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Council Defeats Summerhill Housing Project, Gives City Manager Raise

A mixed-use development slated to be located on El Camino Real fizzled out after the Santa Clara City Council was unable to agree whether the project fit into the Council’s community vision.

The Council defeated the motion 4-3 at its Tuesday night meeting. Vice Mayor Dominic Caserta, Council Members Pat Kolstad and Teresa O’Neill supported the project, but the rest of the Council–Council Members Kathy Watanabe, Debi Davis, Patricia Mahan and Mayor Lisa Gillmor–rejected the project set to be located from 2232 to 2240 El Camino Real.

Summerhill Homes, a Campbell-based developer, was asking for a General Plan amendment to switch the project, which would sport 151 apartments and nearly 11,000 square feet of retail space, to a planned development. The site is home to a bike shop, a Verizon store, an Indian restaurant and a salon.

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Elaine Breeze, with Summerhill, said the four-and-five-story project is “very different from other mixed-use developments in Santa Clara.” The development’s benefits to the City include improvements to a traffic signal in the area, earmarking 10 “affordable” apartments, its $300,000 in contributions to the local school district and the $3.14 million in park fees.

After several community meetings, Breeze said Summerhill has changed the project significantly to accommodate public concern. However, she said it was not feasible to reduce the entire project to a three-and-four-story development.

Members of the public and the Council expressed concern over the lack of retail space within the project. Summerhill counted the public plaza and leasing office for the complex among its commercial square footage.

“The General Plan is not intended to supercede zoning laws,” said resident Howard Myers. “We are counting on the City Council to step back and take a breather.”

In typical fashion, Council mainstay Deborah Bress called the project “obscene” and “absurd,” adding that by approving the project the Council would be “doing the dirty.” She said that City employees were “defending the developer” and questioned who was “paying off Council Members.”

“This is maxing out everything. Do we ever do anything that is the minimum?” she said.“You are going to build a silo on El Camino. Goody gumdrops … Are you guys really that dumb?”

Those who supported the project pointed to a lack of housing being responsible for driving up rental costs in the area.

Fellow Council mainstay, Kirk Vartan, a San Jose resident who runs a business in Santa Clara, said he is “not a fan” of Summerhill. However, he said, “they are developing something that is needed in the City.”

“Without supply, you are not going to be able to lower the cost for everybody,” he said.

Still, Breeze insisted that Summerhill asked for the switch to planned development because the zoning ordinance does not include a regional mixed-use designation. She assured the Council that, although the proposal did not specify any potential tenants for the commercial space, that the development would create “vibrant retail.” She said Summerhill is open to adding more retail space; however, she noted that doing so would likely cut into the public plaza portion of the project.

Vice Mayor Caserta said he no doubt that Summerhill had done “robust community outreach,” a comment that drew scoffs from members of the public seated near the back of the Council Chambers.

Many took issue with the height of the buildings and a perceived increase to traffic in the area.

Council Member Kolstad said he supported the project because it helps to “alleviate the jobs to housing imbalance,” adding that the project is “the right project in the right place.” Council Member O’Neill called the project “nuanced,” adding that “we need to start looking at retail differently.”

But not everybody agreed.

“There could be five million units there, and it is not going to make a difference,” said Mark Apton, a Santa Clara resident. “We need to clamp down on these developers.”

Despite opposing the project, Mayor Gillmor and others said they had no particular qualm with Summerhill, saying that the project was not bad, per say, just that it isn’t right in this location as is. Council Member Watanabe said it wasn’t “smart development,” and Gillmor said it didn’t “check off enough boxes” on the “community benefit” front.

Also on the agenda was a merit-based raise for City Manager Rajeev Batra. The Council unanimously approved a five percent increase in Batra’s $301,692 yearly salary, increasing it to $316,776 a year.

During an impromptu public comments section at the end of the meeting, Burt Field, with Stand Up For Santa Clara, took issue with the City advertising in The Santa Clara Weekly, questioning whether the paper is one of “general circulation” and whether the City was “wasting taxpayer dollars by advertising in the Weekly.”

Stand Up for Santa Clara is an organization that describes itself as “a coalition of concerned citizens working to protect the democratic process in Santa Clara and prevent the San Francisco 49ers and special interest groups from taking over our community” but is not a legally recorded as a charity, community benefit organization, advocacy group, political action committee, or a business.

The next City Council meeting will be 7 p.m. March 21 at City Hall, 1500 Warburton Ave.

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