After several hours of public comment and commission discussion, the Santa Clara Planning Commission voted against recommending that the City Council approve a proposed townhouse development project at 166-170 Saratoga Ave. on Aug. 6. Walnut Creek-based The New Home Company is proposing a 33-unit, three-story townhouse development with 72 parking spaces on the 1.74 square foot lot (at the corner of San Tomas). At least three units will sell at below-market “affordable” prices.
At the meeting, the developer presented a design that was significantly revised from the company’s initial proposal to the Planning Commission in April. The project would require a zoning change (from single family to planned development) as well as a change in the General Plan land use designation from Mixed Use to Medium Density Residential.
The project site and nearby properties along the west side of Saratoga Avenue are designated in the 2010 General Plan as Community Mixed Use (19 to 36 units per acre with a 10 percent floor area ratio for commercial uses). Neighboring properties on the east side of Saratoga Avenue can be Medium Density Residential (19 to 36 units per acre) or Community Mixed Use. There are office buildings behind the property that have a right-of-way that runs between the two existing houses.
The Santa Clara Planning Department recommended approval of New Home’s proposal on the grounds that the development provided more for-purchase housing and less intense use of the land. Further, the zoning change was justified because there is already a shopping plaza across the street, and Stevens Creek Boulevard is an easily walk-able three blocks away.
The property is owned by the Boyto family trust, and the most recent occupant is 96 and moving into an assisted living home. Selling the property would provide the money to pay for her care. “She agreed with the idea of having town homes rather than apartments,” said one family member at the Aug. 6 meeting. “She knows how hard it is for families to find places to live, and she wants so much to see a street with the family’s name.”
Opposition to the development comes from a group calling itself SaveTheOrchard, the homeowners association of Vista Del Lago condominiums on Buckingham Avenue, and owners of single-family houses on Estella Drive, which backs the property. The objections include added traffic and congestion at a busy intersection, lack of privacy and the buildings’ height.
Last Remnant of Original Spanish Land Grant
Probably the biggest issue, though, that brought people out to speak at the Planning Commission meeting was whether or not the property is historic and should be preserved in its current form.
The parcel is the last remaining piece of the original 13,310-acre Quito Ranch Mexican land grant in 1841 to José Zenon Fernandez and Jose Noriega. In 1920, the Boyto family bought 10 acres of that land and farmed it as an orchard. They sold most of it in the 1960s, leaving only the 1.73-acre parcel with its small orchard. The property was annexed to Santa Clara in the 1960s.
There are two houses on the land – one circa 1915 that was moved from Cypress Avenue when Interstate 280 was built, and the other built around 1950. There is also a small orchard that was planted between 1955 and 1960, according to the family.
The previous owner, Jack Boyto, who died in 2006, was an active preservationist. He played an instrumental role in the preservation of the Headen-Inman house and the Harris-Lass historic preserve, according to City Historian Lori Garcia.
The Historical & Landmarks Commission (HLC) reviewed the proposal in April, and asked for more information on the property’s historical importance. The analysis by San Jose-based Archives & Architecture concluded that the property lacked historic significance and the houses weren’t eligible for historic listing under current city policies.
“The property was not found to exhibit individual character and interest in a way that reflects the heritage and cultural development of the City,” A&A wrote. “It is not associated with a historical event, important individual or group or other activity, nor does it have a direct association with broad patterns of local area history. The site was also considered for original native trees, topographical features, or outbuildings, but none were found of significance.”
At its May 1 meeting, the HLC declared the property historically significant, and requested the developer to name the access drive after the Boytos, and to provide identifiers throughout the site to memorialize the original farm.
The developer agreed to name a street for the family, as well as add landscaping that reflects Santa Clara’s heritage as a city of orchards. Following the meeting, New Home met with neighbors and made additional modifications. These included increased setbacks and landscaping, and reduced building heights facing single-family houses. In addition, open space along the street frontage would be planted with fruit trees to recognize the existing remnant orchard owned by the Boyto family.
As of this writing, none of the parties to the project – the neighbors, SaveTheOrchard, property owners, or the developer – have responded to the WEEKLY’s requests to be included in community meetings, for interviews, or for further information.
The Planning Commission’s discussion seemed to indicate that the reasoning behind its ultimate vote against recommending project approval – as well as its vote against the rezoning – was far from unanimous. (The commission only makes recommendations to the Council. Final approval of significant developments rests solely with the Council).
Commissioner Steve Kelly thought the buildings should be higher to allow the maximum units allowed by the General Plan, and more exterior landscaping, while Commissioner Debra Costa thought the buildings should be only two stories. Commission Chair Ian Champeny observed that no one would undertake the costly move of a structure that wasn’t of historical interest.
Other questions came up about whether sufficient light and shadow studies had been done, and whether there was adequate parking – given that there is no street parking and no proposal to share use of the office building’s lot. Further, Commissioner Keith Stattenfield questioned whether it was within the Commission’s purview to recommend zoning changes to the General Plan.
The earliest the project will be reviewed by the Council is Aug. 19. If it’s not on the agenda then, the next date will be mid-September. Find out more about the proposal at http://santaclaraca.gov/index.aspx?page=2571&recordid=67.
In the interests of full disclosure: Carolyn Schuk lives in a 27 year-old townhouse about half a block from the proposed project.