Far from being a mere horizon, a city’s skyline transforms the local geopolitical order into sprawl busting urban center and social critical mass. The towering landscapes of New York City, Chicago, Houston and San Francisco signal economic ambition and render each of their city cores iconic.
San Jose—the 10th largest city in the U.S. and the third-largest in California—has struggled to convey its standing in part because of practical constraints that impair its ability to speak the architectural language of a global metropolis.
Proximity to Mineta San Jose International Airport’s runways means the sky is not the limit for the city of a million that markets itself to transnational investors as the Capital of Silicon Valley. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), that limit is precisely 24 stories on the south end of the city’s core and 18 by the bustling airport.
But there’s wiggle room, and, with Google’s plans for the broad swath of land around Diridon Station making the air above it a veritable goldmine, more incentive than ever to capitalize on that untapped potential.
“We’re talking differences in millions of square feet,” says Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a lobbying outfit comprising hundreds of major tech companies. “Raising heights will provide developments with both jobs and homes, jobs of all types and incomes.”
After more than a decade of mulling its potential to grow up architecturally speaking, the city has refined that abstraction into four actionable proposals, which on Monday got whittled down to one. But there’s an economic and safety tradeoff to veering upward, turning the proposition into a contentious debate between business boosters and airport advocates. The hope is to find the right balance in time for a City Council vote before the end of next month.
“We’re looking to have our cake and eat it, too,” says Kim Walesh, deputy city manager and head of San Jose’s Office of Economic Development.
On the one hand are business leaders and city officials hoping to raise heights up another 35 feet from the current cap in the heart of the city and another 150 feet around Diridon Station, where the highest current structure, the SAP Center, extends just 110 feet into the sky. All this, of course, with the FAA’s blessing. According to Walesh’s department, that would potentially add 8.6 million square feet of new development, up the city’s gross domestic product by $747 million and add 4,900 jobs by 2038.
But members of a 10-member city Airport Commission warn that San Jose could lose some of its international flights if it carves out too much space to accommodate a more prominent skyline. Opting for the scenario outlined by the city would cost airlines $800,000 in the first year alone, according to the city’s estimates. The loss could grow to more than $1.5 million by 2038 and would primarily impact Asian markets.
Aviation champions expressed doubt about the city’s analysis. Dan Connolly, who chairs the Airport Commission, said the city should have done more outreach with the airline industry, with the people who fly planes and determine where to invest in new routes.
“Not one commercial pilot or contingency of airlines was invited to be a part of the committee,” he said Monday. “Meetings were held in private; members of the public and the airport commission were denied requests to attend meetings.”
Ken Pyle, another airport commissioner, dramatically invoked the 1986 Challenger explosion, which killed seven crew members 73 seconds post-takeoff. He suggested that the city failed to adequately account for scenarios in which pilots would have to fly lower for any number of reasons—high temperatures, heavy cargo, engine failure, bird strike—and face obstruction by downtown towers.
“It reminds me of the … communications breakdown that occurred at the Challenger tragedy because there was miscommunication between engineers and the people who had to interpret the information,” he told the committee. “So the process seems rushed.”
Proponents of the city’s plan, which comes up for a council vote in late February, dispelled those concerns by noting that it would hew to the FAA’s own safety standards.
Teresa Alvarado, head of urban planning nonprofit SPUR, applauded the city’s recommendation Monday at a San Jose Community and Economic Development Committee meeting. Raising building heights would complement $10 billion of investment into public transportation around Diridon, she noted, which will become a hub for BART, Caltrain, light rail and bus lines while international flights continue to jet overhead. It would boost tax revenue and help the city rake in money for desperately needed below-market-rate housing and public parks.
“We continue to have a hope for a well-operated and growing regional airport as well as a healthy and vibrant downtown,” she told the council subcommittee.
Jeffrey Buchanan, a policy director for the labor-aligned Working Partnerships USA, urged the city to consider the height limits as bargaining chip. Buchanan, who sits on the Station Area Advisory Group, a citizen commission convened to provide public input on the future of the area around Google’s planned mega-campus, suggested a fee or incentive to capture some of the value of increased development capacity.
That way, he said, the city could have more resources to curb displacement, house the unsheltered and subsidize new housing.
“We could look at a kind of win-win scenario,” Buchanan said Monday, cautioning city officials “not to jump ahead and start approving higher heights before we figure out what that value capture tool is.”
Walesh says the public would gain significant economic benefits by way of tax revenue and by shedding San Jose’s stubborn reputation as a bedroom community through adding thousands of new jobs. “San Jose is one of the few big cities that has more people at night than in the day,” she says, referring to how many tech workers are actually employed outside city limits. “Development has not kept up.”