach that doesn’t mandate City Council approval.

    This gives a lot of power to Planning Department with the interpretation of the project’s conformance to the plan and how they represent the project to the Planning Commission.

    It also supersedes the city’s policy of not converting commercial property into housing. Developers in this area do not have to apply for a rezoning permit to change the use from commercial to housing.

    This will further exacerbate the housing jobs imbalance that the city of San Jose 2040 General Plan was supposed to improve.

    The fact that the Downtown West project which includes Google won’t dramatically improve those numbers makes me question whether that metric is as important as they claim in terms of broader land-use decisions, but that is for another time.

    The displacement fears are real and they are not being dealt with broadly. This is not a new issue for San Jose.

    The form-based zoning code just ramps up the fears of the community and does not create a funding mechanism to relocate tenants within their neighborhood.

    The value creation of the streamlined process and elimination of a rezoning of the sites should have had an Ellis Act ordinance (elimination of affordable housing unit fee) type of fee paid by the developer to assist relocating the existing tenants.

    If you read through the end of the San José Spotlight story there is an interesting piece of information given by the city of San Jose: “Brilliot said the rest of the city will soon adopt similar zoning districts, adding the City Council could vote as soon as March.”

    It will be interesting to see if the rest of the city will be paying attention to the consequences of that action. I haven’t seen any outreach on the creation of similar form-based zoning districts throughout the city. Imagine beloved retail in Almaden Valley being torn down and replaced by workforce housing. They will not take that well.

    Streamlining of approvals needs to have strong buy-in from the community upfront.

    In my personal opinion, it is hard to build trust after the major decisions have been made without community input and before the implementation phase begins.

    It’s time to find solutions to these issues and not kick the can down the road. 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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