Housing Projects Divide Cupertino; Opponents Return to Ballot Box.

At a Cupertino City Council meeting in April, Apple Computer guru Steve Jobs announced that the technology giant plans to build a 50-acre campus to complement its existing headquarters across town. As many as 3,500 people would work at the campus at Wolfe Road and the 280 freeway.

Less than 24 hours later, a group called Concerned Citizens of Cupertino submitted petitions on two referendums intending to halt two recently approved housing projects.

Although the two events were unrelated, they exemplify the current state of affairs in the jobs-rich Silicon Valley city of 54,000 residents. High-paying technology jobs are plentiful, but nearly all attempts to build housing for those tech workers are met with strong political opposition. Growth-control advocates have started using the term "Condo-tino" to express their dissatisfaction with recent and proposed housing developments.

"It doesn't seem to be about all growth, it seems to be about residential growth," Community Development Director Steve Piasecki said of the growth control movement.

Indeed, after submitting what appeared to be plenty of signed petitions to force an election, Concerned Citizens announced on its website: "The referendum, coming on the heels of an announcement by Steve Jobs that Apple will build a new campus on approximately 50 acres in Cupertino, validates the need to keep commercial/industrial land for business and retail expansion. The City Council's continued policy of rezoning commercial land to high-density housing lowers our potential for business expansion and the important tax base it brings to Cupertino to support city services and distinguished schools."

The referendums concern a plan to build 134 condominiums in a parking lot at Vallco Fashion Park, and a 380-unit residential development proposed by developer Toll Brothers on a mostly vacant 26-acre site that had been zoned for industrial use. The City Council voted 3-2 to approve the projects in March.

The referendums mark a second round of ballot-box planning in Cupertino. Last November, voters rejected three initiatives backed by Concerned Citizens. Those three initiatives (all of which provided exceptions for the area around Vallco Fashion Park) would have limited mixed-use and residential development to 15 units per acre, prohibited buildings of more than 36 feet in height, and required most new buildings to have 35-foot setbacks. A coalition of environmental groups, business organizations, Hewlett Packard and the Home Builders Association of Northern California campaigned against the initiatives, arguing that they would hinder the type of infill and high-density development that Cupertino and other Silicon Valley cities need.

Although the initiatives failed, each received 42% to 46% of the vote. The close election "sent a message that a lot of people support" such growth controls, said Shishir Mathur, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at San Jose State University. "Existing residents have this fear of high-density housing," Mathur said.

The Sierra Club was among the initiative opponents, and the club's Loma Prieta Chapter, which is one of the largest in the United States, recently endorsed the Toll Brothers proposal that is likely headed to the ballot. Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Peninsula need additional housing, said Melissa Hippard, the chapter's executive director.

"We don't want to see the urban footprint expand," said Hippard. "Everybody can't just live in the Central Valley and drive an hour and a half to be our firemen and teachers."

"Cupertino is struggling like many communities on the Peninsula with housing and affordable housing and jobs-housing balance," Hippard said.

At least some of the opposition to additional housing stems from concerns about schools. Cupertino Union School District and Fremont Union High School District provide some of the top performing schools in the state. Fremont Union reports that its five campuses (in Cupertino, Sunnyvale and San Jose) are already beyond capacity, and the district has aggressively sought to kick out students who are not district residents. The school districts have asked developers to provide additional school impact fees. Taylor Woodrow Homes recently agreed to pay quadruple the ordinary school impact fee. Taylor Woodrow would have paid about $2 million in school fees for a 94-unit housing development that was expected to generate about 70 students. In the face of strong public opposition, the City Council rejected the project.

Housing prices are the reason developers keep battling in Cupertino, where the median home price is about $750,000--more than $200,000 above the Santa Clara County median. The median sales price for a condominium in Cupertino is approaching $700,000.

The referendums list a variety of reasons for opposing the Vallco and Toll Brothers housing projects: traffic, school overcrowding, conflicts with existing land uses, loss of tax base.

Piasecki, the city's chief planner, said there is a perception that developers are building new housing units, especially condominiums, at a rapid pace, and that the city's highly desirable schools are getting overwhelmed. However, Piasecki said the city expects to see only about 900 new housing units built over a six- to eight-year period.

"Really, it's not a very fast pace of development," he said.

Supporters see the proposed Vallco condominiums as key to the mall's ongoing redevelopment. The locally owned mall has had a development agreement with the city since the early 1990s, and the mall is the heart of the city's lone redevelopment project area. The 1.1-million-square-foot mall has struggled for years, and both mall owners and city officials have worked toward reinvigorating the shopping center. Mall owners Emily Chen and Alan Wong are building a 16-screen movie theater, a state-of-the-art bowling alley, an ice rink and other retail and restaurant space. Those projects are entitled under the development agreement, according to Piasecki.

The condominiums, proposed atop retail space, were not entitled until the City Council approved them in March, but the condos may be the economic engine driving the rest of the mall project.

Opponents contend the Vallco condominiums would be incompatible with single-family homes on the other side of a wall surrounding Vallco. Piasecki said the city insisted on a fire lane and a triple row of trees to provide a buffer.

"It seems to make sense as a way to provide housing and reinvigorate the mall," Piasecki said.

Opponents of the Toll Brothers project say the site, owned by Hewlett Packard, should be preserved for industrial growth. Piasecki said that offices would create more traffic than homes, and that the city needs the units to help with its jobs-housing balance.

California Planning & Development Report
By Paul Shigley
5/1/2006

Contacts:

Steve Piasecki, Cupertino Community Development Department, (408) 777-3308.

Melissa Hippard, Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, (650) 390-8414.

Shishir Mathur, San Jose State University Department of Urban and Regional Planning, (408) 924-5875.

Concerned Citizens of Cupertino: www.cupertino.cc.

Copyright 2006 California Planning & Development Report