Category: News

San José General Plan review and Station Area Advisory Group reconvening

Via email from Leslye Corsiglia, SV@Home, June 11, 2020

Across from San Pedro Square, San Jose

ON WEDNESDAY, JUNE 17, the Diridon Station Area Advisory Group (SAAG) will reconvene for the first time since January. (Find the agenda and Zoom information here.) All are welcome. The SAAG and the public will have an opportunity to provide feedback on some of the City’s most recent analyses and proposals related to the Diridon Station Area Plan (DSAP), which you can find here.

While these new city analyses only represent the start of the next phase of public input and discussions, the vast majority of staff recommendations align with SV@Home’s Housing Vision.

The General Plan Four-Year Review Task Force Meetings are also restarting, with the first video meeting June 25. Here are the agenda and details of work to date, and virtual access information. Critical policy areas to be discussed include expanding citywide the Task Force’s recommendation to exempt affordable housing developments in Urban Villages from cost-prohibitive ground-floor retail requirements.

Nine pathways to much-needed housing

Nine pathways to much-needed housing

By Leila Hakimizadeh, AICP, and John David Beutler, AICP, June 3, 2020

This article presents our professional opinions, not those of our employers.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SAFE, AFFORDABLE HOMES has become even more apparent these last three months. Those without homes cannot safely shelter in place; and overcrowded housing, not dense housing, promotes the spread of disease. Our housing crisis has exacerbated the covid-19 crisis.

We believe desperately-needed new housing can be added if we upgrade zoning and design standards and adopt policies that promote smart density. As planners we should focus on and find ways to protect existing residents, preserve affordable homes, and produce more housing (the three Ps of Assembly Bill 1487). We must rethink regulations and policies that impede the construction of new housing and that contribute to the housing crisis. These nine strategies remove obstacles to new housing by upgrading zoning and design standards and putting policies in place to promote smart density:

1. Allow for a wider range of housing options, and in more locations.

A monoculture of single-family detached housing reduces an area’s potential number and diversity of housing units without increasing neighborhood livability. We must update land use policies to enable a wide range of housing types in addition to single-family and midrise multifamily, (e.g., duplex, triplex, fourplex, live/work units, townhouses, and accessory dwelling units). Often called “missing middle housing,” these types allow the market to increase housing density and diversity with buildings that maintain a similar scale to single family housing. Density doesn’t mean taller, larger, and out of place.

Allow for a wide range of missing middle housing. This fourplex sits comfortably next to single-family homes and is neither taller nor wider.

2. Reduce arbitrary setback requirements.

Setbacks are one of the least-considered and yet most-pervasive development controls. The spaces resulting from setbacks, particularly side yard setbacks, are frequently unusable and do nothing for the urban environment. Over one third of a parcel’s developable land can easily be lost to setbacks, forcing sprawl and reducing walkability. We should know what we are trying to achieve with a setback and how much space is required. For instance, since backyard fences are often six to seven feet high, a one-story building at the parcel line does not diminish its neighbor’s light and air more than the neighbor’s own fence.

This garage at the property line serves well as part of the neighbor’s fence. A required setback would waste land.

3. Remove parking minimums.

Eliminating parking minimums will maximize residential development capacity and reduce housing costs. In expensive cities, the $25,000 to $50,000 cost for each off-street parking space makes housing more expensive and the space required for parking reduces space for housing. In many of our denser urban areas, ride-hail apps, car-share, and bikeshare, combined with walking and public transit, have made personal car storage less important. Furthermore, when self-driving cars become a reality, car ownership will precipitously decline. Cities like San Francisco and San Diego are already eliminating parking minimums and the sky is not falling.

Parking degrades the sidewalk and takes space away from housing. Structured parking is particularly expensive.

4. Relax stepbacks, the so-called daylight requirements.

To mitigate the effects of taller development near existing low-density housing, standards sometimes require stepbacks for the taller building. But a 45-degree daylight requirement can greatly reduce housing capacity, particularly for small parcels in areas with many existing single-family dwellings. This reduction makes affordable housing less feasible and diminishes our ability to accommodate families in need.

5. Loosen open space requirements for projects close to parks and community amenities.

One of the great advantages of cities is shared amenities. Not every cluster of homes has to provide its own school, fire station, or grocery store. And like these and other amenities, open space can be shared and need not be provided on every lot or for every unit. A house across the street from a park should not have to provide the same on-site open space as a house a mile from the nearest park.

There is little need for on-site open space near parks. Shared amenities like parks are among the strengths of urban life.

6. Define what we mean by neighborhood “character.”

Some policies require that developments be compatible with established neighborhoods, leading those opposed to development to label a proposed building as “out of character.” “Character” in this context has a fraught history. It has been used loosely and unjustly to exclude minorities and those lower on the socio-economic ladder from certain areas. Cities can set maintaining community character as a goal, but they need to define what that “character” is and, thus, what is an acceptable issue to discuss in relation to new development. A model for this is the study of the existing conditions that define neighborhood character in preparation for the adoption of form-based codes (FBCs).

Neighborhood character comes in all sizes. This apartment building fits as well in its neighborhood as would a single-family home.

7. Embrace small lots.

Many land use policies encourage lot assembly, yet large-lot development tends to be over-scaled and inwardly focused. Combining lots is even worse for historic districts or neighborhoods with fine-grained building and lot patterns, and affordable housing developers might not have the means to assemble parcels. Walkable cities are dense but built at a human scale, like many older parts of Bay Area cities.

This new development on a 100-foot-wide lot shows there is no need to consolidate lots for overscaled buildings.

8. Incentivize small units.

Patrick Condon, in his new book, “5 Rules for Tomorrow Cities” (2020), discusses the “collapse of birth-rate” worldwide. As of 2018, the average number of births per woman in the US was 1.73 and declining. Family housing is important, but cities should also provide smaller, less expensive units to match trends in family size and allow more people to enter the housing market. Regulations or policies that cap the number of units (but not the building area) encourage fewer, larger units and discourage smaller, more affordable units.

9. Influence the conversion of outdated malls and big box stores to housing.

Changes in the retail market and potential state-level action (as proposed in SB 1385) will be stimulating the conversion of big box stores, empty parking lots, and outdated shopping malls to housing. Rather than be caught off guard, municipalities can be proactive in creating design standards for this conversion and by enabling horizontal mixed-use development.

Let’s get to work

Even though we are beset by covid-19 and other crises, we must not lose sight of our longest running crisis, a woefully inadequate supply of all kinds of housing. Rather than succumb to the illusion that a particular building style should dominate, we need to provide housing of all types in our urban and suburban areas. We offered nine policy recommendations to help you craft the regulations that will create the better and more inclusive cities we all want.


Leila Hakimizadeh, AICP, is a Planner IV-Supervising Planner with extensive experience in land use and transportation planning, urban design and housing. She is a socially-conscious, passionate, determined change-maker and city builder. Leila utilizes equity, diversity, inclusiveness, sustainability and public health measures to facilitate greater community engagement and create lasting impacts for a diverse population. She uses her consensus-building and analytical skills to address urban planning challenges with creative solutions. You can reach her at

John David Beutler, AICP, has worked as an urban designer at the intersection of urbanism, land use, and transportation for the last 20 years, first at Calthorpe Associates and then Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). John’s work has focused on the importance of human scale and human-centric design in addressing issues of sustainability and equity. He works at scales from the building to the street, neighborhood, city and region. You can reach him at

Bay Area billionaires are breaking my heart

By Farhad Manjoo, The New York Times, May 13, 2020

“Santiago Villa [is] one of [Mountain View’s] few remaining mobile-home parks. … In January, its residents, who rent the space on which their mobile homes stand, petitioned the City Council to include trailer parks in Mountain View’s rent-control rules.

“They’re worried that wealthy Googlers looking for a kitschy pied-à-terre near the new campus will push them out. … Last year, the same City Council prohibited RVs and trailers — many of them used as homes — from parking on the street; a petition to overturn the RV ban will be on the ballot in November.

“We have one of the world’s highest concentrations of billionaires, and yet we have not been able to marshal our immense wealth and ingenuity against our most blatant and glaring challenges — including the lack of affordable housing and entrenched homelessness.

“ ‘Housing is health care,’ explained Abigail Stewart-Kahn, director of the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. Now, the connection was inescapable — people who lacked housing were also outside of the health care system, and during a pandemic, their presence on the streets created a risk for everyone else in the city. ‘What this has shown us all is that everyone’s health is intertwined,’ she said.

“While the number of coronavirus cases and deaths remain low, the full gloom of the coming recession descend into view, and … in the absence of more help from the state and the federal government, or from the region’s billionaires, the Bay Area’s needs simply outmatch its capacity to meet them.

“Margot Kushel, a physician and scholar of homelessness at UCSF, suggested that this was the ‘nightmare scenario’ for inequality in San Francisco: low-income jobs disappear, so more people lose their homes, but because the tech industry keeps doing well, home prices remain high, and housing slips further out of reach for everyone else.

“But I wouldn’t be surprised if we — the people of the Bay Area, our lawmakers, our billionaires and our ordinary, overburdened citizens — end up squandering this moment. Rebuilding a fairer, more livable urban environment will take years of difficult work. It will require sacrifices from the wealthy. It will require a renewed federal interest in addressing the problems of cities. It will require abandoning pie-in-the-sky techno-optimism.

“This isn’t a problem that will be solved by flying cars; it will be solved by better zoning laws, fairer taxes and, when we can make it safe again, more public transportation. We will have to commit ourselves to these and other boring but permanent civic solutions.

“We cannot go back to the way things were. But as the immediate danger of the pandemic recedes, it will be all too easy for many of us to do exactly that.”

Read the full op-ed here.

Housing, the environment, the virus, and public transportation

By Sajuti Rahman, associate editor, May 15, 2020 

Monterey water board waylays affordable housing, by Dennis L. Taylor, Monterey Herald, May 13, 2020

A decision by Monterey Peninsula water officials” to deny use of water from what “the district holds in reserve … leveled a severe blow to the city’s ability to construct new housing units. In effect, one state agency is demanding Monterey provide more housing while another agency is prohibiting the city from building more units because of water. … The general manager of the water district told [Water Demand] Committee members that the State Water Resources Control Board sent an email ‘expressing its concerns’ with Monterey’s request. In total, six shovel-ready projects around the city would generate 303 units with an average of 77 percent affordable housing, but without additional water, only 92 could be built.”

The pandemic demonstrates how vulnerable US transit systems are, by Angela Pachon, UPenn Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, May 6, 2020 

“Transit agencies will need to operate with a reduced ridership while continuing to offer an affordable service. Despite the financial pressure to cut expenditures, ongoing efforts to update routes and better integrate different travel modes to attract riders should continue. Decision-makers must also consider that transit in the US will be the only travel mode for the poorest among us, a population that cannot afford to live near their workplaces to cycle or walk.  

Pandemic underscores transit accessibility difficulties, by Abigail Cochran, StreetsBlog Cal, April 21, 2020 

“People with disabilities, like everybody else, need to access essential goods, like food and medicine, and services like medical care. The $2.2 trillion relief bill signed into law on March 27th appropriates $25 billion to transit agencies to cover expenses related to the coronavirus response. Go here to read how on-demand transportation providers (like ride-hail services and taxis), transportation agencies, and public health authorities are rethinking strategies to properly serve people with disabilities during the pandemic and beyond.  

Mexico City smog defies coronavirus lockdown, by Raul Cortes Fernandez, Reuters, April 27, 2020  

“While city dwellers around the world take some consolation in improved air quality thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, festering garbage dumps, dirty diesel-fueled generators, and frequent forest fires have ensured Mexico City’s air remains smog-filled. Carlos Alvarez, head of an environmental group, said the area had some 400 open-air dumps and 50,000 industrial generators in hotels, offices, and businesses, many of which were still operating despite the quarantine. Now, experts worry that COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, could prove more lethal in Mexico City than elsewhere.” Read more here. 

Options to phase-out fossil fuel production in California, by Ethan Elkind, April 29, 2020 

“California is the seventh-largest oil producing state in the country. Yet continued oil and gas production contrasts with the state’s aggressive climate mitigation policies. Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment (CLEE) just released the 66-page report (PDF), ‘Legal Grounds: Law and Policy Options to Facilitate a Phase-Out of Fossil Fuel Production in California.’ The report analyzes steps California leaders could pursue on state- and privately-owned lands. Read more about the options discussed among state leaders related to fossil fuel phase-out with less harm to jobs and local economies.” 

Northern News June 2020

Northern News June 2020

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CalChapter 2020 Conference will be virtual

Julia Lave Johnston, President of APA California, announced that the Chapter’s 2020 conference this Fall will be held online. The conference will nevertheless remain an “opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to our organizational values.”

Director’s note: Rethinking our public spaces and health

By Jonathan Schuppert, AICP, May 13, 2020. Is everything upside down, or is it suddenly right side up?

Are congested streets and highways just around the corner?

By Naphtali H. Knox, FAICP, editor, May 9, 2020. Post COVID-19, SF could see a huge spike in vehicular congestion “unless transit systems can resume safe, high throughput operations quickly.” Plus 12 photos of the near total absence of vehicles on Bay Area bridges and SF streets during the Friday afternoon getaway March 27.

Who’s Where

News about Alesia Hsiao, AICP; Amy Lyle; and Patrick Streeter, AICP


We publish 10 times each year as a forum for the exchange of planning ideas and information. Entirely the effort of volunteers, Northern News is written and produced by and for urban planners in northern California.

Planning news roundup

San José General Plan review and Station Area Advisory Group reconvening

Via email from Leslye Corsiglia, SV@Home, June 11, 2020. The SAAG will meet for the first time since January. All are welcome. Take the opportunity to offer feedback on the City’s most recent analyses and proposals related to the Diridon Station Area Plan. The General Plan Four-Year Review Task Force is also restarting, with the first video meeting June 25.

Bay Area billionaires are breaking my heart

By Farhad Manjoo, The New York Times, May 13, 2020. Rebuilding a fairer, more livable urban environment will take years of difficult work. It will require sacrifices from the wealthy.

Housing, the environment, the virus, and public transportation

Brief synopses of articles of interest to urban planners in addition to our longer summaries in “Planning news roundup.”

Caltrain faces ‘existential crisis’

By Isabella Jibilian, San Francisco Examiner, May 8, 2020. Unlike BART and Muni, Caltrain is not funded by sales or property taxes. It depends on fares and parking fees to say afloat.

Second SB 35 ruling lets Vallco project proceed

By Marisa Kendall, The Mercury News, May 7, 2020. Ruling ends a years-long battle over massive redevelopment of failed shopping mall in Cupertino. Decisions in two SB 35 cases say cities must apply objective design and planning standards in a very clear way.

Will telecommuting yield the best long-term environmental benefit of COVID-19?

By Ethan Elkind, May 4, 2020. Working from home seems the most likely candidate for a pandemic culture-changer that reduces emissions.

Mobility: Who is moving and why?

By Riordan Frost, Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, May 4, 2020. Seven questions and answers about potential changes in residential mobility.

California shrinks; still most populous state

By Associated Press, May 2, 2020. California has been creeping toward 40 million residents without ever quite getting there.

Milan mayor: ‘People are ready’ for green change

By Laurie Goering, Thomson Reuters Foundation, May 4, 2020. Milan comes out of COVID-19 lockdown with a climate-conscious attitude, encouraging other cities to follow.

The last time VMT dropped this sharply? WWII gas rationing

By Jeff Davis, Eno Center for Transportation, April 8, 2020. Gas rationing wasn’t rolled out to the whole country until December 1, 1942. But the VMT reductions were obvious as soon as rationing started in the East six months earlier.

Density isn’t easy, but it’s necessary

By Bruce Schaller, CityLab, May 4, 2020. Americans have always had difficulty with urban density, but in a crisis, we need what cities can provide. (Schaller is the former deputy commissioner of traffic and planning at the New York City Transportation Dept.)

Can we sustain a world without traffic?

By Adie Tomer and Lara Fishbine, Brookings, May 1, 2020. If leaders encourage telework, alter revenues structures, and retrofit roadways, the nation can emerge from the pandemic with stronger and safer transportation.

Caltrain faces ‘existential crisis’

By Isabella Jibilian, San Francisco Examiner, May 8, 2020 

Empty platforms. Empty trains. Empty coffers. 

Caltrain is facing a $71 million deficit over the next financial year, as ridership has plummeted due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Although the railroad received nearly $50 million in relief through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act — funding that so far has stopped the bleeding — Caltrain should prepare for a looming existential financial crisis staff said at a board meeting May 7.

A southbound Caltrain arriving at San Carlos station

Transit systems across the nation are facing decreased demand amid COVID-19, but Caltrains existence is more tenuous than most. Unlike BART and Muni, Caltrain is not funded by sales or property taxes. It depends on fares and parking fees to say afloat. 

Following the outbreak of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders, ticket sales have been down more than 95 percent, according to Derek Hansel, Caltrains chief financial officer.  

Once shelter-in-place orders are lifted, revenues wont necessarily bounce back. Some riders will choose to commute to work via car as a means of maintaining social distance. Some workplaces will not open; [some will] encourage their employees to continue to telecommute. [And] maintaining social distance on public transit will be difficult and expensive. 

In the short term, Caltrains hopes are pinned on receiving more aid. The CARES Act will distribute a second round of funding, though Caltrains share has yet to be decided. 

In the longer term, board members and staff are considering turning to tax revenue to supplement the farebox, by placing a $108 million measure on the November ballot. 

Read the full article here.

Second SB 35 ruling lets Vallco project proceed

By Marisa Kendall, The Mercury News, May 7, 2020 

“Plans to turn the old Vallco Shopping Mall into a housing, office, and retail complex can proceed after the developer won a decisive victory in court May 6. 

“Concluding a lengthy battle over the project — which would bring 2,402 apartments, 400,000 square feet of retail, and 1.8 million square feet of office space to Cupertino —Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Helen Williams ruled city officials did not err when they approved the development and gave it fast-track status. 

Approved Vallco proposal. Source: City of Cupertino,

 “ ‘This is a gigantic win for housing advocates specifically and a huge win for proponents of development in general,’ said J.R. Fruen, co-founder of the housing advocacy group Cupertino 4 All, which was not a party in the litigation. 

“Cupertino approved the Vallco project in 2018 under Senate Bill 35, which requires cities to approve and expedite certain residential and mixed-use developments. Friends of Better Cupertino sued the city, claiming officials had failed to do their duty by approving a project that didn’t meet the standards of SB35. 

“But in a 62-page ruling, Judge Williams made clear the project qualified for the special status and that the claims of Friends of Better Cupertino — which she said multiple times misinterpreted the law and made convoluted arguments — didn’t have merit. The group claimed the project was disqualified because it is located on a hazardous waste site, exceeds the city’s height limits, does not have sufficient space designated to residential development, and lacks a park. 

“Williams also rejected their argument that a city has a duty to deny a faulty SB35 project application. That means community groups like Friends of Better Cupertino have no grounds to block SB35 projects in court, Fruen said. Although Williams’ trial court decision does not set legally binding precedent, it likely will influence other judges, he said. 

“The Vallco ruling comes a week after Williams ruled in favor of another SB35 project in Los Altos, finding the city had no grounds to reject that development,” Kendall writes. 

In that April 28 ruling against Los Altos, the Court held “that Developer’s project was deemed to comply with applicable standards under SB 35 and that the City must rescind its decision to deny and instead approve and permit the project at the requested density.” In addition, the parties agreed “to rescind the existing [city] decision and permit the project within 60 days as compared to remanding the matter for further consideration.”

Bill Fulton, writing in CP&DR, notes that “Both cases revolve around the question of how cities must apply objective design standards in an SB 35 case — and the rulings suggest that cities apply objective design and planning standards in a very clear way in order to stay out of legal trouble.”

This is a developing story. “It is unknown at this point whether either of Judge Williams’s rulings will be appealed,” wrote Fulton on May 10. “The Los Altos City Council was scheduled to meet in closed session Monday night [May 12] to consider an appeal. As for the Vallco project in Cupertino, the neighbors’ case is just one of several fronts on which the battle is being fought. Subsequent to the events discussed in Judge Williams’ ruling, Cupertino changed its general plan to eliminate the 2 million square feet of office space contained in the project, and the developer subsequently filed both a lawsuit and a claim against the city.

You can read Marisa Kendall’s Vallco article here. 

Will telecommuting yield the best long-term environmental benefit of COVID-19?

By Ethan Elkind, May 4, 2020 

“There’s one potential bright spot for the climate that may outlive this current era: working from home. Prior to the pandemic, only 4 percent of U.S. employees worked from home, according to Global Workplace Analytics. But now more than half of the 135 million people in the U.S. workforce are in a home office. 

“The firm estimates that at this rate, by the end of next year, 25 to 30 percent of the total U.S. workforce will be telecommuting, the carbon equivalent of ‘taking all of New York’s workforce permanently off the road,’ said Kate Lister, president of the firm. 

“From a greenhouse gas perspective, it means many fewer driving miles from commuting. Otherwise, approximately 86 percent of Americans drive to work, according to the National Household Travel Survey. If just 25 percent of Americans began teleworking even one day per week after the pandemic, total vehicle miles traveled would fall by 1 percent, which is actually a significant amount of the more than 3.2 trillion miles driven in the U.S. in 2018. The numbers could go much higher if more people telecommuted multiple days per week. 

“And why might these work-from-home habits stick, as opposed to other environmental friendly measures taken during the pandemic? Simple: working from home is more convenient and more productive for most people. But prior to the pandemic, many managers weren’t comfortable allowing the practice, believing (falsely) that it would hurt bottom lines. 

“But now that everyone who can work from home is forced into this arrangement without calamity, my guess is that this manager resistance will fade.  

Read the full article here

Mobility: Who is moving and why?

By Riordan Frost, Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, May 4, 2020 

“For the past five years, just over 40 million Americans moved each year, according to American Community Survey data.  

“Most moves are local, either within the same county or within the same state.  

“People move for a variety of reasons, but the most common motivator is housing.  

“Mobility rates are about half what they were in the 1940s — when one in five Americans moved each year — and have been steadily declining since the mid-1980s. Local moves have been declining the most, especially among young adults, but all age groups have been moving less than in the past.  

“There is little consensus as to why Americans are moving less, but three factors seem to be playing a role  demographic change, housing affordability, and changes in labor dynamics.  

  • “People move less often as they age, and as millennials (America’s second-largest generation) age out of their most mobile years, some decline in mobility should be expected.  
  • “The housing affordability crisis (discussed in detail in our recent report) could also be depressing mobility, with high costs discouraging moves into unaffordable areas.  
  • “The rise in dual-earner households, as well as increases in rates of working from home (especially during and possibly after the COVID-19 pandemic) could be having a downward effect on mobility, as both dual-earner households and remote workers have lower mobility rates than single-earner households and commuters. 

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic is still unfolding, it is difficult to assess its possible impacts on mobility. It could be that mobility is going to spike after the quarantines end and people move to cheaper housing (if available) after losing income from a job loss. Mobility could also spike as a result of evictions or foreclosures if substantial payment assistance is not provided before the temporary bans on evictions and foreclosures end.  

“It could also be that mobility will decline further as people become less likely to buy or sell homes, especially during the quarantines but also afterwards due to higher economic uncertainty. Working from home is likely at record high levels right now, and if even a small portion of this shift proves to be permanent, it could mean fewer people moving for job-related reasons as well. 

Read more here.