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Photograph by Michael Belkin

Bowled Over: Once a popular neighborhood destination, the Washington District's Alma Bowl failed to keep up with the times. City leaders say the 'next wave' of development here should be high-density condominium towers.

Size Matters

San Jose planners want 'smart-growth.' But the march to densify could eliminate what charmed people into moving here in the first place.

By Allie Gottlieb

Even people who barely register on the median-income hierarchy scale admit that the Washington District east of Willow Glen seems ripe for development. At the moment, it holds its own in car thefts, drugs, vandalism, assaults and run-down, absentee-owner rental houses. What it makes up for in intriguing, modest Mexican businesses, like the Super Mercado Mexico, Regalos Raquel and El Pique Taqueria, it lacks in recreational outlets, broadly stocked, shiny grocery stores--and grass.

"We don't even have grass in our yard," notes Gabriel Barraza. Barraza, a 21-year-old medical-assisting student, lives in Section 8 housing on Lick Avenue directly across from the shuttered Alma Bowl. Six of his family members live with him in the little house that shakes when Caltrain rumbles by. "This is a bad part of town," he continues. "We can't even sleep with our windows open. [There are] killings down the street."

Barraza's tiny Chihuahua, Angel, imitates a big dog barking as Barraza talks about change in his neighborhood.

"Alma Bowl was the best," Barraza says, who enjoyed Friday karaoke there and became enamored of the people who ran it. "It's disappointing to see them tear it down to put in more condos."

Growing Up

When Michele Young moved to Lick Avenue about a month ago, she wasn't just buying a home; she was buying into the downtrodden neighborhood's future.

"I've sort of chosen to be in an urban core," says the single, blonde, 40-year-old San Jose native, reflecting on her decision to throw down nearly $400,000 on a house five down from the boarded-up bowling alley.

Looking around the neighborhood, "urban" isn't exactly the word that comes to mind. Situated about a mile south of San Jose's compact downtown, the district bears spots of ragged light-industrial businesses and shops, and plenty of single-story homes in varying conditions. Then there's the retro Alma Bowl sign doubtfully perched over the carcass of the three-acre working-class distraction, past which Young feels unsafe walking alone at night.

But if enthusiastic city leaders and developers get their way, the urban character that Young ascribes to her new neighborhood will soon spring to life. The future she expects comes courtesy of builder Barry Swenson, who harbors big-city plans for the blighted block, taking advantage of taller building heights allowed in certain districts like Washington. Two 11-story condo towers next to the Tamien light rail and Caltrain station star in the land-use planning sketches that, if approved, promise to turn the corner of West Alma and Lick avenues around. The project has become a hot spot in San Jose's ever-evolving self-image.

"The problem with San Jose is we're in that adolescent stage," Deputy City Planning Director Laurel Prevetti says. She explains that San Jose residents, like residents in districts around the country, "revolted" in the '70s against sprawl, the school of planning (or lack thereof) that celebrates strip malls and the invention of the automobile, ignores public transportation (rather than incorporating it) and upholds America's dreamscape: suburbia.

Prevetti points out that the sprawl backlash led the city to start welcoming population growth by design. "Smart growth is really good planning," Prevetti says. It's "planning for growth, making sure that the infrastructure is in place. What we're trying to do is to create nodes of density. ... We did all these single-family residences so we've got all this sprawl." Smart growth--dense 120-foot buildings situated by public transit stations to encourage less use of cars and more use of neighborhoods--is "the next wave for us," she says.

The Washington District neighborhood has seen nothing of the sort. Imagining buildings even half the size of Swenson's 11 stories there is tough. The proposed 242-unit Tamien Place project galvanizes complaints from the powerful and powerless alike. Councilman Ken Yeager has written editorials against the project. Neighboring Willow Glen residents have launched webpages against it. And some who stare at Alma Bowl from their kitchen windows have trouble seeing the point of new condos for the sake of realizing a pop-academic concept like "smart growth."

Cashing Out

Lydia Palacios, 24, lives in the same complex as Gabriel Barraza in an apartment around back with her husband and two kids. The household operates on less than $16,000 a year.

"The majority of San Jose can't afford San Jose," Palacios says. "We live here because it's affordable."

She foresees cracks in the Tamien plan. "Nobody in this whole neighborhood will be able to afford to live there," she declares. "If they could, they wouldn't want to." Palacios cites the void of kid-friendly entertainment, the limited restaurant scene and the noise from planes and trains to suggest the glass is half empty. The project targets moneyed people who probably have another quality of life in mind, she says.

Palacios certainly couldn't buy a Tamien condo. The developer estimates some may go for a little as $325,000, cheap by Bay Area standards. But most will probably cost closer to $550,000.

The city's housing director, Leslye Corsiglia, says people earning in the "moderate income" range could afford these prices. A $550,000 condo would be purchasable for a single person making $88,620, or a family of four earning $126,600.

But development proponents don't miss a beat when they hear about Palacios' concern. Nor are Tamien fans fazed by the contention that building condos for half-a-million dollars in a neighborhood whose median income level is $48,000 might lead to gentrification, pricing out current residents and putting commercial development focus on the higher-priced needs of wealthier residents.

"What they need to understand is [that] new development is what pays the fees to build new city parks and recreational facilities," says Erik Schoennauer, lead planning consultant for Tamien Place. "Their amenities will keep going away until they get an influx of new residents." New, well-to-do residents will shop at the local businesses when they move in, he theorizes. This will support the Mexican shops on nearby Willow Street and prompt more great businesses to move in. Also, he notes, Barry Swenson Builders will put $3 million into the community's park fund, thus creating a recreational center for neighbors that they wouldn't otherwise get. He concedes, however, that how and where that money is spent remains at the whim of the City Council.

Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group's affordable housing expert, Shiloh Ballard, backs up Schoennauer. "When you build up you're going to be able to have more open space for these people to enjoy," she says. "The city has basically gone through and decided we believe in the smart-growth planning process. So let's put our money and land-use planning where our mouth is."

Schoennauer and Ballard talk up the need for diversity in housing "products." They stress that San Jose lacks opportunities for first-time home buyers. Condos are generally cheaper than houses and help fill that gap. "Over 70 percent of the population in the area is renters," says Schoennauer. "Creating for-sale housing that gives people a chance to own in this neighborhood is very important. ... Yeah, some neighbors won't be able to afford the price range of the new units." But, he argues, everyone will benefit from the vibrant new community.

'Burban Street

But not everyone is sold on the forward momentum smart growth enjoys. "I don't think anyone's for dumb growth," says former UC-Berkeley professor, urban planner and author Chester Hartman. But he adds, "There are a lot of people talking about the relationship of smart growth to race and class issues. [We need to] get back to what the nature of the community is, what the [neighbors'] concerns are, what they themselves might propose as a solution. There should be some balance between the need for more dense development and their desire to not be pushed out of their homes."

Hartman, executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council in Washington, D.C., wrote a book on the impacts of dense development in San Francisco called City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco. His social-justice critique, which includes a chapter on commercial high rises, influenced local Councilman Yeager's thinking about high-rise density.

"More and more in San Jose, our unit of community is the neighborhood," Yeager opines. "You have an interaction amongst people in a suburban area that you just don't have in an urban area. Kids on lawns, communication among people. Once you go to high-rises you lose that."

Yeager, whose district abuts the project site's, has stepped out on his own to defend neighborhood opposition. He insists he's pro-density. Nevertheless, he says that the Swenson project is too much, too soon and in the wrong place. "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."

This is the criticism that actually catches the developer's attention and makes Swenson consultant Schoennauer's jaw tense up when he talks. Yeager and the comparatively wealthy Willow Glen NIMBY pack are the folks who spoke up at community meetings and convinced the Planning Commission to delay the project hearing from July until Aug. 27.

The people who treasure elements of suburbia and who don't buy the notion that smart growth is a given or that San Francisco is simply a more mature San Jose may be in denial. The tallest building in the city is the new 280-foot Sobrato building, according to the city's planning office. Outside downtown, the citywide height limit is 55 feet. Some buildings are taller because they predate modern zoning restrictions. But city policy encourages building up to 120 feet at the Tamien location because light rail, heavy rail and buses all run to its doorstep, a ready-made situation for containing sprawl.

The Willow Glen neighbors are powerful enough to stall the process of planning for growth. "There will be significant 'impact on scenic vista or the visual character or quality of site,'" declared members of the North Willow Glen Neighborhood Association, using their best rendition of bureaucratic speak, in a July 12 letter to the San Jose City Council. Willow Glen neighbors say they oppose the project because it will add cars and noise and a precedent for more high rises. They announced they'll reject any building above three floors in their backyard.

Cindy Chavez, in whose district the project site sits, did not return Metro's calls for comment. Although the mayor has not yet taken a position, insiders say he supports the project, or at least the idea of it. He's obviously not alone. The mainstream thinking dictates that smart growth is the way to go. The book Suburban Nation described sprawl as "an idealized artificial system," but nevertheless, "the standard North American pattern of growth." Perhaps smart growth now deserves that title.

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From the August 7-13, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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