In a major victory for parents and teachers who fiercely fought the idea, a longtime plan to build a new overpass next to a primary school in North San Jose has been abandoned.
The San Jose City Council voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to drop a proposal that’s been on the books for nearly three decades, marking a sharp reversal from the council’s stance in 2020 when they approved the project’s environmental impact report. The overpass would have extended North San Jose’s Charcot Avenue about .6 miles from Paragon Drive over I-880 to Oakland Road.
“To have them (the city council) go back and say they’re going to change it, I just think of that quote by Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,’” said Erin McCarthy, Orchard Teacher Association president. “I think our Orchard community truly embodies that quote right now.”
Over the past two years, parents and teachers of Orchard School on nearby Fox Lane have launched petitions, attended dozens of community and city meetings and even filed a lawsuit against the city to voice their disdain for the project.
Construction of the overpass would have required the city to widen Silkwood Lane on the northern edge of the school’s campus and invoke eminent domain to claim about a half-acre section of open space on the school’s campus. Parents and teachers had argued that the project would pose a safety risk to children walking to and from school, increase pollution and shrink the school’s campus.
Virginia Varela-Campos, a parent of three children who currently attend Orchard School and one who recently graduated, called the decision a “huge success for our children, our community and our school.” She and her children live in a mobile home park just north of the campus, where they walk seven minutes to and from school each day without crossing any major streets.
“Putting this roadway extension in between the neighborhood where we live and the school just seemed extremely dangerous,” Varela-Campos said in an interview. “And now, it’s just outdated and unnecessary. It’s not a benefit like it was seen as back in the ’90s.”
Councilmember David Cohen, who represents North San Jose and spearheaded the effort to drop the project, agreed.
“The changing circumstances made it clear that this was not a project that was going to work,” Cohen said during Tuesday’s meeting.
In the works since 1994, the Charcot Avenue extension project was baked into the city’s 2020 General Plan. City leaders at the time saw it as a promising way to improve connectivity from the East and West sides of I-880 and provide a crossing for not only vehicles, but bicycles and pedestrians as well. It was also meant to support increased development and economic vitality in industrial-heavy North San Jose.
More recently, San Jose has been locked in a legal battle with the city of Santa Clara over development plans in the area. Santa Clara has repeatedly threatened to sue San Jose if the city tried to add more housing in this underutilized, largely industrial area of the city before making certain transportation improvements. The Charcot Extension was previously considered by the city of San Jose as one of those necessary transportation improvements, aiming to relieve some of the congestion from nearby Brokaw Road.
Over the course of the past three decades, however, the area around the proposed overpass has evolved considerably. Instead of industrial buildings, the overpass would now be sandwiched between dozens of new homes and Orchard Elementary School — neither of which existed when the plans were first brought forward.
On top of those changes, Santa Clara city officials have indicated that the Charcot Extension is not one of the priority traffic improvements they want to see completed by the city of San Jose in North San Jose before more housing is built, according to San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.
Weighing those factors, city officials decided that dropping the project and diverting the remaining $3.9 million in project funds to two other high-priority traffic improvement initiatives — the interchange project at Highway 101/Maybury/Berryessa or the interchange project at Highway 101 and Zanker Road — was the best route to take.
“We’ve got a lot of other high-priority congestion management projects to move forward in North San Jose,” Liccardo said in an interview. “So, spending these dollars on a project that is less than warmly embraced by the community doesn’t make a lot of sense when we could be used those funds on other critical traffic improvements.”
The VTA in December 2021 made a similar decision to refrain from allocating a planned $9.5 million for the Charcot Avenue extension projects and putting those funds toward one of the two North San Jose interchange projects as well. The extension was one of the several infrastructure projects that voters agreed to pay for through the VTA’s 2016 Measure B — a 30-year, half-cent sales tax slated to provide $6.3 billion for transportation and infrastructure improvements.
As of June 2021, the city’s Department of Transportation had spent $1.8 million on the extension project.
Councilmember Raul Peralez on Tuesday called out the city council’s split 2020 vote to approve the project’s environmental impact report, saying that they were “the culprit” for most of the wasted staff time, resources and money. The report was approved in a 6-3 vote at that time with council members Peralez, Pam Foley and Magdalena Carrasco casting the dissenting votes.
“Ultimately, I think we’re doing the right thing now,” he said, “but it’s an important note I think for all of us to recognize.”