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City Desk: May 7, 2014

New Development Proposal Brings Industrial-to-Residential Conversion, Regional Planning Issues to the Fore

A study session preceding Apr. 24’s Santa Clara City Council meeting provided a look at issues that the Council will be grappling with in the not-too-distant future.

One is the conversion of industrial-zoned property to residential uses, and its increasing pace. Another is the increasing imperative for cities to cooperate seriously in regional planning – or risk having stranded, underserved neighborhoods. Another emerging issue is whether “open space” means “open space for public use” – i.e. parks – or merely real estate without buildings on it that may or may not be publically accessible.

What brought this to the fore is a conceptual proposal by Summerhill Homes for a residential and retail development on 27 acres on the north side of Kifer, east of Lawrence Expresssway.

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The acreage is in a small piece of Santa Clara that juts into Sunnyvale near the Lawrence Caltrain station. It’s currently home to one- and two-story industrial buildings dating back to the 1960s and 70s.

Described in the 2010 Santa Clara General Plan as the Lawrence Station area, it was slated for conversion from light industrial to high- and medium-density residential with some neighborhood retail between 2015 and 2025. The General Plan requires “the adoption of the comprehensive plan prior to any rezoning within that designated Future Focus Area.”

But Summerhill’s proposal has jumped the gun on the city’s schedule. The builder has optioned 14 parcels from seven separate owners, and needs to have a sense of the Council’s position about moving up the area’s transformation. Summerhill is proposing a “new urban” style development with 1,200 new residential units that range from four-story apartment buildings to two-story townhouses, with a mix of rental and for-sale housing at a variety of price points. Right now, the developer estimates costs at $500 million.

“We have an opportunity here with Summerhill to begin to discuss that area and potential opportunities,” said City Manager Julio Fuentes. “It’s the cart before the horse because we’re not ready to talk about the entire area – especially as you take out light industrial property and covert it to a another type of use. We’re not there yet, but they’re [Summerhill] trying to progress.”

The project would be laid out in a grid pattern, and include two “main streets” with neighborhood retail. Kifer Road would be improved to facilitate pedestrian access to the Caltrain station. Open space is mentioned in the plan, but when asked directly by Council Member Patricia Mahan whether this was public park space, Summerhill’s representatives said that would have to be discussed. However, the resort-style swimming pool in their presentation was definitely residents-only.

“I understand the market’s very hot for housing…we’ve got a lot of housing developments [in process],” said Mahan. “But good city planning doesn’t just respond to the market. It looks at what the city needs. And frankly, the loss of 27 acres of industrial land does concern me.

“As a council we did adopt our industrial land conversion policies, some time ago,” she continued, “and I don’t think we’ve changed our conversion policies and I’m not sure this fits our conversion policies. If we give up those 27 acres, we’re going to lose the [industrial uses] around it very quickly. It’s challenging enough [with] residential housing going up along the El Camino where they’ve got existing residential areas…to serve those areas. This is not contiguous to [other residential areas]. I don’t think that area’s ready for this kind of intensive use.”

Mayor Jamie Matthews echoed Mahan’s concerns. “If housing were our goal, we’d have the North San Jose plan. This is a piece…out of context…it doesn’t have any of the services. It’s the very extreme edge of the Lawrence Station area plan and it really does ‘poke a hole in the bull’s eye.’ Once you assemble that piece, it’s hard to stop the flow of residential as it moves toward it. As we encroach on those job-producing lands, it’s not just the services, it’s regulatory issues [about putting] sensitive receptors [occupants more susceptible to adverse effects from toxics and pollutants] on industrial land.

“I’m interested in the project,” said Council Member Lisa Gillmor. “I don’t think it’s that far from what we’re doing already. I think it’s a matter of what’s our threshold and how far are we going to take that residential into the industrial area. Where is going to be the dividing line where we say, ‘no?’ We have to make some decisions, what’s our tolerance level, how far out are we going to take residential? As far as transit-oriented residential, it doesn’t get any better than this. I like the idea of it, but I need to know more about it.”

Since the area is surrounded by Sunnyvale on three sides, Matthews wanted to know, “Why are we doing this prior to looking at Sunnyvale’s plans. It feels like an ‘island of service.’ Why would we be moving forward when it’s only part of a larger plan?”

Sunnyvale has been working on its Lawrence Station plan (www.lawrencestationinsunnyvale.org) since 2011. Sunnyvale’s land in the area dwarfs Santa Clara’s, as the accompanying map shows. Currently, Sunnyvale is considering three different plans: a residential development with 15,000 new housing units, an eight million sf office development, and a mixed used plan that would cut the office space by half. Sunnyvale estimates the land value at $1.4 million per acre, and that the city would garner between $10 million and $22 million in development impact fees alone.

Council Member Teresa O’Neill called the proposal a “clarion call” to accelerate the scheduled review of Santa Clara’s General Plan. “What we really need to do is look at our general plan and to look at some of the assumptions we made then [2010]. We’re making very big a lot of cumulative changes. We really have to look at a more comprehensive approach – including the school district.”

Paperless Agenda Moves Council into Digital Age, Saves Tons of Paper

Some 85,000 pages of photocopies – enough to reach across 216 football fields – will no longer be needed by Santa Clara since the City Council converted to a paperless agenda packet. Instead, Council Members will now receive their agenda packets electronically for viewing on a tablet or laptop. The public’s ability to look at agenda reports individually through the city website has also been expanded to allow download of the entire agenda packet in one PDF document.

“An electronic agenda packet allows Council Members to more efficiently make policy on behalf of the public,” said Council Member Debi Davis. “Here in Silicon Valley, using less paper and being cost effective is a natural fit.”

Not only does this save paper – conserving forests and natural habitats – it also reduces fossil fuel and water use, and greenhouse gas created by paper production, shipping and recycling, according to the City Clerk Rod Diridon, Jr. The electronic format also makes it easier to find individual agenda reports, review lengthy documents, and search for key words.

The project was an inter-departmental effort including the city’s IT Department, City Attorney’s Office, City Manager’s Office and City Clerk’s Office. Research and testing began in late 2013 and the first Council meeting to go digital was Apr. 22. “Paper agenda packets have been in place ever since the City was chartered in 1852,” said Santa Clara IT Director Gaurav Garg. “The City Council’s shift to iPads represents a significant culture shift in leading by example as the City progresses into a digital world.”

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