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San Jose City Council to rule on controversial shopping center plans

By David Ruiz | 23 Feb 2012

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Some San Jose residents fear the proposed Almaden Ranch Retail Center, shown above, will increase noise, neighborhood traffic and pollution. (Image courtesy of Ruth and Going Inc.)

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The proposed Almaden Ranch Retail Center, to be located at the intersection of Almaden Expressway and State Route 85 in San Jose, is causing concerns among residents, who fear increased traffic, air pollution and noise.

A bent blue folder on the third floor of the city council tower struggles to hold over 150 emails, memos, suggestions and letters in place, and this is only from a two-week period in August. Most say the same thing—stop Almaden Ranch.

The city plans to rezone the 43.5-acre site, allowing construction of up to 400,000 square feet of commercial space. Current draft plans show 16 retail stores with the inclusion of one big-box chain store, although no leases have been signed. Also included in the project is a plan to extend Cherry Avenue to connect with the north end of Sanchez Drive.

On Feb. 22, the planning commission met to certify the environmental impact report’s final draft and a planned development rezoning permit. Commission members approved both after a six-hour meeting. San Jose City Council is scheduled to rule on the plans March 20.

All this takes time, though, and Santa Clara County has already started to add a lane to Almaden Expressway, helping to mitigate future, potential traffic. Nearby residents don’t like what they’ve seen and say that approval of the project could make things much worse.

A resident of San Jose, Marie R., wrote an email sent to Janis Moore, manager for the environmental impact report, saying she was both “appalled” and “horrified” about “overloaded commercial sites, traffic and congestion.” San Jose has received many similar criticisms.

Another resident, Virginia Taylor, wrote that “dogs and other pets have been hit on Almaden” and the increased traffic will put more pets and children in danger. Thirty-five residents have signed a community letter demanding an expanded traffic study, more research on economic effects and further efforts to mitigate noise. The Gol family sent a letter together, protesting the possibility of a Walmart moving into the largest retail site.

But not all of the complaints are of the same nature. Two members from the Envision San Jose 2040 Task Force expressed concern that the project conflicts with San Jose’s General Plan. The task force includes 33 residents, city council members, private business owners and public employees entrusted with drafting San Jose’s general plan. The general plan—an evolving document that sets goals for the city’s ongoing development—was revised and approved in December 2011. The general plan focuses on creating neighborhoods, sustainable design, improved transportation, multipurpose building, environmental preservation and more.

Gerry DeYoung, president of Ruth and Going Inc., discusses his company's Almaden Ranch plans. (Photo: David Ruiz / Peninsula Press)

Gerry DeYoung, president of Ruth and Going Inc., the civil engineering firm attached to the Almaden project, explained that the plans have changed over the past year to be in “greater conformance” with the general plan. “The main concern was how does this plan fit into something that hasn’t been adopted yet?” DeYoung asked, referring to the objections prior to the general plan’s revision. Altered is a decision to move the buildings back 25 feet to allow for “pedestrian connectivity, bioswales, and more green areas,” DeYoung said.

The bioswales DeYoung mentioned are installments within the parking lots that drain surface runoff water. In this case, the water will drain to a collection basin that will filter the water and recycle it into the northern part of the site, near the Guadalupe River. The bioswales at the site will have vegetation planted within.

In January, DeYoung spoke about an addition named the Village Green. This roughly 6,000-square-foot space would provide an area for customers of stop-and-go food stores to sit and congregate.

While Ruth and Going Inc. is changing its drafted plans to address public concern, the project still has obstacles to overcome. M.R. Wolfe and Associates, a consulting firm for private land use, wrote to the city about what he called the inadequacy of the initial environmental impact report. The memo referred to the lack of analysis on the effects of a new shopping center potentially closing down other businesses and leaving behind vacant lots and buildings.

The planning commission denied certification for the environmental impact report’s first draft, citing a need for analysis on “urban decay”—specifically what M.R. Wolfe and Associates referred to in their memo. A second draft was completed last December. The planning commission certified the third and final draft this week.

An environmental impact report, required by the California Environmental Quality Act, is necessary for all planned development in the state. The report details the effects of construction on the natural and built landscape.

Some residents’ opinions of the project changed with the altered plans. The Erikson Neighborhood Association, located near the project, produced a wish list in August asking for “a main-street feel, upscale, unique restaurants, more outdoor spaces, and a plan to take advantage of the riverfront space.” The neighborhood association recently narrowed its focus to interest in a “bicycle pedestrian bridge over the Guadalupe River,” association president David Noel said. DeYoung said the neighborhood association has been cooperative and attentive in scheduling meetings with its residents.

“The goal in most developers is to try to find as much community support as possible,” DeYoung said. Sometimes that means finding a middle ground between what people want and the vision of the project, he said. DeYoung recounted a meeting in which a member of the public “came to his defense about the decisions being made.”

“When you get to the point when you have individual community members defending the plan,” DeYoung said, “that’s good; you’ve come a long way, baby.”

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