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A Midtown Plan Turns Bad And Should Be Rejected

San Jose’s first step toward the Envision 2040 General Plan is headed in the wrong direction.

Nearly 10 years ago, the Valley Transportation Authority invited developers’ proposals for a prime parcel it planned to sell in Midtown San Jose. Green Republic won that bid with Ohlone Towers. The developer hailed the project as “designed to comply with the goals of the City of San Jose 2040 General Plan” and said it was “looking forward by embracing transit, bringing neighborhood serving retail to an under served community and providing a livable, walkable community that is an alternative to single family homes.”

Now, the developer is requesting changes to the project that substantially weaken access to transit, reduce the amount of retail, worsen traffic, burden neighborhoods and stretch already thin city services. On Wednesday night, the Planning Commission should reject the new proposal.

VTA selected Ohlone Towers, and the City Council approved it, based on a transit-oriented development of up to 800 homes in a mixed-use retail, live-work space. Community residents objected even then because the site could never support all those goals with so much space dedicated to housing, but now it’s far worse.

While a half-mile to Diridon Station is defined as “transit-oriented”, San Joseans rarely walk that far. The developer’s original proposal included $1 million toward an adjacent light rail station, but VTA’s strategy to use more express trains makes building that station unlikely.

The Midtown Specific Plan outlined 36,000 square feet of retail space for this parcel, roughly the size of a Whole Foods or perhaps the combination of a Trader Joe’s, a restaurant and a small service such as a dry cleaner. The developer first persuaded the planning department to reduce required retail to 25,000 square feet. Now it wants to build only 12,500 — about the size of a Trader Joe’s in total. Making matters worse, the new plans show flex spaces that further subdivide this paltry allowance. The area will lack the critical mass needed for retail success.

The developer’s “Build it Green” promise has morphed into “build what we can finance,” which means reducing the size of the first phase buildings so they can use wood framing — a poor choice for sustainability. The combination of lower density and poor access to transit are serious threats to original transit ridership and traffic reduction goals.

San Jose has too few jobs to support its population, forcing the highest levels of commuting in the Bay Area. The residential bias of Ohlone adds more commuters. The developer has requested reduced parking requirements because of proximity to transit, but it’s only close to a track, not a station.

Adding insult to injury, the developer now proposes not to release either the funds or the land promised to build out Del Monte Park until after the first phase of construction is done.

It’s a shame that a project proposed as a model for the future fails to meet commitments on retail, transit, live-work vibrancy, parking, parks and environmental sustainability. This space, along with adjacent sites, could become showcase urban villages providing local jobs from real retail, office space, light industry and clean tech businesses mixed with residential.

When developers cannot deliver on promises, it’s time to send them back to the drawing board or give their competitors another shot. Perhaps then we will see projects worthy of a City of Great Places called for in the Envision 2040 General Plan.

Deborah Arant is the Shasta Hanchett Neighborhood Association land use chairwoman. John Leyba is vice president of the Buena Vista Neighborhood Association and Burbank DelMonte NAC. They wrote this for this newspaper.

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