Current policy evolution in Los Gatos, CA demonstrates the power that urban planners have to alter property rights. The Silicon Valley municipality is currently debating whether or not to upzone a parcel where a developer would like to build 550,000 square feet of office space, replacing 250,000 square feet of an older office park.
The lots, located near the Netflix headquarters, are thought to be the potential site for the company’s needed expansion. However, the Bay Area is already home to ample vacant office space, so the developer would like the alternative option of building multifamily housing in the location. In response to this request for a change in zoning that would allow either use, the planning commission chairwoman said she was “blindsided” by the owner seeking permission for options to use the land in various ways.
In today’s world of master plans that dictate acceptable uses for each parcel of a city’s land, asking for the freedom to build different types of buildings, rather than approaching a commission with a plan in place for a specific zoning change, may seem out of line. In reality the owner is simply seeking permission to put his land to its most efficient use given future uncertainties. Entrepreneurs profit by seeing through these uncertainties to put resources to their most profitable uses, but in the market for land, policies limit their ability to do so.
In curent conditions, in which developers are not building much new office space unless it is pre-leased, the planning commission has the power to determine the land’s expected value by requiring the owner to commit to a plan before moving forward with redevelopment. This is a classic Coasean case of the care that policy makers must take in assigning property rights. Russ Roberts and Richard Epstein did a podcast that clearly discusses the importance of property rights in the market for land here.
The Los Gatos case is an interesting one in which city planning staff has been working with the owner to create scenarios for both office and multifamily developments, but the commission is reluctant to permit such flexibility. At this time, the planning commission has asked for more time to consider the proposal and for further information from the property owners. Millions of dollars are at stake here, not just for the developer and the owner, but also for the county that currently receives $18 million in tax revenues yearly from Netflix, so it will be interesting to follow the future of this development.