Welcome to Apartment City
By Howard Myers
It seems like apartment buildings are going up everywhere in Santa Clara, and every day a new one pops up.
But 1) how much building is really going on,
2) why is it happening, and
3) what is the impact?
A few weeks ago Linda Zazzara started digging to find recently built apartments, projects under construction, projects approved and those that are being planned with our Planning Department. The magnitude was startling. Starting from 2015 and going to 2018 and beyond, there is a whopping total of 17,869 new units.
Linda did not find all the projects in one place so there we can’t assume the list is comprehensive.
Is 17,869 new units a lot for a town our size? We have a reputation for being a well managed city, how have we done that?
For the last 34 years our population has grown at a very even rate of about one percent per year, giving us the luxury of planning and preparing for growth. The type of planning which helped win the All America City Award in 2001.
Good or bad, this rate of growth has ended. What will the new rate look like? If we average 2.5 people per unit, 17,869 units will increase our population about seven percent per year. That’s a 36 percent increase from 2014 to 2019.
Our General Plan does not anticipate this, so how did it happen?
It is partly due to the policy of our Planning Department. We know of instances when developers have gone to our City with one plan in mind and our Planning Department suggests they ‘super size’ it.
In the General Plan Review being presented March 28, our Planning Department is suggesting the City Council permit doubling up of density bonuses to allow developers more density. They also encourage developers to request density at the upper end of the allowed density range instead of the mid range anticipated in the general plan. They say this allows us to “… make a bigger contribution toward addressing regional housing shortages.” It appears the Planning Department is pushing the City in a direction different from the General Plan and in the past the Council has allowed this.
Can our schools adjust in time for a rate six to seven times more than we have seen?
Will our infrastructure hold up?
The good news is the largest projects are the farthest out, allowing a little more time, very little. Some of our neighboring cities, such as Cupertino, are digging in their heels.
Why are we rolling over?
One of the main strategies listed on The General Plan is to ‘Preserve and cultivate neighborhoods’. That is important because the neighborhood environment is fragile. Dumping a high density apartment complex into the middle of a neighborhood does damage that can’t be undone. But not all high density projects do this.
A large scale development, irrespective of strains on the City infrastructure, generally harms nearby neighborhoods less than small, high density infill projects. This is due partly to its very size and the separation that comes with it. A large, self contained development like Rivermark contributes more housing to the City (if that’s a good thing) and does less damage to sensitive neighborhood environments.
Of all the projects reviewed here, 75 percent are the smaller projects that only contribute 17 percent of the units while the larger projects contribute 83 percent of the units. So all the pain and stress of cramming high density into every corner of our neighborhoods is not worth the grief it causes the residents and the City. Not to mention the damage to neighborhood environments.
Yes, there are a lot of new apartments, and there will be more.
The heated economy and high housing costs have encouraged developers to target Santa Clara. The Mayor and Council have recently stopped several of the more damaging infill projects, which is great. But we need them to step back, take a breather and resolve to no longer enable a planning department with its own agenda.
The growth rate has changed from a steady one percent annually to six and seven percent annually.
Our schools and infrastructure will be incredibly strained. And many smaller high density infill projects have damaged our neighborhood while the hodgepodge of small high density projects that spot the city are a testament to what happens when you have a plan but don’t follow it.
Editor’s note: The numbers mentioned in this column are based off of current and pending projects, as well as projects still being reviewed by the City’s planning staff – so the numbers are projections based on the units currently proposed – many of the projects mentioned have not been approved by the City Council.
Full Disclosure: The author of this guest column, and Lida Zazzara have contributed to this site’s legal defense fund.