The San Jose high-rise balcony conundrum: Balancing city ordinance, livable space, and great design


Silvery Towers updated rendering
Artist’s rendering of KT Urban/Full Power Properties Silvery Towers(Via C2K Architecture)

When people talk about “High-rise living,” those words evoke certain images. Glass walls with fantastic views, a modern designed interior, and a private outdoor space, a balcony. Unfortunately in San Jose, the building code is written in a way that developers are forced to minimize balconies. Building ordinance 20.75.120 .4 – Setback regulations. states: “Encroachments. The front setback area between the sidewalk and the build-to-line shall be kept open, unobstructed, and unoccupied on the surface of the ground, above the surface of the ground and below the surface of the ground by all buildings, structures, fences, ramps, or equipment, except as follows: J. Balconies located at or above the elevation of the third finished floor that project no more than three feet into the airspace above the pedestrian zone setback.”

One South sign 1
One South Market

The city ordinance prohibits balconies encroaching over “the pedestrian zone setback,” or in simpler terms hanging out over the sidewalk, resulting in only two balcony options. Either the developer sets the whole building back allowing for balconies to come to the easement line, like with Sobrato’s 150 South Second Street proposal, or they set in the balconies, like was down at One South Market, and is planned for Silvery Towers. But when developers set in balconies, they lose livable square footage inside the units. Because developers are limited on how high they can build in downtown due to the FAA height restrictions, they need to maximize their floor-plans, allowing for as much income generating livable square footage as possible.

Artist’s rendering of Sobrato’s 150 South Second Street(Via SVBJ)

This combination of restrictions makes keeping good design difficult. With set in balconies the articulation and interest of the building design diminishes and the building resembles an office building rather than a residential building. In order to keep pushing great building design in downtown, this ordinance needs to be reviewed, and revised to allow more flexible options for developers through an easement to build balconies out over the pedestrian zone setback. Not only will the buildings look better with more balconies, but residents will get a private outdoor space with their unit, something that is cherished and needed when living in an urban environment.

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