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Judge sides with developer in contentious Cupertino redevelopment battle

Dead Mall Showdown

Judge sides with developer in contentious Cupertino redevelopment battle

The controversial Vallco Town Center will take the place of a dead regional mall in Cupertino, California. (Courtesy Sand Hill Property Company)

After a delay of more than a month due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Helen Williams issued a ruling last week in a hot-button case that has divided residents of the Northern California city of Cupertino, pitting pro-development YIMBY-ists against grassroots local activists attempting to halt work on a massive redevelopment project in their backyard.

In her ruling, Williams sided against the activists and with the city, which had green-lit developer Sand Hill Property Company to move forward with the redevelopment of the old Vallco Shopping Mall site in 2018.

The 58-acre parcel, home to a once-bustling regional shopping center built in 1975 that now currently exists as a dead-as-a-doornail mall in the shadow of Apple’s intergalactic corporate campus, is slated to be the future home of the so-called Vallco Town Center (formerly the Hills at Vallco). The mixed-use enclave, designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects with the Philadelphia-based OLIN serving as landscape architects, is set to include 2,400 residential units, nearly 2 million square feet of commercial office space, and 400,000 square feet set aside for retail and entertainment. Early iterations of the project, unveiled a year after Sand Hill acquired the (then) mostly pulse-less mall in 2014, envisioned blanketing remnants of the old shopping center with what was described as the world’s largest green roof, which would have doubled as an undulating city park. The initial design has subsequently changed, although “an unprecedented rooftop community park with accessible walking and jogging trails” remains a key part of the master plan.

As reported by the Mercury News, Cupertino residents opposing the project, concerned about the development’s scope and the detrimental impact it could have on the community with regard to traffic and other aspects, believed the project should not have been fast-tracked by the city under California Senate Bill 35, which streamlines certain qualifying housing developments in the housing-strapped state. Residents banded together as Friends of Better Cupertino and argued that various components of the redevelopment should have prevented it from moving forward as an SB-35 project. Judge Williams, however, dismissed those arguments in her 62-page ruling. Per the Mercury News, that decision, which states that Friends of Better Cupertino “multiple times misinterpreted the law and made convoluted arguments” in their case, came as a “major blow” to community members rallying against the plus-sized project.

Among the reasons Friends of Better Cupertino claimed that Vallco Town Center should have not received special status as an SB-35 project: the development included too little housing, violated city height limits, and would be located on a “hazardous waste site.” All of these arguments were taken apart and disregarded by Williams.

The group’s argument that Vallco Town Center does not include a proper park because it happens to largely be on a rooftop was also dismantled by Williams, who wrote: “Petitioners also use emphatic typography to make a circular argument that Developer’s proposed public spaces are not parkland because they are not parkland.”

Although demolition is well underway at the site, Williams could have ultimately halted it if she had sided with Friends of Better Cupertino. In addition to finding that the development fell snugly within the scope of requirements put forth by SB-35, Williams noted that even if it hadn’t, state law would have not mandated that Cupertino, or any other city, deny such projects from proceeding.

It’s unclear if the group plans to appeal the ruling.

In a statement shared by the San Jose Spotlight, Sand Hill expressed enthusiasm with moving forward despite the legal challenges and community uproar the project has faced over the past several years. “We can now put our full focus on moving the project forward for the future of the city of Cupertino, including how best to do so considering the complex challenges that COVID-19 has brought on all of us,” said Reed Moulds, managing director for Sand Hil. “It is time to set aside our past disagreements and come together in cooperation of building a better and more sustainable future for Cupertino.”

Speaking to the Mercury News, J.R. Fruen, a pro-growth advocate with the group Cupertino For All, referred to the ruling, one of the first major legal challenges regarding SB-35, as a “gigantic win for housing advocates specifically, and a huge win for proponents of development in general.”