Silicon Valley/SJ Business Journal: City Planners to Benefit from New Certificate Program

SJSU’s urban planning degree tops for working professionals

Published by the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal April 27, 2012.

By David Goll

The 41-year-old Urban and Regional Planning master’s degree program at San Jose State University is recognized as one of the nation’s most highly rated programs having a reputation for providing practical, real-world lessons for its students.

The program trains planners for a wide array of Bay Area public agencies, from the city of San Jose to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. But it also provides a pipeline of talent for privately owned development and construction companies in the region.

It’s the only program in the Bay Area that is geared to working professionals. The only other such Bay Area program — the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley — is considered more theoretical.

“Half of the faculty are practitioners, planning directors and principal planners, who teach students the nuts and bolts of the planning business,” said Scott Lefaver, a member of the program’s first graduating class in 1972, a former faculty member and current chairman of the Santa Clara County Planning Commission. Lefaver is also spearheading a move to establish a planning and development certificate program in the department designed for planners and developers. It’s an effort to expose those in both professions — often at loggerheads — to the requirements of their jobs, the pressures and challenges each sector of the industry faces.

It’s an attempt to create more understanding and cooperation in the development process, Lefaver said. It’s based on a pioneer program at the University of Southern California , where Lefaver earned a doctoral degree in public administration. It will be a “hybrid” format, he said: mostly online with a few face-to-face classes.

As a result of state budget cuts, Lefaver is leading an effort to raise $100,000 from private sources to launch the certificate program. About $80,000 has been raised so far. Lefaver said major contributions have come from John Vidovich, owner of De Anza Properties, a Sunnyvale-based residential development firm, and Charles Davidson, a developer and philanthropist who made a $15 million gift to San Jose State University’s College of Engineering in 2007.

Asha Weinstein Agrawal, a San Jose State associate professor and chairwoman of the Urban and Regional Planning department, said state budget cuts have had a major impact on her program. This spring, there are 100 students enrolled, down from a high of 160 a few years ago. As in past years, about two-thirds of her students are professionals working in public agencies and private companies.

“We have a very diverse group of students,” she said. “Many of them are seasoned planning professionals who see our program as a way to advance their careers. But we also have people from unrelated fields, like teachers or high-tech workers, who want to change careers.” The cuts have an impact on future workforce development.

But that hasn’t stopped Weinstein Agrawal from looking at ways to broaden the program’s appeal. One way is by offering Saturday workshops for those who can’t study full-time in such subject areas as Urban Geographic Information System (GIS) Technology.

One of the alumni is Hing Wong, a 1996 graduate, and senior regional planner at Oakland-based ABAG, the regional planning agency for the nine-county Bay Area. Wong teaches a quantitative methodology course in the program.

“Taking quantitative methodology helped me do a much better job analyzing data,” Wong said. “Working in a regional planning organization, you must do a lot of forecasting. Skills I learned in the San Jose State program have helped me to that part of my job.”

During the current semester, the department’s curriculum includes 39 course sections on topics ranging from local politics to introduction to land use, comparative urban design and Urban GIS technology. San Jose State has one of nine accredited programs in California, a group that includes Berkeley, USC, UCLA, the University of California, Irvine; and the California Polytechnic State University campuses at Pomona and San Luis Obispo.