Update, June 6, 2018: Measure B was defeated in the June 2018 election by a 57-43% vote. The companion Measure C passed on a 59-41% vote.
In San José’s Evergreen neighborhood, situated on the border of the Coyote Valley foothills, the east edge of the city turns to rolling oak savanna that stretches up into the Diablo foothills. On one plot of unassuming grassland, a group of developers are planning a housing development. It sounds reasonably typical — but the unusual way the developers have proposed to do it, asking voters in June to rewrite the city of San José’s general plan and zoning rules to enable the project, has led to consternation from environmental organizations, elected officials, political operatives, and good governance groups statewide.
Developer Chop Keenan and real estate mogul Carl Berg want to build 910 homes on a 200-acre plot in Evergreen, and they have named their June ballot measure the Evergreen Senior Home Initiative. Measure B would authorize over 60 proposed amendments to San José’s Envision 2040 General Plan—a city policy adopted in November 2011 that stipulates rules for development in San José—to create a “senior housing overlay.” This exemption would allow the developers to build a gated community on land currently zoned for non-residential employment. Proponents also tout the measure as benefiting veterans. Insofar as is allowed by state discrimination laws, proponents say, veterans would be given housing preference.
Opponents, ranging from the San José mayor and entire City Council to the Republican and Democratic parties, environmental groups, the AARP, and the Mercury News editorial board, call it a straightforward scam. In a joint editorial for the Mercury News, San José Mayor Sam Liccardo and other opponents called the Evergreen Initiative “a deceptive ploy by billionaire landowners and out-of-town developers” to build exclusive luxury homes.
Measure B offers no concrete assurances to veterans and its proposed changes for affordable housing would be weaker than what city law already requires. Critics worry that creating exemptions to the General Plan by voter approval would also open the door for developers to bypass city zoning rules elsewhere, potentially opening another 3,247 acres in San José to residential zoning conversion and canceling out the long-term general plan documents.
“This takes power from community and elected representatives and gives it to billionaires,” says Committee for Green Foothills Executive Director Megan Medeiros. “This is just bad governance.”
Fred Buzo, the AARP Associate State Director for California, says his organization encourages civic engagement in land use decisions. However, he said, he thinks that such ballot measures undermine the civic engagement process that the normal channels for development foster. “The campaign in favor of [Measure B] seems to be engaging in deceptive campaign promises,” Buzo says. “The campaign says that it will create housing that is affordable for seniors and veterans—the reality is that it won’t.”
The city and other allies have tried to counter Measure B with Measure C, which would require residential developments in outlying areas pass tougher standards for affordability, environmental protection, infrastructure improvement, and public services – effectively neutralizing Measure B even if it passes.
Andy Benkert, Campaign Coordinator for Yes on B, says that the group chose a ballot measure over the usual route because local officials had long dragged their heels on building affordable housing. “Would it set a precedent? It’s possible,” he says. “But I don’t think this is the first time a developer has tried to use this method to get approval from voters. The initiative is something we have used for many things in the Bay Area–sport teams, marijuana… Voters are trusted to make those sorts of decisions.”
Benkert further argues that the Envision 2040 plan is clearly broken, since the city has failed to provide adequate housing since its inception. “Not everybody wants to be living in high density housing close to transportation hubs,” he said. “To put everybody in that bucket and say this is the only kind of housing we’re going to build is ludicrous.”
Many planners and good governance groups take issue with the initiative methods more than the development itself. Jared Hart, a supervising planner for the city of San José, said he believes that under the normal zoning approval process, the project would have had greater community engagement. Ballot initiatives also skip the environmental review required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). And, Hart said, the Evergreen Initiative’s proposed amendments are contrary to the General Plan’s visions for sustainable development. “The General Plan really lays out the blueprint for future land use in the city,” Hart says. “This initiative is entirely counter and inconsistent with how the city is looking to grow,”
The General Plan calls for building 120,000 new units over the next 20 years. But the plan currently requires that housing be built on land zoned as residential, and on land close to transportation infrastructure and public services. Affordable housing advocates blame past indiscriminant building practices for having made San José a sprawling “bedroom community,” with fewer jobs than residences.
While ballot box zoning is unusual in San José, California is no stranger to the practice. In 2015, the City of Tracy passed Measure K, or the Active Adult Residential Allotment Program, which allowed exemptions from zoning and development rules to build senior housing. A 2014 proposal in San Francisco raised height ordinances on new developments on Pier 70. Both these measures passed.
According to campaign finance records, Measure B’s proponents have outraised and outspent No on Measure B heavily. Real estate groups including Ponderosa Homes II, Inc., a Pleasanton-based group that would be Evergreen homes primary developer, contributed $5.6 million in cash and other contributions as of May 21. The opposition to Measure B, which supports Measure C, had raised $520,000.
The election is June 5.
Jacob Shea is a freelance writer and recent graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.