Construction is underway on San Jose's Communications Hill, a 500-acre infill project that supporters are promoting as a large-scale, walkable, urban neighborhood. Early indications are that there is a great demand for the new houses, townhouses and apartments, but the easy access to transit and retail areas that might make the neighborhood truly walkable are lacking thus far.

The project received numerous planning awards, including a Progressive Architecture Citation, when the city adopted a specific plan for the area during the early 1990s. Greenbelt Alliance, a Bay Area land conservation group, called it a "well planned infill development" in 1999. But only now is the vision taking shape on a brushy area a few miles south of the city's downtown core. A total of 4,000 dwelling units are planned, with about 1,000 units already built or under construction. Most of the area will have a density of 25 to 40 units per acre, with wide patches of hillside land dedicated to open space. Communications Hill gets its name from two microwave communication towers located at its top, which provides a view of the downtown, South San Jose and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Clara County's light rail line bisects the area on its western flank, as does the Highway 87 freeway. Both lead north to downtown and high-tech campuses near the city's airport. A bicycle path parallels Highway 87, as well.

The specific plan called for making the neighborhood as distinctive as hillside communities in Seattle or San Francisco. To create that atmosphere, developers are using a grid street pattern, rather than typical carved streets and cul-de-sacs. Most buildings are three or four stories high, with homes built close to the street, and yards located behind units. Bicycle paths, new streets and pathways are designed to connect ultimately with public transportation. Communications Hill, which rises 300 feet at its highest point, looks down over a hodge-podge of San Jose neighborhoods: low-density single family homes, a few mobile home parks, strip malls and heavy industrial areas. A few cows still graze on one side of the hill. The Communications Hill project is a completely different breed of development than its neighbors and is the kind that San Jose planners envision continuing to take root along the light rail corridor. At least four housing developments have already begun creeping up the hill, offering a hint of what the area will look like when it is fully developed. Steep pitched roofs and street-level doors and garages at the 155-unit Helzer Court Apartments call to mind San Francisco's neighborhoods � without the fog and bay views. The Santa Clara County Housing Authority operates the apartments. Three-story townhomes ranging in price from $400,000 to $500,000 are selling out in Western Pacific Housing's Lancaster Gate development on the southern flank of the hill. And KB Homes had to hold a lottery earlier this year when it was ready to sell the first 50 units of its 700-unit Tuscany Hills development.

The Housing Authority apartments and Lancaster Gate were developed at the lower, more level parts of the hill, according to Jerry Strangis, a realtor who has represented the primary landowners of the property, the Bettencourt family, for the past 25 years. The KB Homes development is the first to tackle the actual hill and make related improvements. The developer will build a new road over the hill to connect with a light rail station. The layout of Communications Hill is supposed to encourage walking, the use of public transit and placement of neighborhood retail stores. But it will take a greater population before those features emerge, said Dayana Salazar, an associate professor of urban planning at San Jose State University. Strangis agrees, saying none of the current developments include any retail, in part because a critical mass of population "We talk a lot in urban planning about smart growth and I see Communications Hill as being part of that movement," Salazar said. But she added, "It will be a slow process before we see the kind of mixed-use community it will be." The commercial hub of Communications Hill is expected to be a village center with approximately 30,000 square feet of neighborhood retail. Strangis said that retail project will be planned only after KB Homes completes its project and builds a fire station and a park.

While the nearby Santa Clara County city of Mountain View has success integrating light rail with housing development (see CP&DR Places, July 2001, March 1998), Communications Hill appears to face a steeper battle. The light rail lines do not stop directly in the community as they do in Mountain View. Instead, the nearest light rail station is three-quarters of a mile away, and most new residences will lie more than a mile from the transit line. Few people are willing to walk more than a half mile to mass transit, Salazar said.

Strangis expects a shuttle will be added someday when the need arises. The project's high density does permit open space conservation, Salazar noted. "It's important to have permanent open space because it's so visible," she said. Communications Hill was part of 23,093 acres designated as critical habitat for the threatened bay checkerspot butterfly by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in April 2001. But the action had no impact on private landowners who do not need federal funding or permits to build. The grasslands on Communication Hill are considered capable of supporting the butterfly, but no insects have been found in recent years. Environmental studies for the area have also found rock containing asbestos, and that asbestos is expected to be exposed during construction.

Planned mitigation measures include a dust control and air monitoring program during construction. Areas that have been graded for the projects will be capped with soil and rocks to prevent long-term release of asbestos.


Jerry Strangis, Strangis Properties, (408) 723-2177.

Dayana Salazar, San Jose State University, (408) 924-5854.

Janet Stone, Greenbelt Alliance, (415) 398-3730. City of San Jose website: