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Mercury News - Aug. 10, 2002


Housing here costs too much. The problem is what to do about it. ``Smart growth'' is the experts' solution. Stop building huge new subdivisions, they say. Fill in downtowns with apartments and condos. Create city neighborhoods that encourage people to walk or take mass transit. But it's not that easy -- especially in a land of coveted single-family houses, vintage Mustangs and countless miles of freeway that invite continuing sprawl.

The Mercury News asked people involved in the housing issue to make their best case for change. A politician argues that denser housing actually gives people the kind of neighborhoods they want. A planner offers a blueprint for how cities can redevelop aging office sites and shopping strips to include new housing. A builder says it's time for Californians to drop their no-growth rhetoric and take care of their state's growing population.


In nearly four years of representing downtown San Jose, I have talked to thousands of residents. Without hesitation, nearly all tell me they want to live in walkable neighborhoods with diverse shops, local markets and unique cafes. They want to greet their neighbors on the streets and have family outings at local parks. In short, they want to live in healthy urban neighborhoods.

Revitalizing some of our neighborhoods requires increasing density. There are valid reasons, however, why many residents fear higher density housing around them. Every day we see the mistakes of the past: poorly located and designed apartment buildings that are unattractive and closed off from the street, making neighborhoods more crowded and more anonymous.

To this I say, unless one understands history, one is bound to repeat it. We are looking to avoid the mistakes of the past. The only way cities like San Jose are going to build enough housing is to build vibrant neighborhoods instead of encouraging suburban sprawl. It's a matter of how intelligently that is done.

Increasing density can make communities more vital. Those shops and markets and cafes that everyone wants need customers.

Well-planned, denser housing -- whether townhouses, lofts, condominiums or apartment buildings -- makes better use of scarce expensive land. It allows builders to provide affordable housing for sale or rent, and more expensive market-rate homes. It allows land to be put aside for parks or other recreation areas. And it supports the unique small businesses that serve a community.

A fine example of how a little increased density has helped revitalize a neighborhood, diversifying both its use and population, is The Alameda near Julian Street, just up from the Compaq Center at San Jose. Near majestic single-family houses, a high-density project of more than 250 units replaced old industrial uses. The new three- to four-story development includes gathering spaces such as coffee shops. Nearby, new restaurants have opened as well as other neighborhood businesses such as dry cleaners and video stores.

Public transit is easily accessible, and even though the development is bounded by a busy street, walking to shops, restaurants or civic gathering places undisturbed by cars is a breeze. This is a lesson in how inviting more people to live, work and play in a neighborhood can help it thrive.

Increasing density alone, however, will not make our neighborhoods more livable. Our neighborhood revival must target appropriate areas and include thoughtful design standards. We should shy away from single-use projects that are just housing, just retail or just office.

A revitalization project should have a neighborhood center that is an easy and safe walk from all dwellings in the neighborhood. Buildings should be designed to make the street feel safe and inviting, by having front doors, porches and windows facing the street, rather than a streetscape of garage doors.

Downtown residents are calling for an even greater sense of community with safe neighborhoods, good schools and a friendly populace. I am certain that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework.

Let's invite more neighbors into our neighborhoods.


Silicon Valley's disproportionate number of jobs to housing has inflated the value of housing, lengthened commutes and fouled our air. Some cities are trying to address the imbalance by allowing housing to be built in office parks or in mixed-use developments along major streets or in downtowns. But many still don't allow housing in some zones, or restrict the number of office and commercial sites where housing can be built. As a result, we are not making sufficient progress.

Cities can significantly increase the supply of housing by adopting ``housing everywhere'' policies that allow housing on sites traditionally set aside for non-residential uses.

Silicon Valley has many older commercial, office and industrial properties that were built in the 1960s and 1970s with acres of parking lots. When owners seek to redevelop these, cities need land-use policies that encourage or require housing to be included.

The goal is to balance housing and the number of employees in a new development. Developers ideally should provide two residential units for every 1,000 square feet of commercial and office space.

Building housing in office parks and mixed-use developments will benefit the valley by producing safer neighborhoods (residents will provide ``eyes and ears'' security), shorter commutes and greater support for public transit, along with much-needed housing.

Yet these innovative developments are the exception in the valley. Many communities do not allow or encourage them.

Cupertino changed its general plan land-use policies in 1993 to allow housing to be built in the Vallco industrial park and along major streets such as Stevens Creek and De Anza boulevards.

Since then, Cupertino has approved more than 500 housing units in Vallco; 400 units along Stevens Creek Boulevard; and 140 units on De Anza Boulevard at Homestead.

Driving along Stevens Creek Boulevard, you can see three mixed-use commercial and residential projects under construction: the Verona Apartments at the City Center, the Cupertino Community Services project at Vista Drive and Stevens Creek Boulevard, and Tra Vigne, on an old strip-mall site at Blaney Avenue and Stevens Creek.

You can also view these projects online ( at the city's Web site, by clicking on ``Development Activity in Cupertino.''

Residents of Silicon Valley, working with their elected officials, possess the power to reverse the jobs/housing equation by advocating cohesive, balanced communities where people who work here can also live here.

To balance new jobs with new housing in these developments, cities must be willing to forgo some tax revenue they would gain from purely commercial complexes.

Residents must abandon the traditional ``not in my backyard'' reaction to these developments and instead actively participate in making sure that each development carefully fits into their neighborhood.

To succeed, each site must blend with existing neighborhoods in a complementary manner that creates a sense of place that is attractive to the new residents and the adjoining neighbors.

Who knows -- if we start now, some day we may balance jobs and housing in Silicon Valley and perhaps our children will be able to afford to live here.


The production of new housing is a good thing. However, proposals to build new housing in the Bay Area are often viewed negatively, even though an extreme housing shortage and increased demand are driving prices out of reach for most families.

Looking back over the past 20 years in the home-building industry, I see that much has changed -- some things for the better, but many to the detriment of our communities. Somewhere along the line, the small minority who support ``no growth'' initiatives became the loudest voice. Activists and politicians jumped on the bandwagon to stop development, but few have provided viable solutions on how to meet the growing demand for housing.

This ``no growth'' stance, and the many accompanying restrictions created to stifle building, has significantly contributed to the housing crisis in which we find ourselves. Also, the supply/demand imbalance of housing has created the opportunity for cities and other agencies to impose additional financial demands on new housing, further driving up the cost of homes to consumers.

It's time to stop the rhetoric and get down to the business of providing homes for our population. The viability of our economic engine and diversity of our communities depends on affordable and market-rate housing. Strategic alliances must be created among builders, planners, special-interest groups and neighborhoods to make sure this happens in a responsible way.

For example, state and local governments need to address the fiscal barriers that encourage local jurisdictions to seek retail interests over housing for reasons of sales tax generation.

And housing proposals must be relieved of the disproportionate level of fee and infrastructure obligations that impede the process. Excessive environmental reviews, oversensitivity to ``not in my backyard'' interests and ineffective dispute resolution for construction defects also must be brought under control.

Such relief, with an increase in supply, will result in lower production costs on homes and greater efficiency in bringing affordable projects to market.

Cities also must allow builders to provide housing near job centers and existing infrastructure, rather than forcing development to the fringe suburbs, which contributes to sprawl. Sprawl adversely affects the quality of life of those who must deal with longer commutes and less personal and family time because their city will not approve housing developments within city limits.

The building industry must work with cities to bring solutions to the table. Alliances must be formed to balance regulatory restrictions with the necessary need for new housing. And anti-growth advocates who argue they are preserving our way of life in the Bay Area must be held accountable to finding solutions rather than contributing to the housing crisis, so that everyone has a chance to participate in the American Dream.