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San Jose: Anticipating Google campus, City Council approves taller buildings

Despite intense opposition from members of the airport commission and critics who worry the city is kowtowing to Google, the San Jose City Council voted unanimously late Tuesday evening to allow taller buildings downtown and near Diridon Station to the west.
The move lays the groundwork for a huge shift in San Jose’s skyline and will allow companies — particularly Google, which is planning to build a large campus west of Highway 87 in the coming years — access to real estate in the sky that has previously been off limits.
Taller buildings are “essential to creating a more vibrant and urban downtown,” said Matt Mahood, the president of the Silicon Valley Organization, a business advocacy group.
Under the new height limits, officially known as Scenario 4, buildings downtown could rise between 5 and 35 feet, or a modest couple of stories. But near the SAP Center, which is 110 feet tall, heights could more than double, going up 70 to 150 feet. That, the city says, could add about 9.5 million more square feet of commercial and residential development. It will likely be years before residents see the taller structures, but the vote signals the coming of a major change in the density of the city’s core.
“I think this is about what kind of city do we want to create,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said. “This is about our vision for the future of the city.”
The city’s airport executives and top economic development officials say allowing taller buildings will bring new jobs, retail and housing to San Jose and inject new life into a long-overlooked industrial area south of the airport.
Scott Knies, the head of the San Jose Downtown Association, said the council had opened the doors for “generational change” and “corrected” stifling policy. Downtown where construction costs and the price of land are sky high, Knies continued, a couple of stories could mean the difference between a developer deciding to move forward with a project and calling it off.
And, Knies said, allowing Google and other developers to put office space and housing up in the air clears the way for parks and public art and other amenities residents can enjoy on the ground.
David Bini, the executive director of the local Building and Construction Trades Council, agreed.
“More construction means more construction jobs,” Bini said.
But pilots on the airport commission say it could make flying less safe and relegate San Jose International Airport (SJC) to a middling airport.
“Our conclusion, which the majority of the Airport Commission agreed with when we reconvened on 1/24/19, is that if the council adopts Scenario 4, it will render SJC as a regional airport, putting flights to Asia, European and some transcontinental flights in financial jeopardy,” wrote Ken Pyle, one of the commissioners.
Liccardo and several council members — including Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, Councilman Raul Peralez and Councilwoman Magdalena Carrasco — have hit back at those allegations.
“We want to emphasize that these recommendations do not in any way pertain to safety,” they wrote in a memo ahead of the vote.
Some commissioners, including Cathy Hendrix, have questioned how much influence Google has had when it comes to pushing the city toward taller buildings and expressed anger that a steering committee put together to consider the issue included Mahood, Bini and Knies but not an active commercial airline pilot. The tech giant has snapped up some 50 acres near Diridon Station and will benefit significantly by being able to build not only out, but up.
A contract obtained by Hendrix shows the company, whose project is referred to by the code name Project Spartan, and its consultant were in regular contact with city officials and the consulting firm the city hired to study height limits.
Some of those concerns have been taken up by opponents of Google, like the grassroots group Serve the People, who don’t want to see the tech giant build a campus in San Jose.
“Corruption, negligence, and a lack of concern for SOME of our lives have marked this dirty deal from the start,” the group said in a tweet.
But some other labor groups that have raised concerns about Google in the past and council members who have been receptive to those concerns indicated they were open to working out a compromise that could add affordable housing.
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Councilman Sergio Jimenez suggested the city allow developers that are willing to provide affordable housing or other community benefits to build higher.
The labor-backed group Working Partnerships USA endorsed the idea, writing in a letter that the policy would help address the possibility of residents being displaced.
“By developing an incentive zoning policy, we can ensure that the benefits of the [upzoning] of Diridon Station and the downtown core does not only benefit developers, landowners and corporations like Google,” Jeffrey Buchanan, the organization’s director of public policy, wrote in a letter to the council, “but ultimately benefits the city’s residents by generating community benefits like producing and preserving affordable housing and addressing displacement.”

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