Development versus Planning versus Vision

One of the biggest complaints about the city is development. Whether you think the projects are too big, too small, focused too little on retail and commercial, focused too little on housing, or located poorly, one thing is clear: development is being done with a lack of vision, and against our plan.

This is the General Plan Phase II diagram.

This is the Approved and Pending projects list from Appendix J of the Santa Clara Gateway Village project.

This is list of Residential and Residential Mixed-Use Developments from July 2016.

This is the list of Residential and Residential Mixed-Use Projects for the last four years.

Note how many of the projects changed their zoning to PD (Planned Development) or High-Density Residential development, and how many mixed-use projects went to 100% housing.

Note the numbers of housing units.

Then look at where the projects are going. How many of them are on El Camino Real, or smaller streets? This happened in the last four years. The situation has actually gotten WORSE.

I’m not against more housing. I’m not against higher-density housing. I am against bad planning, or the lack of planning altogether.

Look at the General Plan map; it represents the plan for our city for the next 10 years. But by focusing on only housing in areas designated for mixed-use, we’ve pushed out the markets, restaurants, and stores that bring balance to our city by providing resources for the people who live here. These are the same markets, restaurants, and commercial areas that the council used to justify the high-density housing in the first place.

People on council say they want people to walk and use bicycles more, while we remove needed shops and make people travel farther. We say that “The Mission City” represents a lifestyle and a community, as we break down the neighborhoods by putting high-density housing, and just housing, in the middle of single-family communities.

And where is the benefit? All of this development was supposed to be good for the city, but I haven’t seen much improvement. El Camino Real is essentially a gravel road — ask anyone who has to bicycle along it in Santa Clara. People point out that El Camino is not a city road, but Santa Clara is still the lead agency. Here’s a challenge for you: Drive along the length of El Camino from San Jose to Menlo Park and note the road condition. El Camino Real is only really bad in Santa Clara. Crossing Lawrence Expressway to Sunnyvale shows immediate improvement, and it never really gets bad again. Don’t just look at El Camino; look at the connector streets, like Pomeroy or Alpine. Look at the older tar slurried streets. Look at how many “fixed” streets have rectangular “cut-outs” as we try to fix the infrastructure after the fact. Why can’t we fix the infrastructure first, and THEN fix the roads over it?

I’ll repeat: Let’s restore vision, emphasizing planning over mere development, to create new communities with homes and families while preserving the nature of existing neighborhoods. Let’s return focus on infrastructure, including streets, sewers, and open space, so that future generations of Santa Clarans will have room to grow and reasons to stay.

Mariani Development at 2500 El Camino Real

Tonight there was a meeting to discuss the project proposal to replace the Mariani’s Inn & Restaurant at 2500 El Camino Real with almost 400 apartment units.

Project Summary (from the handout the developer provided)


Property:             7.79 acre site
Total Units:          Approximately 395 apartment units + 6-8,000sf Commercial
Plan Mix:             Approximately 70% 1 BR and 30% 2 BR Units
Apartments Buildings: 4-story max with 2-story elements adjacent to the neighborhood (southern
                      and eastern perimeters of the building).
Parking:              Planned 2 parking spaces per home + [~30] retail parking
Fence:                The development now includes a fence between the apartment building
                      and the existing neighborhood to the south.  This will discourage parking
                      and pedestrian access from the new development into the existing
Buchanan Drive:       Buchanan closure is anticipated with this development (no other road
                      closures or road modifications proposed).

Major Changes from Previous Development Proposal:


Actually, I won’t go into the details of how this new proposal differs from the original proposal, because much of it is inconsequential.  It’s like saying that they originally had five times the amount of salt needed for our soup, but was improved 20% and now can only contains four times as much salt.  If we’re not careful, it is possible that we could put in so much salt that no amount of water or potatoes could improve the situation, because the pot is only so big.

First some background

I worked on the 900 Kiely project, better known as the Old Kaiser site, since 2007.  By some stroke of luck — and some finagling by Kevin Moore — I was put on the General Plan Steering Committee to help the City update its General Plan, the document that lays out the vision for Santa Clara.  While the document was not perfect, it was adopted in 2010.  This was a phased plan that was supposed to keep us focused for the next 25 years, until the year 2035.

Since the adoption of the General Plan, we have seen developer after developer propose project after project exceeding the guidelines set out by the City.  More precisely, we have seen the City staff and City council allow it.  Almost every project since that time has required a zoning amendment or modification, and mostly to turn medium-density mixed-use areas into high-density housing areas with no commercial buildings at all.

The General Plan

So what does the General Plan say about 2500 El Camino?  You can read it here:

395 units is almost double what was intended for this area

The land use for 2500 El Camino does not change between any of the Phases.  The Mariani’s parcel is clearly marked Community Mixed Used, defined in the Land Use Designation document as:

  • Residential 18-36 du/acre
  • Minimum Commercial FAR of 0.10
  • (Community Commercial and Medium Density Residential Uses)

That means a maximum of 7.79 acres times 36 du/acre, or 280 units (MAXIMUM).  At the low end, it’s only 18 du/acre, or 140 units.  These numbers give a better idea of how badly the initial number of >500 apartments units was, and helps put into focus how little has been done by the City to keep developers in line with our vision of Santa Clara.

Every single project has come in at or above the maximum allowed density in this area.  Zoning amendments had to be done for every single project.  Maybe it’s time to get a project in the middle or lower end of the scale.  Especially since every single project in excess affects the capacity of every future project.  I can’t emphasize every single project enough.

There is almost no commercial

The commercial FAR (Floor Area Ratio) requirement of 0.10 amounts to almost 34,000 square feet of required commercial space.  How does that compare to the 8,000 square foot MAXIMUM that has been proposed?  The closing of Mariani’s will eliminate many jobs, and the plan for replacement certainly doesn’t seem to be on par with what will be lost.

Arguing about street closures is a diversionary tactic

The traffic and parking problems would largely be solved by simply having a proposal that follows the General Plan.  If people can focus on keeping the number of units reasonable, much of the traffic and parking will resolve itself.  Another resident brought up a good point: How many rooms does Mariani’s currently support?  Maybe that is the right number of apartments to add, realizing that the new apartments would be full over 90% of the time, unlike Mariani’s which is an Inn providing transitory housing.

The EIR is supposed to go over several land uses

EIRs have rarely been neighborhood friendly, and there are pages of responses from CHP, County Roads and Airports, and other cities that corroborate residential feelings.  The EIR should go over not just the project proposed, but also alternative uses, including proposals that meet the minimum uses for the land, and perhaps a few use cases in between.  It’s an Environmental Impact Report, not an Economic Justification.  Make sure that the EIR covers at least a few alternatives that are supported by the General Plan.

It’s the City’s decision

While a developer can choose to not develop a piece of land, it first has to get City approval before it can develop.  Whenever City staff hides behind statements implying that the City’s hands are tied and we are at the mercy of developers and developmental need, we need to remember that it is the City that issues the permits and allows the work to be done.

Enough good City/bad developer nonsense.  Let’s get the City to live up to the vision we had and agreed to not long ago, but seem to have forgotten in our haste to appease forced developmental need and short-term greed.

Housing is better for housing interests, but not necessarily for the City

The City gets 10% of 1% of housing value.  Contrast that with the benefits — in jobs, income, interest, and commute times — of increased business in Santa Clara.  How much commercial space has come in to balance the amount of housing we are putting in?  If you look, almost every project has reduced or eliminated the mixed use portion of the zoning requirement to put in 100% high-density housing.  Check it out.

It’s supposed to be mixed use. Let’s mix.