At its Dec. 10, 2014 meeting, the Santa Clara Planning Commission approved “with conditions” Essex Property Trusts’ proposed Gateway Village development at 3610 and 3640 El Camino Real (at the intersection of Lawrence Expressway), now currently Kohl’s Plaza. It’s expected to be on the City Council agenda in late January or early February, and, if approved, to be open in 2017. All of the usual complaints are being voiced, but the real challenge is that this project will significantly worsen traffic, and there appears to be no way to alleviate that.
Redeveloping the 12.6-acre property has been under consideration for more than 10 years, but it has yet to get off the ground.
Los Altos-based Santa Clara Square (SCS) LLC bought the parcel in 2004 for about $17 million. SCS proposed a five to nine story development with 490 condominiums, 171,000 square feet of retail space, and 12,300 square feet of office space. That proposal drew huge opposition in neighboring Sunnyvale as well as in the surrounding Santa Clara neighborhood.
However, no blueprints ever materialized, and on Dec. 21, 2009 SCS declared bankruptcy – reportedly the day before a scheduled foreclosure sale. (The company’s leading partners were notable for their involvement in several high profile South Bay development project failures, including Cupertino Square at the Vallco mall). In 2011, Essex Property Trust took control of the El Camino parcel as part of plan to resolve the bankruptcy, initially paying $9.3 million for 85 percent ownership of the property; valued at that time at $19 million.
Essex renamed the project Gateway Village, spent over a year conducting community outreach meetings, and returned to the City in late 2013 with a new plan, lower in density and height than the 2003 concept; and significantly lower density than is specified for the area in the 2010 Santa Clara General Plan.
The current proposal includes 85,000 sf of retail and business space in a plaza, rather than a strip mall, design. The residential development will be a four-story, garden-style apartment complex with 475 market-rate apartments, 70 percent of which will be one-bedroom and the rest two-bedroom. It will be what the Essex spokesman called, “workforce housing;” new-speak for “no families or children.” This answers concerns about the impact on schools.
Retail is planned facing the El Camino, while the back – Kohl’s current location – will be residential; with a six-story garage at the center that will be topped with a swimming pool and other private amenities. Surface parking will provide 292 parking spaces for retail use, with the garage supplying nearly 800 spaces, mostly for residents.
From a revenue perspective, the development is a win for the City. The property’s current assessed value is $19 million. The completed project’s value is estimated at $186 million, according to santaclaraca.gov. The current shopping plaza brings about $150,000 in sales tax to the city. Estimates for the new development are $2.7 million.
The Santa Clara Planning Department started work on the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) in April 2013, releasing the 360-page draft EIR for review on Nov. 26, 2014.
The neighborhood’s concerns include “less privacy,” construction noise, noise from pool areas – pools in the existing nearby apartment and condominium complexes apparently don’t create noise – and “visual impacts due to new residents.” It’s unclear how seeing other people in a city is an “impact” requiring “mitigation;” unless it’s assumed that newcomers are slobs.
Residents are also concerned that the new retail be “family-oriented.” (This would seem to be at odds with the “workforce housing” design. The “workforce” living in $2,500 one-bedroom apartments are typically young, childless, tech professionals, who want grownup venues for relaxation after putting in typical Silicon Valley 10-hour days. Chuck-E-Cheese doesn’t fit that profile.)
The real problem with the development is a “significant and unavoidable impact to traffic,” for which there is no solution, according to the EIR.
“The addition of project traffic would exacerbate unacceptable traffic operations at the intersections of El Camino Real/Halford Avenue, El Camino Real/Helen Avenue, and Lawrence Expressway/Homestead Road. No feasible mitigation measures have been identified to reduce impacts to a less-than-significant level; therefore, these impacts would be significant and unavoidable.” Only reducing the retail space by about 40 percent would diminish the added traffic, according to the City’s analysis.
The Planning Commission voted to approve the project with a small reduction in the retail space; although Commission Chair Keith Stattenfield – who couldn’t participate in the Commission discussion or vote because he lives in the neighborhood – remarked that it seemed like a cop-out to identify a significant problem and then simply label it insoluble.
There’s another alternative that, by law, must be considered in the EIR: no project. That would have the advantage of not creating any environmental or traffic impacts.
However, not pursuing the development would run counter the objectives of the El Camino Real Focus Area of City’s General Plan; which include: revitalizing underperforming commercial properties; co-locating commercial and retail services with housing; alleviating Santa Clara’s jobs/housing imbalance; and maximizing densities along El Camino to provide that housing while preserving the character of surrounding single family neighborhoods.
Doing nothing also has the disadvantage that it won’t grow city revenues, not to mention the cost of a dead shopping center if Kohl’s were to leave. Santa Clarans have already seen that happen once, at Mervyn’s Plaza. It took six years to bring that shopping center back to life.
View the Gateway Village EIR at http://tinyurl.com/gateway-village-eir.