Plans to convert San Jose’s old City Hall Annex into a parking lot instead of housing for the homeless have drawn the ire of activists, a prominent developer and smart-growth advocates who’d like the city to become less car-dependent.
Santa Clara County’s Board of Supervisors, which addressed the proposal at a meeting earlier this month, has tabled the discussion until next week. The plan calls for demolishing the existing building, which the county acquired in 2011 as part of a legal settlement with San Jose, and paving it over with 170 parking spaces.
Garden City Construction President Jim Salata slammed the county for leaning toward the parking lot option when the site could house 140 to 160 people with nowhere else to go—at least until it’s permanently redeveloped. County officials, however, say the building constructed in 1976 is dangerously uninhabitable.
In a July letter to the county first reported by the Mercury News, Salata says turning a portion of the 10-acre property at North First and West Mission streets into a parking lot would be a waste of taxpayer money. Particularly when private sector money is available to turn it into much-needed housing.
“Further, to waste the opportunity to be able to house up to 160 people in a short period of time with major donor funding makes no sense whatsoever,” the construction boss wrote in a three-page letter. “Given the state of homelessness in the downtown and surroundings, it is imperative that we devise a way to get people off the streets quickly as the homeless issues seem to increase daily. The county should be compelled to stop the demolition of the building and work as a partner for its reuse as supportive housing and not waste this chance to make a difference. The master plans should be adjusted to keep the annex building and the county could reuse it after the ten years are up. Dealing with the homeless issues is the county’s job and their charge and this rare opportunity to do something great in a short period of time should not be wasted.”
Philanthropist and fellow real estate developer John Sobrato echoed Salata’s sentiment. While waiting for permanent supportive housing to get built, which could take years, local agencies should support immediate solutions to get at least some of the 6,500-plus unsheltered people in the county off the streets.
“I am confident we can raise the money for the conversion from the philanthropic community and it won’t cost the county anything other than a lease on the building for at least 10 years and save [$2 million to $3 million] in demolition costs plus the costs to build a parking lot when there is under utilized parking nearby,” Sobrato wrote in an email exchange with county officials and nonprofit service providers. “The way the county bureaucracy moves, there is no way the county site can be converted to a revenue source for private development in the next 10 years.”
County supervisor candidate and San Jose Councilman Don Rocha voiced his support for the housing proposal last week. “We are in a housing crisis and should act like it when we can,” he wrote in an Aug. 14 Facebook post. “A temporary action whereby we convert the old City Hall Annex to housing for over a hundred homeless residents is one I support and we should move quickly once the proper analysis and community outreach is complete. This option would allow the county to still hold the property and develop as they see fit once they complete their development planning process.”
Susan Ellenberg, who’s running against Rocha for the District 4 seat, penned an Aug. 21 op-ed calling the housing option a “slam-dunk.” She said she recognizes that the master plan is a barrier, and that an environmental review is a long and arduous process. But homelessness and the housing shortage in the region have reached crisis levels.
“Whether it is this plan or another that is deemed more feasible for the Annex, affordable housing should be the first priority in any conversation about development in our cities and county,” she wrote. “I urge the supervisors to seriously consider adjusting the master plan to incorporate permanent, supportive housing for our most vulnerable residents.”
Sobrato said he would like to see Destination: Home, the leading homeless housing nonprofit in Silicon Valley, publicly support the plan. Destination: Home Executive Director Jennifer Loving has so far taken no position on the proposal.
But in an interview this morning, she said her focus has been on developing permanent supportive housing and the 10 projects so far that have been funded by a $950 million bond approved by voters in 2016. She also noted that the county has a commendable track record of supporting long-term housing.
“I think that’s the big win that’s coming out of project is the conversation between the county and the city about permanent supportive housing,” she said.
County officials say turning the Annex into housing—even in the short-term—would complicate the long-term goal of redeveloping it into a larger civic center and public plaza with public art, cafes and government offices.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo sided with Salata, however. In a missive to the board of supes, Liccardo said he’s willing to help the county come up with a cost-effective adaptive re-use of the building for affordable housing.