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A plan to unite Saratoga - not divide it

Video: Points of view expressed by Rishi Kumar at the Saratoga Housing Element city council meeting of January 20th

Find all of my blogs on the topic of Saratoga’s Housing Element here.

Based on what has transpired on the city council over the last few weeks in relation to the Housing Element - we are on a path to a huge train wreck. We need a plan like the one I suggest below that brings Saratoga together - that our city council can follow to get out of the mess we are in today. We have seemingly followed a path over the last year that has divided our city, pitted neighbors against neighbors, while showcasing no vision, no plan, while completely discarding the fundamentals of urban planning. I am still puzzled how we altogether missed adding the school sites and the church sites, that would alleviate the city’s burden of new housing sites, into consideration after a year on this; it is now part of my recommended plan below.

We have a year left to submit this to the state, and we can still right this ship with some common sense thinking.

I don’t believe anyone in Silicon Valley is against housing. But pragmatic thinkers that we are, we believe it has to be done right! When politicians sell out to real-estate developers, nasty things happen. California is in a perfect storm that is bringing real-estate groups from Texas - who are rubbing their hands with glee based on what is going on in California (real story).

Saratoga's whack-a-mole housing plan

Here is my plan to bring together our Housing Element and bring Saratoga together: Given that our city has a mandate to adopt a Housing Element - however flawed it may be - we have to explore options. My site list should include the complete list that our staff or PC have evaluated in the past, along with what our neighbors have recommended.

Let us do a data-driven approach, applying the fundamentals of a proper urban plan approach - not an emotional one. The consistent theme expressed by our neighbors at the prior housing element meetings - December 14, January 10, January 19 and January 20 - was the need for a FAIR and EVEN distribution of sites throughout Saratoga. Fairness in our process is as important as transparency! To do the job right, the Council needs to consider ALL possible sites.

I have been asking like a broken record for us to go back to the drawing boards and a do-over. Here is how:

Our city staff should present a list of ALL possible sites (including all city owned property) making sure that we consider all sites that have been proposed via public input or considered in the past over the last year - I made this explicit request at the last meeting. This list should be evaluated on specific grading criteria in a way that would provide us a final score for each site such as:

  • Number of stories: Limit every site to 2 stories, except for sites where 3 stories with 35' maximum height are currently permitted. Acreage and housing density, # of story and # of units proposed should be clearly identified for each of these sites in a simple table for transparency.
  • Categorize housing sites by schools: Let us strive for a balance. Let every school district benefit from the influx of population and growth, at the same time avoid stressing a specific school district out. If 40% of our population is currently in school district A, another 40% in school district B, we CANNOT approve a design that pushes 80% of the population growth to the school district B. We should ensure we pick sites from each school district location to optimize the population distribution in an equitable manner.
    NOTE: School boundaries don’t shift very easily. We need to ensure that we don’t stress a school district to an extent that a new school needs to be constructed and the taxpayers have to deal with new taxes. Remember, there isn’t any infrastructure plan tied to this ill-conceived housing push.
  • Circulation Element: Avoid lopsided densities and balance traffic out: Ensure compatibility with elements of the General Plan such as Circulation. Do not overload sections of Saratoga. Based on what I have heard - it seems like traffic congestion/safety is not relevant for Saratoga-Sunnyvale/Prospect, not relevant for Saratoga Avenue/Cox, but conveniently relevant everywhere else? Really?? Is this how we want to design the future of our city? Are there two different cities within Saratoga and a totally different set of factors?
  • Fire zones: The Wardell opportunity site today happens to be in a very-high, and a high fire severity zone. If the location is in a fire risk zone, that should be clearly identified for discussion and action by our council. For the record, there is nothing that prevents Saratoga from excluding fire severity zone; the Housing Element (HCD and Sacramento) is just pushing for more and more housing in every city - all variables and parameters be damned!
  • Wildlife and vegetation: Saratoga should develop a protected wildlife and vegetation map that specifically delineates wildlife habitat based on police reports etc., along with the protective vegetation map. Housing should not be considered in these specific areas.
  • Commercial or Mixed Use properties: If the location has commercial properties, that should be clearly identified. Argonaut center and the Saratoga Bagels location should be brought back into play and evaluated. Reality is that any commercial district can be replaced with housing, just like Quito Village. If we are protecting commercial sites like that of Saratoga Bagels, why shouldn’t we protect Gateway too with Peet’s Coffee and Jake’s Pizza? Let us apply a consistent fact based approach.
  • Schools - private or public: School sits should be clearly identified as opportunity sites. We should plan for housing at each of these sites. This is the smart urban planning approach - allow teachers to live on campus and push for the “affordable housing” concept which is supposedly the foundation of this housing push from Sacramento. The unhoused students of West Valley College should be provided a home right on campus and we should account for such a plan in our housing element.
  • SB-9 quota: Send a letter to HCD and ask for a SB-9 quota, that can then be included as part of our housing element. SB-9 will create additional housing units and that is currently not included in our plan.
  • Churches and religious organizations: We should explore opportunities for our churches and religious facilities to build housing on site. Keep the churches intact, but explore how we can add a few housing units on the church property.
  • Fire districts: We should explore opportunities for our fire districts to build housing on site for their staff - and build their “affordable housing” units.
  • Open Space: Protect our open space that includes parks and orchards: Ensure compatibility with the open space elements of the General Plan
  • Environmental mitigation that may be required should be clearly spelled out for our citizens
  • Infrastructure investment: Any infrastructure investment as a result of an opportunity site, or any capital improvement projects that the city will need to invest into should be spelled out clearly for our citizens to understand. The city of Saratoga should do the utmost to hold onto assets as a rainy day resource pool - and to also address the expansion of city resources to handle the population explosion.
  • The Prospect/Lawrence location: This location is unique in comparison to the rest of Saratoga, but it’s height or stories should be pegged to the max today of Saratoga.

Please educate yourself about the facts on my Managed Growth page.

Rishi seeks your help

I need your help to steer our housing element back on track. I have been saying for weeks that we should slow down as we are far ahead in the Housing Element timeline compared to other cities, yet we continue forging ahead fast and furious without a kosher plan.

Can you please help?

Please click on this link and follow the Call to Action - it will take you a minute. Take the time to read the complete recommendation though.

Can you and I team up to salvage this?

Saratoga makes a wrong turn now and our very future is in jeopardy - we are dealing with a monumental crisis. We need to make good choices here.

If you click the link above, you will find the following:

  1. Why the path the council has taken won’t work.
  2. The issues I have observed so far that need remedy
  3. The simple Call to Action for you to help correct course

Why are we heading to a train wreck?

Highlighting below a few words from our neighbors expressed based on their observation with the housing element progression

  • Flailing leadership
  • Equity!
  • Going around in circles
  • Let us put it here, well, let us put it there…no. Well let us push it around somewhere else
  • Defeatist attitude - are we going to move forward with a plan that will fail and not do anything to stop it?
  • We expect our city council to fight these draconian laws
  • Not smart
  • Go Big and Go Bold
  • Time for Leadership and Action
  • New housing sites pulled out of air at 11pm
  • Consensus insanity by the mayor. Does she have a thought of her own?
  • Decisive leadership is totally lacking
  • Why can’t the city council organize these meetings instead of coming up with random meeting dates and times?
  • Ad hoc approach

So here is the latest status from our January 20th meeting:

  • The Housing Element has been placed again on the agenda, but at an all-day city council meeting that begins at 9am on Friday, January 28th - 9AM to 5pm. Tina Walia’s idea from this last meeting, that was approved by the city council with a 4-1 vote.
  • New housing sites are now in consideration as proposed by Yan Zhao: Montalvo Center and increased density at Friendship Park located at the corner of Quito and Pollard. Yan has stated her agenda loud and clear “place all development on the periphery of Saratoga - not inside the core of Saratoga” and she is sticking to it. Kookie has proposed Saratoga Country Club and the Prospect Center.
  • Note that on Friday, January 28, along with the above new sites, we will likely have many more new sites proposed by city council that will be up for review and discussion.

I didn’t support the above approach for reasons stated below:

  • Transparency: The discussion of additional sites should take place during the evening, NOT during the day when residents are at work. This is the most critical agenda item on the city council going back a few decades. We need to engage our citizens! Having a meeting in the middle of a work day is NOT transparency and I cannot support such actions. Our council leadership should develop a clear plan for these meetings, agendize them and schedule them during a time when residents can participate. Residents are not being served by this negligence.
  • Let us stop the ad hoc approach and consider every possible site, after all the situation is dire: Unfortunately, individual councilmembers have proposed sites based on emotion after a long meeting for both the Council and Residents. We are not considering equity, balance and other urban plan strategies. We have to take into account sewers, traffic, schools, broadband, electricity, infrastructure investment, tax increases needed to fund the infrastructure - there are many more parameters involved:
    • Are we staying away from sites where councilmembers live? The Argonaut shopping center next to the Saratoga Bagel property was changed from mixed use to commercial at 2AM on January 11th. Many community members have sent letters to the city council stating that Tina Walia happens to live next to Argonaut and have questioned the motivation to take Argonaut center out from the site list and “protect it.” We all know that nothing is protected. We can lose Argonaut anytime to SB-35 or other new state laws, just like we lost Quito Village and Genes.
    • Why are we picking random sites? How can this be done properly if only a partial list of sites are considered? Or worse, pulling out sites from a magic hat - like we did at 11pm on January 20th - based on Yan Zhao’s attempt. This is not a game show, the future of our neighbors is at stake. Just because of Saratoga bagels, the council pulled the entire Saratoga bagel shop location from the site list - with no substantial reason.
  • Process considerations:
    • How about forming a new Neighborhood Housing Element Ad-hoc Task Force that will include members of every neighborhood - to see how we can bring Saratoga together, collaborate towards a better approach?
    • Can we organize a better city council housing element meeting calendar- and not add meetings ad hoc and at the last minute? We are not looking good in front of the world right now.
    • It is clear we don’t have a plan today. We need a holistic plan without dividing up our city and residents: Should the city council just respond to neighborhood pressure or sway to staff recommendations, playing along to make tactical adjustments without any major fixes, or should we develop the holistic plan our city. The housing element modus operandi so far has successfully divided up our city pitting neighbors against neighbors? Is that good? There is enough of this going on in Washington. Can we figure out a collaborative approach?
  • There is no rush to chase fool’s gold: My job is to see the forest for the trees. I am not sure with the rest of my team. This is perhaps the most consequential decision any council has made since incorporation of Saratoga in 1956. Take the time necessary to do it right. Our neighboring cities are doing their due diligence, despite the really trying circumstances of these outrageous state mandates. As your elected representatives, we owe that same due diligence to every Saratoga resident. Slow this train down!
  • The decisions that we make today, will impact each of us tomorrow. Let us be smart about this. I repeat: decisions that we make today, will impact each of us tomorrow - there is no escape.
    • BE ADVISED, HOWEVER: Although we should give this our best effort, AT THE END OF THE DAY, Saratoga as we know it now, will be fundamentally changed by the implementation of these ill-conceived laws, and not for the better.

      BE ALSO ADVISED THAT The RHNA numbers have been set up for Saratoga to fail: Should we follow the herd based on an ill-conceived Sacramento push that is turning over the state to land-developers. There is no way Saratoga will have built the required 1700 housing units in 8 years, when we barely built 200 in the last 8 years. We will fail the housing element test at the midpoint i.e 2026. What then? The land-developers swoop in - armed with the SB-35 legislation - to operate with gay abandon, claim any and all properties - including the Village - within our city circumventing city council jurisdiction. We ain’t seen nothing yet.

      I am afraid our current path continues our train wreck. We need a better approach - and seemingly no one on the council has the appetite to consider other options.

      Our city council needs to do right thing for our citizens and protect the future of our city and our citizens! But we need the help of each of our neighbors. Everyone!

      - Rishi

      Visit our city website https://www.saratoga.ca.us/housing for the housing element details.