Wednesday Santa Clara celebrated a groundbreaking at 90 N. Winchester, former home of the University of California’s Bay Area Research And Extension Center (BAREC) and future home of CORE Companies’ Santa Clara Agrihood.
Not only was the event a literal ground-breaking, the development also broke ground as first-of-its-kind urban development in Northern California with a working farm at its center — a reminder of the site’s history as an agricultural research station that closed in 2002. The development joins about 90 agrihoods in the U.S.
The project is so noteworthy that it won an award even before a shovel went in the ground, and Santa Clara’s state representatives Senator Bob Wieckowski and Assemblyman Alex Lee presented CORE with State recognitions on Wednesday.
The project overcame many hurdles since it was first proposed in 2015, and Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor had that in mind when she said she couldn’t quite “believe I’m standing here right now, taking so many years to get here. If this dirt could talk, the stories it could tell.” Even at the last minute, cost increases threatened to shut down the project.
The result was worth the wait, Gillmor said.
“Today is a really important day, as we make progress towards developing critical housing in Silicon Valley and really realizing a long-term vision on this property,” she said, highlighting the 361 new homes and 181 affordable housing units reserved for veterans and for seniors. “It’s an important part of Santa Clara’s larger plan.
“And [it’s] not just any housing development, but one that provides for the community,” Gillmor continued. “The city looked at the potential of this project to bring people together through the farm, through the special events, and also the meeting spaces.” The Agrihood is “creation of a new community… providing a connection with our rich agricultural history.”
Santa Clara’s Agrihood became a reality because of the efforts of many non-profits, government agencies, businesses and elected officials said Susan Ellenberg, County Supervisor District 4.
“I want to make that clear,” she said. “This is how work gets done, through multiple partnerships around an important goal. This is how it happens.” Among those partners are Housing Trust Silicon Valley, Capital One and Chase Bank, and the County’s Measure A Bond.
The project is a fresh approach for addressing California’s affordable housing crisis, said Senator Wieckowski. “It brings a different texture with the agricultural element,” he said. “Housing is more than a house. It’s a home. We need communities, not just ‘infill’ or housing projects.”
To follow Agrihood progress, visit www.agrihood-sc.com.
Two Decades of History Comes Full Circle
The story begins about 20 years ago with a 1999 deal between the UC Board of Regents and former Gov. Gray Davis’ administration, giving the 17-acre parcel to the state in return for $2 million for the UC. The state could then sell the land at market price. Community environmental activist and Rose Garden resident Kathryn Matthewson was an early opponent of the UC deal, and built the core group that advocated maintaining the site for agricultural use.
Santa Clara could however, purchase some of the land at below market price for low-income housing, so 165 affordable senior apartments to be developed by non-profit Charities Housing were added to the project. In 2002, Santa Clara’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA) purchased six acres from the State. The sale required the first of two pieces of special legislation that the project ultimately required. Summerhill Homes would purchase the remaining 11 acres.
In 2005, Summerhill Homes proposed a residential development on the site. Facing a deficit, Santa Clara had few choices: approve development on the parcel or risk the state using it for a government building. Further, because the UC tested insecticides there, the site was an EPA “brownfield.” If the City approved the development, the State would remove the contaminated dirt.
After the City Council approved the development in 2007, development opponents SaveBAREC forced a ballot measure and a lawsuit, but both of these failed and the Summerhill project went forward.
The senior apartment plan came to a screeching halt when California shutdown redevelopment agencies in 2011 and the county tried to “claw back” the six acres owned by the City’s RDA. When that wrangle finally ended around 2013 with the City retaining the title, there was no redevelopment money to finance the 2002 plan and skyrocketing land value meant the project wouldn’t ‘pencil out’ for a builder.
Then-City Manager Julio Fuentes proposed that the City find a developer willing to combine the affordable housing — the terms of the City’s purchase — with market rate housing, and the City invited proposals.
A community group led by a foremost opponent of the original development project, San Jose resident Kirk Vartan, returned in 2015 with an innovative idea for the six acres: an “agrihood” built around a shared farm, combining affordable and market rate housing.
“I want to see something creative,” said then-Council Member Lisa Gillmor in 2015. “I don’t want to see conventional senior-plus-market-rate housing. This is going to be a signature property for us.”
The Council accepted CORE Companies’ proposal in 2015. The company has long experience developing affordable housing financed with tax credits. It would take another five years, overcoming financing and entitlement challenges; and even “revisioning” demanded by the project’s foremost proponent, Vartan, that further delayed the project and changed the design.
Years of effort came to fruition on Wednesday, and the next landmark will be the Agrihood’s grand opening in 2023.
“Despite the length of time, I think the fact that we were able to reach out to the community and get their buy-in was key. We’re very grateful,” said CORE President and CEO David Neale. “This is a unique project and we hope to repeat it.”
Neale will get his chance if longtime Agrihood fan and San Jose community activist Chris Stanton has anything to say about it. “We need not just one agrihood in every city in America, we need 10 or 20 of them in every major urban center,” Stanton said.
A 2006 Q&A provides an overview of the situation when the City approved the initial development and the site’s earlier history. Many of the stories referenced here come from SaveBAREC.org’s archives.