Policy Statement on Building Heights,
By Councilmember Ken Yeager

There will always be a demand for housing in San Jose. Our valley is just too desirable of a place to live. Because there are few large parcels of undeveloped land within our urban boundaries, new construction takes the form of infill development. This means that new office, retail, and housing projects most often must be built near our established single-family residential areas.

One of the most difficult design challenges that new infill projects face is determining the appropriate heights. Land values in San Jose often prohibit the creation of low density housing that is typical in our older neighborhoods. Single-family homes of the kind most often found in Willow Glen and other similar neighborhoods generally range from 8 to 16 units per acre.

The City of San Jose encourages higher densities and heights along transit-oriented corridors and near light rail. Given the location of these parcels in relation to transit, density of only eight units per acre is bad land-use policy. But higher densities generally mean higher heights. For projects within 2000 feet of light rail stations such as Tamien Station, the City's policies can allow heights up to 120 feet, which translates into about 10 to 12 stories.

While I’m supportive of the City's goals in providing higher density residential housing, I’m not supportive of heights reaching 120 feet or 12 stories in residential areas outside of downtown. These projects are too dense, create too much traffic, and spoil our wide-open vistas. I support the current policy of encouraging taller buildings downtown and in a few other specific locations.

Granted, the days of the Valley of Hearts Delight are over, but that doesn’t mean we need to Manhattanize our valley, either.

Most of our needs for higher density residential housing in District 6 can be reached with heights of 50 feet, with a maximum of 65 feet in few exceptional cases. This typically allows for construction of a maximum of a four-story residential building. Structures of this type are usually wood-framed construction. When residential construction exceeds four stories, either steel or concrete is used. This type of construction is more expensive, resulting in taller structures to guarantee return on investment.

Opposition to heights is not NIMBYism. But there is huge difference between 4 stories and 12 stories. While 4 stories is acceptable, 12 stories is not. Lower heights still meet the requirements of smart growth by providing greater density near transit corridors, but they don’t destroy the look and feel of our suburban areas.

Regardless of the density of any development, the needs of surrounding neighborhoods must be considered. I’ve been involved in a number of projects that met strong resistance by the community over height and density. Through discussion and compromise, these projects were revised and downscaled in a manner that met the needs of both the residents and the developers.

The debate over the building of high rises outside of the downtown core is one of the most important policy issues facing our city. Residential high rises belong downtown, not in the neighborhoods that make San Jose a thriving and attractive place to live and raise a family.

June 2003