Effect of California’s New Housing Legislation Package on Vallco!
Printed in the Cupertino Courier
by Tara Sreekrishnan
In January 2018, several statewide housing bills will take effect paving the way for the automatic approval of development in Cupertino and all cities across California. These laws are intended to address California’s historic housing affordability crisis and alleviate our housing shortage, but they could also bring in some major challenges if cities don’t plan ahead to protect against unintended consequences. Cupertino, like all South Bay cities, needs to take a more pro-active approach in rising to the challenge of addressing our housing affordability crisis – we can align with these laws and use them to our advantage.
The fundamental shift from a policy perspective is that the local community and our elected Councilmembers will have significantly less control around development that occurs after the laws take effect. Streamlined or “by-right” development has been in effect since the 80’s in California (through the Housing Accountability Act), but the new laws serve to strengthen and enforce this by-right development model. There are many restrictions and qualifications that a proposed by-right development must still meet. In SB 35, for instance, if a jurisdiction is not on track to meet their state-mandated housing needs and allocation goals, a development project can be streamlined if it meets certain criteria and adheres to a City’s General Plan. Thus, it will not come before the vote of a City Council or any other public official.
If we lose our chance for input, either the public or our elected officials, we not only are deprived of an opportunity to meaningfully participate in the democratic process, we essentially lose our bargaining power with developers and are left without a safety net to protect us.
It is clear that the Vallco Shopping District site lacks adequate objective standards in the current General Plan and can be easily exploited by overzealous developers in a streamlined process. Unlike other development sites across the City, the density and zoning standards are ambiguous, there are no height and setback requirements, and there is no precise standard for community benefits. The planning standards at this site were intentionally left vague in 2014 as the City Council was waiting to approve a “Site-Specific Plan” for Vallco - keep in mind that by-right development was not on the forefront at this time. Under these new set of laws, the door has been left wide-open for our City to be taken advantage of at Vallco.
We, as residents of Cupertino, are invested in the future of Vallco and our collective priorities for this site include open-spaces, green building standards, adequate affordable housing, and significant community benefits to name a few. Should our General Plan not reflect this vision? With streamlined development on the horizon, objective standards at Vallco in our General Plan will ensure that neighbors and developers alike understand what the rules are, and that proposed projects adhere to these rules. Cupertino must make sure that developers are held accountable, pay their fair share, and respect and maintain the vibrancy of our community.
A Vallco site-specific Plan, which fortunately has been initiated by the City, is a lengthy process that includes consultants, staff-time, and community input. This plan would include clearer standards for the Vallco site - height, density, setback requirements etc., but will only be approved long after the new statewide housing package goes into effect. Thus, some in this community are worried a Vallco project will be proposed, and subsequently streamlined, with only the current vague General Plan standards and development requirements.
Yes, there are many restrictions and qualifications a proposed project must meet before it can be “streamlined”. Let’s not spread unwarranted fear that “by-right” development will pop-up at every corner, but at the same time, let’s not procrastinate and let’s discuss the potential risks and vulnerabilities of streamlined development openly and honestly, and prioritize a Vallco site-specific plan with objective standards.