‘Unfair’ zoning in San Jose comes under fire by Alum Rock advocates
A chain-link fence surrounds the site near a proposed project at 2101 Alum Rock Ave. in East San Jose where an unusual zoning policy allows developers to greenlight projects without much public scrutiny. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

In East San Jose, developers can get projects approved without a vote from the City Council or extensive public input using a special zoning rule — a process that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the city.

Community leaders and advocates say the policy is unfair and needs to end.

In a letter to Mayor Sam Liccardo, Rolando Bonilla, vice chair of the San Jose Planning Commission, urged the City Council to immediately ban form-based zoning in East San Jose, which allows developers to get projects greenlit with only a vote from the Planning Commission.

Bonilla said Alum Rock residents thought form-based zoning would be implemented citywide when it was proposed more than a decade ago but the policy only affects East San Jose. Leaders say it robs the public of an opportunity to have a voice in the redevelopment of their historic neighborhoods.

“We want to have a say in how we’re going to shape our community,” Bonilla said. “The message at City Hall under form-based zoning only in East San Jose is ‘your opinion doesn’t matter,’ whereas in the rest of the city, not only does your opinion matter, there’s an extensive process that allows for your opinion to actually shape what these projects are going to look like.”

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Bonilla said form-based zoning should be enacted citywide or not at all, and it should be paused until San Jose brings the policy to other neighborhoods.

Michael Brilliot, deputy director of the city’s planning division, said state guidelines may prohibit the City Council from halting San Jose’s form-based zoning policy. However, residents can appeal a form-based zoning project to the City Council after its approval by the Planning Commission, but the council can choose not to take action, he said.

The mayor said he is open to discussing how the zoning rules have impacted East Side.

“I would welcome a public hearing before the council for us to consider any changes to or the elimination of their policy and it’s important for us to really understand what form-based zoning means and what it has done,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight.

Erasing history

Advocates, including Jaime Alvarado with Alum Rock Urban Village Advocates (ARUVA), say they are most worried about new development displacing East San Jose residents. The area is home to a majority Latino population and has a strong minority business community.

For example, since 2019 residents have voiced concerns about a major mixed-use building proposal from SiliconSage Builders, a company that recently came under fire for alleged fraud. The project, at 2101 Alum Rock Ave., calls for a 5-story mixed-use building with 738 apartments, 26,500 square feet of retail and parking. Many fear the project will push out local business owners.

Under form-based zoning, applications for mixed-use buildings are approved by the Planning Commission and developers can expedite projects without the City Council’s approval. Alvarado said this is problematic because it limits public dialogue.

Danny Garza, a longtime advocate with Plata Arroyo Neighborhood Association, said form-based zoning works against the East San Jose community.

“This is a depressed minority community being abused,” Garza said. “We’re still laborers. We’re still people who don’t have green cards. And we’re still people who will not fight because of the fear that comes from being underrepresented and targeted. What we need is we need to be treated fairly.”

Garza said displacement and gentrification are erasing heritage and culture in San Jose. That’s why ARUBA is advocating for buildings along Alum Rock Avenue to architecturally reflect the heritage of the East Side community.

“We’d like to see that stretch have an architectural theme,” Alvarado said. “We want it to reflect the historical heritage of our community. We want the urban village to eventually be a destination for people to come to.”

Brilliot said no projects have been constructed yet using form-based zoning but two affordable housing projects have been approved and two more mixed-use projects are under consideration.

Zoning changes anticipated citywide

Form-based zoning arose as a result of the City Council’s Strong Neighborhood Initiative in the early 2000s that was supposed to benefit underserved low-income communities by revamping neighborhoods.

Brilliot said Alum Rock was having trouble attracting new investment at the time, so form-based zoning was one strategy to bring in new mixed-use development and help achieve the community’s vision for the Alum Rock corridor.

The idea, according to Brilliot, was to implement form-based zoning districts along other corridors in San Jose but the plan never came to fruition, in part, due to the Great Recession and subsequent staff cuts.

Brilliot said the rest of the city will soon adopt similar zoning districts, adding the City Council could vote as soon as March.

Downtown San Jose currently has a streamlined process that allows buildings with a mix of retail and housing to be built quickly. There are still public hearings hosted about these developments, Brilliot said, but the decision is ultimately made by the planning director without council approval.

As San Jose city leaders discuss future zoning guidelines, Bonilla wants to ensure East San Jose is treated equally.

“This has never been about pitting one part of the city against another,” Bonilla said. “This has always been about ensuring that we, in East San Jose, get treated as if we are a part of the city as a whole.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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