A massive update to the zoning code for the City of Santa Clara is currently underway by Planning Department staff. Apart from minor changes over the years, there hasn’t been a comprehensive update to the code since 1969, which has made things murky for setting appropriate building and use standards for some areas of the City.
The area surrounding Santa Clara University, known as the Old Quad, has been particularly beset with challenges related to zoning and code enforcement. Qualities such as a lack of student housing, high concentration of historic properties and aging infrastructure, have spurred the City to consider creating a zoning code overlay specifically for the Old Quad.
“The Old Quad is essentially the original City back from the 1800s when the City was created,” said Reena Brilliot, Planning Manager. “Most of our historic resources are in this area. So there’s a lot of relevance to historic preservation in this neighborhood.”
The unique confluence of neighborhood qualities is readily apparent with an intact original street grid still in use, pre-war styled single-family homes and an abundance of college student dwellings. The makeshift student rooms have especially raised concern among some residents in recent years as many of the neighborhood’s single family homes have been modified into “group living accommodations” sometimes referred to as “mini-dorms” or “boarding houses.”
Despite complaints about party noise, trash and crowded conditions, a Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance that was drafted to stem the conversion of the single family homes, failed in part due to claims of housing discrimination. Students often bear the brunt of the region’s housing shortage and Santa Clara University has steadily increased enrollment without building adequate student housing, all within the context of a housing market unaffordable for most people. Yet plans for additional formalized student housing may come to fruition.
“People generally want to see more formalized housing for students,” said Brilliot. “The University has been very cooperative and wants to solve the problem.”
Given the Old Quad’s diverse attributes, the potential zoning code overlay would be aimed at clarifying the muddy waters surrounding group living accommodations, improving parking policy and striking a healthy balance between boundless private property rights and onerous restrictions. Furthermore, with continuous aging of structures, even more properties may be added to the City’s Historic Resources Inventory as post-war architectural styles and commercial buildings from the early days of Silicon Valley begin to be viewed through an antiquation lens.
“The overlay is something we’re still talking through with neighbors,” Brilliot explained. “The neighborhood is mostly single family homes. There’s been opposition from neighbors about projects and as a result, many projects aren’t successful in moving forward. So we need to find a better set of standards so property investors have a better rule of engagement. This could also end up being relevant to other parts of the City.”
A draft of the zoning code update will be presented to City Council by the end of summer 2019. So far five community outreach meeting have been held to discuss topics such as parking, design standards, historic resources and group living accommodations with Old Quad residents — continuing conversations that have gone on for years, or decades. In addition to getting feedback from residents, one of Planning staff’s solutions to improve quality of life is to implement best practices from other cities that have dealt with similar problems.
Beyond the world of group living accommodations, lies another fraught landscape of short term rentals such as Airbnb. The City currently lacks regulations for these types of living arrangements as well, which Brilliot remarked could be exacerbating the Old Quad’s complex issues. The new zoning code overhaul could include regulations specially crafted for short term rentals.
More community meetings are ahead for the start of 2019 though the dates haven’t been set yet. The City will be mailing details about the schedule of meetings to the Old Quad Neighborhood Association — the first gathering will likely be held at the end of January followed by another in February and then in March. A separate series of meeting will be held regarding regulations for short term rentals.