Vallco Town Center rendering
April 3, 2018

Cupertino Courier: Community reacts to developer’s plan for old Vallco mall


Khalida Sarwari of the Cupertino Courier talked to Silicon Valley at Home (SV@Home) Deputy Director Pilar Lorenzana about the Sand Hill Property Company’s proposal to redevelop the decrepit Vallco Shopping Mall in Cupertino, which could add 2,402 new housing units to the city, half of which (1,202) would be affordable.

See the original story at the San Jose Mercury News.

Community reacts to developer’s plan for old Vallco mall

By Khalida Sarwari

Regardless of whether the Cupertino community likes or hates the newest plan to remake the Vallco Shopping Mall — and the reaction has been mixed so far — project developer Sand Hill Property Co. appears to be in the driver’s seat this time.

That’s because a new law authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener allows developers to get badly needed housing built without having to run through the usual gauntlet of anti-growth forces that traditionally have used land-use rules and legal maneuvers to thwart unwanted projects.

The legislation, SB35, requires cities to approve certain residential and mixed-use projects that meet their zoning and planning rules within 180 days.

So if Cupertino officials don’t like the new Vallco Town Center project, their recourse is limited. They essentially have to show it doesn’t comply with SB35 or come up with an alternative plan that Sand Hill can consider but isn’t obligated to accept, Vice Mayor Rod Sinks acknowledged in an interview.

“Assuming they’ve done their homework thoroughly, we don’t have discretion to turn down the project,” Sinks said. “We will have to entitle it. That means they’ll have three years thereafter to start building it.”

Added Councilwoman Savita Vaidhyanathan: “To the extent we can under local purview, we will complete a full legal review to make sure this project complies with all objective standards in compliance with state laws.”

City Attorney Randolph Hom did not return calls or emails asking what legal course he might advise the city to take.

What Sand Hill proposes to do is transform the dying 58-acre shopping center into 2,402 residential units — half of which would be deemed affordable — 1.8 million square feet of office space and 400,000 square feet of retail, as well as brand-new amenities such as theaters, a bowling alley and an ice skating rink. As in the original plan, the development would be covered by a 30-acre rooftop garden.

Already, some critics who said Sand Hill’s first major office and housing proposal would increase traffic, overcrowd schools and ruin retail are finding fault with its latest plan.

Vanessa Su, a supporter of the Better Cupertino political action committee that galvanized opposition to Sand Hill’s original Hills at Vallco plan, said the latest iteration will further strain the city’s maxed-out schools.

“It will bring a lot of kids, and although I’ve heard some people are saying the number of students are declining, I have kids in the schools; the schools are very crowded,” said Su, a high-tech engineer who’s lived in the city for 20 years. “We are adding an additional 1,000 kids. I don’t think the schools will be able to accommodate that many kids.”

Su said she’s also worried about the practicality and feasibility of the proposed green rooftop. She wants the city to hold Sand Hill accountable for maintaining it so residents won’t be forced to pick up the tab.

“Sand Hill doesn’t have a good reputation and this project is way too big, and I feel like to maintain this green roof will be very, very expensive,” she said.

Rich Altmaier is tired of hearing such complaints. When he moved to Cupertino 30 years ago, the city was more tolerant of development, he said, and as a result, he and his wife were able to buy a house, raise a family and eventually retire there. Now, he’s seeing his children and their friends struggle to do the same.

“Our job is to make space for the next generation,” he said. And Vallco, which he has seen steadily deteriorate from the teeming mall it once was, presents such an opportunity.

“Cupertino is a city of grumpy, old people,” Altmaier said. “We need youth and children and the liveliness of that. I think SB35 is a great regulation to help city councils get things done and avoid the typical grumpy people.”

He said the city “desperately” needs affordable housing, which is “something that will benefit the greater good, not just a few.”

Although he isn’t thrilled about all the office space proposed, “I know that the developer has to make a profit and I respect that,” Altmaier added.

For Pilar Lorenzana, deputy director of SV@Home, a pro-affordable housing organization, Sand Hill’ls plan to provide 1,201 affordable homes is welcome news.

“Presently, there are more than 14 low-wage workers competing for each affordable home in (Cupertino),” she said. “The Vallco Town Center proposal will certainly alleviate housing problems for lower-waged workers in Cupertino but will also provide housing affordability for others.”

Hannah Follweiler Phipps, a resident who moved from Florida to Cupertino three years ago, also lauds the plan’s housing aspect.

“There are far too many people that are on a waiting list for low-income housing,” she said. “There are too many people that have to leave the Bay Area even though they grew up here and their family is here, because they can no longer afford it; it’s a struggle.”

But Councilwoman Vaidhyanathan said while Sand Hill generally has the right idea, its housing proposal doesn’t quite hit the mark.

“The project will, in effect, add more jobs than housing and further imbalance the jobs-to-housing ratio we have in the area,” she said. “The proposal also increases the overall height of the project, which is concerning.”

Joseph Fruen, an attorney and third-generation city resident, said although he didn’t appreciate how Sand Hill outmaneuvered Cupertino’s elected leaders through SB35, he primarily blames Better Cupertino for forcing the developer’s hand by repeatedly trying to block any progress at Vallco over the years.

“I am most saddened that if the community-driven process truly fails, that we may have lost a real chance for the community to reconcile over Vallco,” he said. “If the SB35 project comes to fruition, we won’t be able to say we built that. It will be a spectacular monument to the Trump age of uncivil discourse and fake news. We can thank Better Cupertino for that result.”

Fruen was referring to a ballot measure the political action committee placed on the November 2016 ballot in an attempt to lock in the mall property for commercial development only. Sand Hill countered  with its own measure, asking voters to approve the Hills at Vallco plan. Both measures were defeated, effectively stopping the project in its tracks .

Compared to Sand Hill’s first plan, which also envisioned lots of housing in addition to office and retail space, Michael Trotter, a senior database administrator who’s lived in Cupertino for 12 years, said he likes the new one better. More than anything, Trotter said, he feels let down by his city’s leaders.

“I’m actually disappointed in them because I think they’ve been moving slowly in working with the community and the developer in pushing this through,” he said. “I think they are listening to the Better Cupertino people too much and not taking the whole community into account.”

In the fall, debate stirred up again when Sand Hill submitted a formal request to restart the process for redeveloping Vallco. It agreed to give $3 million to the city to engage the community, paving the way for informal meetings in February and March led by Opticos, a Berkeley-based architecture and urban design firm.

The plan is to proceed with that process, council members Vaidhyanathan and Sinks said, adding they hope Sand Hill’s new plan will motivate people to participate in upcoming meetings. Sinks said it would be wise for Sand Hill to consider potential benefits to residents along with its own economic interests.

“I think the message (Sand Hill) is sending with this plan is this is something real we can execute and we are serious about getting something done. But, if they really didn’t care, they could say, give us the balance of that $3 million back.”

Mayor Darcy Paul said he wonders how the planning process will evolve now that Sand Hill already has a plan.

“It really does come as a bit of a surprise with regards to timing insofar as what’s being proposed,” he said.

Paul said he’s refraining from publicly discussing the specifics of the plan until he’s had a chance to review it with City Attorney Hom and City Manager David Brandt.

Paul urged residents to meanwhile take a balanced and even-keeled approach.

“It’s really important for us to step back and realize that a little over 50 acres in the heart of the most economically robust area in the world is not going to result in skies falling,” he said. “I just hope that the community in its entirety can realize this and appreciate this because the level of rhetoric has been extremely heated and it’s just all been unnecessary.”

Supporters and detractors alike are expected to turn up at the April 3 council meeting to express their views about the new plan. The meeting begins 6:45 p.m. at 10300 Torre Ave., Cupertino.