A group of citizens led by Pam Gunnell on Tuesday expressed concern about the lack of public hearings on the Aggie Research Campus. The group of five came up during public comment.
“In September 2017, the council certified the final EIR for the Mace Ranch Innovation Center,” she said. “At that time, the proposed project was business park only – although the addition of housing has been studied as an EIR alternative.”
She continued, “Subsequently the project was put on hold and it’s important to note that when it was put on hold, several commissions were still in the process of analyzing the proposal including the Natural Resources Commission.
“In June, 2019, the applicant requested that they begin processing their application again. This time as a business park with 850 units of housing,” she continued. “The applicant also changed the name of the business park to the Aggie Research Campus.”
Ms. Gunnell continued, “In November 2019, the city determined that a supplemental EIR was necessary citing changes in circumstances since the EIR was certified in 2017 – most notably potentially new traffic impacts. Or increases in the severity of identified traffic impacts.”
Based on this, she made the request that council have certain “key commissions” analyze the ARC project. These commissions, she said, “have been omitted from the city’s proposed set of public meetings.”
She said, “We recently learned that the ARC proposal will now be going to the NRC – and that’s great.”
However, she added, “We think that more needs to be done.”
In addition, she said they were “recommending that the ARC proposal go before the Rec and Park Commission, the Tree Commission, and the Unitrans Advisory Committee. This is not a new request. In October of 2019, and again in December 2019, citizens requested to the council that the proposal go before all of the relevant bodies.
“Omission of the commissions is troubling – the ARC proposal is different from the MRIC proposal. The Rec and Park Commission needs to take up how the 15 acres of proposed private park will be maintained – if it will be available for city use. And how it would integrate into existing city needs.”
She continued, “The tree commission needs to determine whether trees will be planted correctly in parking lots and built up areas and discuss the funding and annual review by a city hired arborist for tree care.”
She added, “Certainly the Unitrans advisory committee will discuss how we’ll handle significant new ridership of the ARC employees and residents.”
Furthermore, Ms. Gunnell continued, “We think it’s important the project should go back to the NRC and the Open Space Commission after the supplemental EIR is released. As it will address new and significant new impacts relating to air quality, water supply, global warming and protected species.”
She said, “The city’s calendar for ARC shows it going for a vote in November of this year – that means the council’s deadline for final action for the ARC is July 7. There is urgency there for the ARC for these omitted commissions because of the July 7 date.”
As a result they asked staff to place the ARC, within the next two weeks, on the agenda of the Rec and Parks Commission, the Tree Commission, and the Unitrans Advisory Commission. After the completion of the EIR, they want to see it go back to the NRC and Open Space Commission.
They asked that these changes be announced at the next council meeting, stating that “five months is such a short time for such a large project that needs so much review.”
Based on those comments, Assistant City Manager Ashley Feeney responded to these stated concerns.
The MRIC (Mace Race Innovation Center) was proposed as part of a search by the city for an Innovation Center in 2014. However, following questions about whether it could incorporate mixed-use housing and a rejection by the council at that time to pursue a mixed-use project, it was place on hiatus.
Nevertheless, in September 2017 the council certified the completed Final EIR. In June of last year, the city received a letter from the applicants “requesting the City recommence with processing of their innovation center application, which has been renamed as the Aggie Research Campus (‘ARC’).”
Due to concerns about increased traffic along Mace and other potentially changed conditions, the city has asked for a supplemental EIR.
At build out, the project would include up to 2.6 million square feet of innovation space and other commercial uses along with 850 residential units.
On Tuesday, Mr. Feeney explained in response to the public comments that there is a schedule of commission hearings listed on the city’s web page (see here). That includes: Open Space and Social Service which has already taken place, and Finance and Budget (FBC), Transportation, Planning which are scheduled for the future. Not listed on there is a date for the NRC.
However, Mr. Feeney indicated that the NRC would meet to discuss the project next month.
“As far as the Tree Commission and Rec and Park Commission specifically go,” he explained that the project is a bit different from other projects that have come before council, in that “it’s a zoning of land” with a lot of “implementing of entitlements that would come at a later date should the Aggie Research Campus proposal be approved.”
He said it would be at that time that there would be specifics relative to tree locations and other specifics.
“Right now we’re talking about zoning of land, not necessarily specific designs where you would typically review those details,” he said.
He added, “Absolutely the project will be going to those commissions – it’s a matter of what time does it make the most sense.” He suggested, “it will be post this pre-zoning entitlements.”
Mr. Feeney stated, “There’s a number of commissions this project will be going to. We’ll update the list.”
He added, “It’s really about when is it most meaningful for the project to go to those commissions.”
This response did not satisfy the group. Rik Keller, speaking subsequently at public comment, called the explanation “rather weak from my perspective there.” He noted a lack of firm commitment that the project would be heard by the “relevant” commissions and instead there was a general comment, in his view, that it might be heard at some point by the commissions.
He further complained, “Communication from staff has been very lacking” in terms of response to scoping comments. “We’re getting no sort of updated schedule. No sort of indication as to whether our comments are being taken into account at all in this EIR process.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting