Last fall, the state legislature approved SB 35, and the question was going to be how it impacted local communities. A report released earlier reported that 97.6 percent of California cities and counties were failing to approve the housing needed to keep pace with population growth, which put the bill in the crosshairs of legislation aimed to fast track development.
“When 97 percent of cities are failing to meet their housing goals,” the bill’s author, Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said in a statement in February, “it’s clear we need to change how we approach housing in California.”
SB 35 would take effect when cities and counties lag behind annual progress reports. It would apply only to those projects that comply with existing zoning, would pay the prevailing wage and ensure at least ten percent of new units are affordable or priced below market value.
One such project is at the old Vallco Mall in the city of Cupertino. As the Mercury News reported: “Mixed into the project will be 2,402 residential units — a huge jump from the 389 units in the city’s plan — and a major boost to the housing stock in a city where booming job growth and sluggish housing creation has driven the cost of renting or buying a home through the roof. Half of the proposed residential units would be reserved for qualifying low-income residents making $84,900 or less for a family of four.”
The catch is that the developers plan to do it without giving Cupertino’s city leaders a chance to say no. The development company, in a move that will be watched very carefully, submitted the application under SB 35, which eliminates political delays that the developers believe had bogged down its redevelopment efforts for the four previous years.
It became just the second proposal, the Mercury News reported, under the law “which seeks to fast track affordable housing focused projects, following an application submitted for a 260-unit project at 1900 Fourth St. in Berkeley” earlier this year.
“It has now gotten to a point where we do not have any confidence that this process can come to a conclusion in a timely manner,” said Reed Moulds, managing director of Sand Hill. “This housing crisis needs to be resolved in a manner that actually provides near-term solutions, and sites like this have an opportunity to do a lot of good for the housing situation.”
This part should sound familiar: “[T]he Vallco plan isn’t likely to get a warm reception from Cupertino residents who have sought to slow the city’s growth, concerned about increasing traffic, overcrowding city schools and losing local retail shops. The Better Cupertino political action group, for example, has fought against turning Vallco into a major office and housing project.”
The city officials would have 180 days to approve the proposal under SB 35, and that is assuming it meets the city’s zoning and planning requirements.
One councilmember said that, while it appeared the city could not reject the plan, “he’s hopeful city officials, Sand Hill and local residents can continue working together and possibly come up with a better project.”
There is also concern that the developer is using SB 35 to rush the plan through. “Cupertino residents were told they would have a voice in the planning process, and now that’s been taken away,” some leaders have said.
The Vallco is a symbol of suburban decline. It was built in the 1970s “as a state-of-the-art” shopping center. Now the mall is a ghost town of empty store fronts, and many are shut with metal gates.
The Sand Hill Property Company bought Vallco, now closed and deserted, in 2014 and is putting the property at the forefront of a new fight – one that pits land use principles of slow growth against a statewide affordable housing crisis.
There are lots of big questions which SB 35 and this situation raises for Davis. One is whether Measure R, which is up for renewal in two years, will stand up in the face of increasing pressure from the state to build more housing. The second is how efforts like SB 35 will impact communities like Davis. Given that many of the housing properties in Davis would have to have their land use designations changed, it might be that Davis would avoid this sort of forced development.
But, then again, it may be that SB 35 is simply the first domino in a series of dominoes that will take planning out of the hands of local government bodies. That all remains to be seen.
—David M. Greenwald reporting