Last Thursday, the Santa Clara City Council appointed Director of Public Works Rajeev Batra as Acting City Manager, following the resignation of City Manager Julio Fuentes. Batra joined Santa Clara in 2003 as Director of Public Works, following 18 years with the City of San Jose: Batra started as head civil engineer in San Jose’s transportation division, and moved up to deputy public works director and acting public works director.
In 2013 Batra was honored by the American Public Works Association and received its Outstanding Service in Public Sector Award.
Batra has worked on major Santa Clara development projects, first and foremost of which is the design and construction of Levi’s Stadium. He has also played an active role in current and planned development projects, including Irvine’s Santa Clara Square and Related’s City Place Santa Clara.
“On behalf of the entire City Council, we thank Assistant City Manager and Economic Development Officer Ruth Shikada for her willingness to step in as Acting City Manager while the Council went through the appointment process for the long-term Acting City Manager,” said Mayor Lisa Gillmor in a news release.
Batra has “not only the experience and exceptional qualifications to be the Acting City Manager, he will be able to lead the City through a time of transition where we will come together as a Council and staff to work towards building a bright future for Santa Clara.”
The Council spent three hours discussing the appointment in closed session on April 5, reporting nothing publically. The discussion may have continued in the closed session after the regular Council meeting. On Thursday, the news release went out at 5:14 p.m.
With the Council’s present focus on infrastructure – both the needs for the future and currently overdue maintenance and replacement – Batra is a logical choice.
Legendary city manager Don Von Raesfeld, began his career in Santa Clara as a civil engineer, working his way up to Director of Public Works, and finally City Manager in 1961. He was routinely described in the press as “the most powerful man in Santa Clara.”
El Camino Commercial Proposal Denied
The first item on last week’s City Council meeting agenda is a good example of the conflict Acting City Manager Batra will now face that he’s on the firing line.
A proposal to redevelop the corner of El Camino and Las Palmas (across from La Paloma) was unanimously denied by the Council at the Apr. 5 Council meeting; but not before hearing from several dozen irate residents. The proposal from developer Oakland Realty Loan Service was for a 4,600 sf commercial building with a Five Guys restaurant, a UPS store and a Starbucks drive-through.
The Planning Commission first reviewed the project on Nov. 4, 2015. The developer brought back a re-designed plan on Dec. 10, 2015, which the commission voted against approving. The site is zoned thoroughfare-commercial, and currently houses a used car dealer and a now-vacant drive-through restaurant. The commercial development has been there for 40 years.
The residential neighborhood adjoining the property was up in arms about the proposal, despite the fact that the El Camino has been a traffic-heavy commercial strip since virtually all of the neighborhood’s residents have lived there.
The drive-through seemed to arouse the most ire. The neighbors seemed to believe that despite the steep decline in smoking in the U.S., the Starbucks would attract a disproportionate number of smokers.
“The added pollution that will be created by the idling cars of the Drive Thru, cars driving in and out of the parking lot, and the people that will inevitably be smoking in their cars, in the parking lot, on the patio, all along the length of our backyard would make it impossible to enjoy our backyard,” wrote a resident who has lived on the adjacent street for five years.
“Even with No Smoking Signs posted, we all know it would be impossible to enforce. People will still smoke in their cars with their windows down, in both the Drive Thru and parking lot, on the patio, and the car exhaust would be uncontrollable. Our backyard is a place of solitude for us … Who will pay our hospital bills when one of us has a respiratory attack after a day in the backyard?”
“People cannot be stopped from smoking in their cars, blowing the smoke out their windows, as they idle alongside our back yard,” another wrote. “And I see people lighting up on the outdoor patio of the new ‘Habit’ in the Target center all the time. We would never again be able to relax in and enjoy our own backyard.”
Only one person, Civil Service Commissioner Mario Bouza, spoke in favor of the project, noting that it conformed to the 2010 General Plan as well as the City’s goal of improving the shabby run-down appearance of the El Camino.
The public hearing didn’t finish without a Council tongue-lashing from gadfly Deborah Bress, who said later at the meeting that she found it “heartwarming to see people coming together saying ‘no’ and hell no.'”
“You’re hearing overwhelmingly the citizens do not want a drive through,” she said. “For once put your mouth where your money is and represent the citizens of Santa Clara. Stop putting things where they don’t fit. Go put it in Sunnyvale, go put it in San Jose. For once represent the citizens of Santa Clara. Stop representing the big businesses.”
The deal-killer for the Council also appeared to be the drive-through, although apparently no one had alerted the developer to that previously. The project is designed something like the Target Plaza – although it’s much smaller – facing inward toward a parking lot. “When we first spoke to the city planning department,” said owner Paul Bosman. “We were asked to configure it the way it is now. That was the recommendation of senior staff.”
“I want to thank the developer for building a project that they thought the city wanted,” said Mayor Lisa Gillmor. “I would like to have this redesigned with the businesses facing the El Camino. The design is such that it will affect the neighborhood.”
With this kind of conflict and confusion becoming a routine part of the Council’s deliberation about development projects, business owner Kirk Vartan said that if this what the City needs to meet the objectives that residents voted for when they approved the 2010 General Plan, the Council has a responsibility to clearly explain what needs to be done and why.
So far, though, the decisions of the Council’s new majority – the group that billed itself as “the girls” before it was the majority – appear to be guided by the loudest complaining.
Requiescat in Pace
The April 5 meeting was adjourned in memory of someone who brightened the lives of everyone who knew her, and many who knew her only through the untold amount of quiet good that she did throughout the community: Nancy Marsalli, the wife of Council Member Jerry Marsalli. “We lost a good friend,” said Council Member Pat Kolstad. “She will be missed for all her strength and all the hugs she gave everybody.”