Vacant San Jose school land to turn into housing
Cambrian School District is selling some land on Cambrianna Drive in San Jose that will be the site of single-family homes. Photo by Joseph Geha.

A small school district in West San Jose is selling off land where single-family homes are planned, setting off a debate about whether denser housing should be built there.

The San Jose City Council approved plans Tuesday from local developer Robson Homes to build 21 homes along with 14 accessory dwelling units, also known as granny units or backyard homes, on a 3-acre site at 1975 Cambrianna Drive. The property is owned by the Cambrian School District.

Mayor Sam Liccardo cast the lone dissenting vote, agreeing with some housing advocates who said denser housing could be built on the site.

The development plans call for 17 single-family homes to be built, some as large as roughly 3,400 square feet, and 14 homes will have a 425-square-foot granny unit attached. Robson will also build four townhouses reserved for low-income earners to meet the city’s affordable housing requirements, according to city reports.

The vacant grassy parcel is part of a larger 10-acre school site that closed nearly 50 years ago. On a portion of the remaining seven acres sit several school buildings the district rents out for preschool and sports programs, John Pappalardo, the district’s head of finance, told San José Spotlight.

District officials say money from the sale is needed to create a stable revenue stream to rely on in lean state budget years. The sale will net the school district, which has a little less than 3,000 students across six schools, about $10 million, Pappalardo said. The money will be used to invest in other property, though what kind of property and where has not been decided yet.

A similar size parcel of land on the same property fronting Union Avenue is in the works to become a memory care facility, Pappalardo told San José Spotlight. That should net the district about $4.25 million.

A drawing shows what some of the homes could look like in a Robson Homes development in the Cambrian neighborhood of San Jose. Image courtesy of San Jose.

Neighbors oppose dense housing

While Liccardo said housing at the site could be denser, supporters of the project like Cambrian Education Foundation President Melissa Ojczyk said that wouldn’t work in the area, which is surrounded by other single-family homes.

“High density housing would not fit the community or the desires of the neighbors,” Ojczyk said. “There would be significant protests to the point that I think you would have trouble getting the neighbors to agree to anything high density in that particular area.”

Liccardo said he would’ve preferred to see more low-income families given the opportunity to live in a high resource neighborhood so their kids could attend great schools.

“We’re trying to actually effectuate equity in our city, not just have task forces, not just have studies, but actually do it,” he said.

District 9 Councilmember Pam Foley, who represents the area, said other high-density developments nearby with affordable homes, including the Cambrian Village project, will create hundreds of residences. She said there are roughly 1,300 affordable homes proposed in her district.

“When the criticism is that this isn’t dense enough, or that District 9 doesn’t have enough affordable housing, you need to look at that number and think about that number in relation to the rest of the city,” she said.

While city policy requires affordable homes to have a similar appearance and size as the market-rate homes in a project, developer Mark Robson received an exception to make lot sizes nearly 40% smaller for the low-income townhomes than the single-family homes. The four attached homes will have the same number of bedrooms, but will be about 1,600 square feet each, city reports show.

Robson was granted the exception because he’ll build one more affordable home than the three required by the city, and will sell them as affordable to people earning 70% of the area median income. The city only requires him to sell them as affordable to people earning up to 120% of the median.

San Jose has struggled to get enough affordable housing built to meet regional and state goals aimed at addressing the housing crisis. From 2014 through 2021, the city has built more than its share of market-rate housing but less than a quarter of the affordable housing needed.

Liccardo said he’s concerned that because of the exceptions, the properties will look different from the others, going against the intent of the city’s policy to make them similar to the market-rate homes.

“These are for families, and everyone will know where the kids and the families that can’t afford as much live, as opposed to the other families. That’s sort of the point of our policy,” he said.

Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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