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Housing-starved Cupertino wonders what to do with vacant mall

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Voters nixed 2016 plans for site, but developer wants another shot

Sand Hill Property Co. unveiled a plan on Wednesday to transform Vallco
Renderings of the proposed Vallco site.
Rendering courtesy of Sand Hill Property Company/Rafael Vi–oly Architects

The city of Cupertino, in the midst of a housing crisis, is once again considering what to do with the Vallco Shopping Mall, which now sits mostly empty and could be a prime spot for future mixed-use development.

Opened to fanfare in 1976, Vallco has since fallen on hard times. Most of its stores have closed. Only a movie theater, a Benihanas, and a few other holdouts keep the place open.

Developer Sand Hill wants to turn the hollowed-out shopping mecca into a 58-acre mixed-use development, preserving roughly 640,000 feet of the present commercial space while combining it with two million square feet of new offices and up to 800 new units of housing on top of park space.

Last week, Cupertino’s City Council voted 5-0 to begin the formal process of considering the application.

Courtesy Sand Hill Property Company/Rafael Vi–oly Architects
Courtesy Sand Hill Property Company/Rafael Vi–oly Architects
Courtesy Sand Hill Property Company/Rafael Vi–oly Architects

But there was trouble afoot before the vote was cast. At a November 7 City Council meeting, Vice Mayor Darcy Paul said he worries that new state laws might allow the Vallco development to grow too large (possibly up to nearly 8 million square feet) and called for the city to study how to prevent new building entitlements from affecting the site.

In response, Sen. Scott Wiener accused Paul of trying to “scale back” housing development at the site, calling it an “anti-housing” step.

The YIMBY group Residents For a United Cupertino went further, accusing Paul and other council members of secretly plotting to axe all potential housing at the Vallco site.

“The council is hastily setting up meetings (environmental, planning, council, etc) to remove the housing element designation and office allocations,” a United Cupertino spokesperson told Curbed SF.

(No one at United Cupertino would speak without the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal from “powerful and vicious” Cupertino NIMBYs.)

United Cupertino calls the alleged plot “a direct rebuke of the state’s efforts to make it easier to create housing.”

By way of a smoking gun, the housing group points to a recent notice about Cupertino Planning Commission hearings that do indeed address the possibility of the “removal of the Vallco Shopping Center from the housing element,” originally scheduled for earlier in November.

However, Paul denies he has an anti-housing agenda. The council member tells Curbed SF, “I’m not asking to touch the housing portion at all” and says that his real concern is the amount of office space at the site.

“I think housing is good,” Paul insists. “We have a severe housing shortage. [...] That shortage of supply has effects all the way down the ladder.”

Paul also denies the accusation that he’s plotting anything in secret.

“There’s some inaccurate speculation that people are trying to do this behind closed doors, but that would be illegal,” he says, adding that he even reached out to Sen. Wiener to assure him there’s no plan to wriggle out of housing obligations.

Courtesy Sand Hill Property Company/Rafael Vi–oly Architects
Courtesy Sand Hill Property Company/Rafael Vi–oly Architects

Sen. Wiener tells Curbed SF, “I did speak with him, and he expressed an openness to 2,400 units of housing, which was what the site is zoned for, and I was pleased by that, because that’s my interest, to make sure the communities are making sure as much housing as possible can be built.”

He adds that the Planning Commission talk of nixing housing seems troubling, warning, “We’re past the point where cities can opt out” of legal obligations to build more housing.

Cupertino Planning Director Aarti Shrivastava tells Curbed SF that the no-housing option was on the agenda because they must directly ask lawmakers whether they want to go ahead with housing at the site as part of the process. She points out that nobody has voted against Vallco housing yet.

“The city’s been trying to do the right thing,” says Shrivastava. “It’s time to do the right thing again.”

In 2016, Cupertino voters had the opportunity to skip over City Hall and approve Measure D, a ballot initiative that would have green-lit the developer’s plans for Vallco. But Measure D lost, carrying only 45.17 percent of the vote.

At the same time, voters also rejected the competing Measure C, which would have drastically limited the scale of future Vallco redevelopment and put a permanent kibosh on the developer’s current plans. Measure C failed with just 39.12 percent of the vote.

It was only last October that developers signaled they were ready to move forward with the project again.

Courtesy Sand Hill Property Company/Rafael Vi–oly Architects
Courtesy Sand Hill Property Company/Rafael Vi–oly Architects