A controversial North San Jose highway overpass proposal that’s been a part of the city’s growth blueprint for decades, cleared a pivotal hurdle this week despite strong opposition from the community and traffic safety advocates.
The Charcot Avenue extension has been in the works since 1994, when it was approved as part of the San Jose 2020 General Plan. The project will extend Charcot Avenue from Paragon Drive to Oakland Road by way of an overpass that arcs across I-880. But the largely industrial neighborhood has evolved since those plans were set two-plus decades ago, most notably with the addition of Orchard Elementary School on nearby Fox Lane.
A group of Orchard parents have spent the better part of the last two years agitating against the project, which they say would increase pollution and endanger the safety of children walking to school. The city would also need to invoke eminent domain to take a roughly half-acre portion of land from the school’s playground.
During Tuesday’s virtual City Council meeting, Orchard parents and environmental advocates spent an hour expressing their concerns to elected officials, who eventually voted 6-3 to send the project to the final design phase. Council members Pam Foley, Magdalena Carrasco and Raul Peralez cast the dissenting votes. Council members Maya Esparza and Sylvia Arenas were absent.
Instead of the draft design recommended by city officials, the council opted for one of the eight alternatives, which eliminates one of the two proposed left-turn lanes from northbound Oakland Road to westbound Charcot Avenue. That would make the intersection at Charcot Avenue and Oakland Road three lanes instead of four.
Despite the project being on the books for many years, Orchard School District Superintendent Wendy Gudalewicz criticized city officials for their lack of communication during her tenure. Consistently, for years, she and other school administrators voiced their opposition along with students and their parents.
But time and again, their concerns fell on deaf ears.
“How did you establish the criteria for the field without ever talking to us?” Gudalewicz asked, referencing the removal of a portion of the school’s playground. “Because that was never done. And if significant means you talked to us three times in the three years that I’ve been there … that is to me not significant coordination.”
Gudalewicz said it would cost the district more than $100,000 to fight eminent domain, a process in which the government claims private property—or property from another agency—for public use. She also rebuked officials’ claims that it wouldn’t worsen traffic.
“You’re also saying there will no longer be any drop off on Silkwood Lane,” Gudalewicz remarked. “If you had ever taken the time to come out to the school and see how many parents drop off students on the back gate at Silkwood you would understand that there would be a significant impact to us on the front of the school as far as traffic.”
But Zahir Gulzadah, a senior transportation specialist at the city, said San Jose’s Vision Zero team—which focuses on eliminating traffic fatalities—has met with the school throughout the process. The city also has plans to install a high-visibility crosswalk at Fox Lane and Ridder Park Drive to ensure students can safely get to and from school.
“There’s been a lot of discussion that’s taken place with the community, as well as with the school, in terms of the improvements that needed to make the existing conditions safer as well as once the project is built how can we make the conditions safer,” he said.
City officials say the Charcot Avenue extension is crucial part of the North San Jose Area Development Policy, a blueprint for 26.7 million square feet of industrial and 1.7 million square feet of commercial development, as well as 100,000 new jobs and 32,000 homes.
“The project is vitally important to support North San Jose development, which in itself is critical to economic welfare in the city of San Jose,” San Jose Transportation Director John Ristow told meeting attendees.
Councilman Lan Diep—who represents the North San Jose’s District 4, which he calls Uptown—acknowledged that he heard the community’s calls to shelve the project. However, he noted that the Charcot Avenue extension is essential for the city’s growth.
“I want to make sure North San Jose is a place where your kids and your grandkids can come back to and find your own place to stay, find a place that’s affordable [and] have a vibrant community as well,” he said. “This is a step towards that.”
Berryessa Union School District Trustee David Cohen, who is challenging Diep’s re-election this fall, told San Jose Inside that he thought the project would be a good addition years ago. However, because of the negative impact he now believes would have on Orchard Elementary and its students, he has since changed his thinking.
“This is about listening how the community feels it will effect them,” he said. “The general plan called for this road and it made sense, but that general plan was written 20 years ago and at that time that school didn’t exist. … That’s why I’ve turned against it because it wasn’t thought out. It would be too disruptive to the neighborhood.”
Mayor Sam Liccardo said supports the project because it would help San Jose meet its housing goals. “I think it’s really critical that we do what we said we were going to do around transportation so we can actually get housing built for the first time,” he said.
Peralez, however, said he remains unconvinced that canceling the project would stymie development. Foley tried advocating for an alternative option that would construct an overpass for bikes and pedestrians instead of cars. “If we are really serious about climate change and the health of our kids, we should be pushing the Alternative E,” she said, “which allows only for bikes and pedestrian crossing.”