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Planning Commissioners: Why Are Data Centers So Ugly?

On June 19 the Santa Clara Architectural Review Committee had approved plans for a four-story, 160,450 square foot data center project located at 1150 Walsh Ave. The decision was subsequently appealed by attorneys Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardoza on behalf of California Unions for Reliable Energy, and on Aug. 28, the Planning Commission heard arguments from both the appellate and project applicant.

The project would construct a long, rectangular data center structure equipped with an electric substation, 11 backup diesel generators, 6,000 square foot office space, 40 parkings spots and bike racks. The plans include landscaping, improved site circulation and complete street frontage.

The appeal challenged the Mitigated Negative Declaration under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which found that all environmental impacts resulting from the project could be mitigated to less than significant level. The appellant’s position was that the City of Santa Clara’s findings underestimated the amount of nitrous oxide — a potent greenhouse gas — that would be produced by the data center as well as fire risks posed by lithium batteries.


Assistant City Attorney Alexander Abbe stated that the appellant is the most frequent requestor of the City’s public records. He also said that City staff take CEQA and public comments very seriously, but that staff’s data on nitrous oxide emissions and fire risks were more current than the appellants data, adding that the evidence provided by the appellant “is a joke.”

Lengthy discussion included comments from commissioners that the backup diesel generators would only be used during power outages or maintenance and so would not contribute significantly to emissions. It was also noted that lithium batteries are ubiquitous, posing infrequent safety issues.

Throughout the hearing, it was suggested that the appeal was a ploy to use CEQA’s stringent requirements to stall the project, possibly due to otherwise stalled negotiations for a Project Labor Agreement, and that the environmental concerns weren’t the primary reason for the appeal. Commissioner Yuki Ikezi decried the extra time that the commission had to spend on an appeal deemed not forthright, and that the appeal fee didn’t completely cover time spent by City staff on the matter.

“This is a classic case of where we need CEQA reform in the state of California,” said Commissioner Suds Jain. “These extremely low thresholds of impacts that trigger a full EIR [environmental impact report] are extremely cumbersome and extremely expensive for businesses in California.”

The Commission ultimately denied the appeal and upheld the project’s approval, but due to multiple Commissioners’ displeasure with the project’s exterior design, they included a condition that aesthetic treatments to the facade be added.

“I’ve seen a lot of these data centers in Santa Clara and they’re just big, blank boxes; they’re disgusting, they’re just so ugly and when I look at the picture of this one, it’s just one big white plane that’s not interesting,” Jain expressed. “I don’t understand how we allow this to happen in our city.”

Commissioner Nancy Biagini offered that the data center is, “Ugly but not as ugly as most” while Commissioner Priya Cherukuru said, “This one looks better than others we’ve seen in the City.” Commissioner Lance Saleme who lauded the project’s earthquake resiliency features commented that the overall design, “Isn’t horribly ugly but is below the threshold of what it could be” and “needs more visual interest.”

An architect from Gensler working on the project addressed the concerns saying that data centers generally pose complex design challenges and that this project has the added challenge of being on a long narrow land parcel. He said that attempts were made to break up the facade and use materials and colors that matched the surrounding area. In terms of the earthquake resiliency, the building is designed to have “seismic base isolation,” a feature allowing the earth to move while the building stays motionless so as to prevent damage. The project would be first data center in Santa Clara to have such a feature.


Other Business 

An application for an alcohol license for the Pruneridge Golf Course located at 400 Saratoga Ave. was approved by the Commission. The business already had a license to serve beer and wine but requested to be permitted to add liquor service. The establishment can serve the beverages in dining areas as well as from beverage carts on the golf course.

Commissioners relayed that the County of Santa Clara’s Board of Supervisors declared a Climate Emergency, calling for measures such as more Transportation Demand Management Plans and electric vehicle charging stations. The declaration comes amid rising global average temperatures due to fossil fuel burning and other human activities, leading to disasters such as worsening wildfires.

A recent report showed that the average temperature in Santa Clara County warmed 1.9 degrees Celsius (3.4 degrees Fahrenheit) between 1895 and 2018, above the one-degree Celsius (1.9 degree Fahrenheit) average for the U. S. during that time period. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has advised that global average temperature increase should not cross two-degrees Celsius.

The Santa Clara Planning Commission’s meeting on Sept. 11 has been canceled.


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