SAN JOSE — Surrounded by an expanse of suburban sprawl on the city’s western edge along its Saratoga border is the site envisioned for San Jose’s latest urban village where residents eventually could live, walk, bike, and shop, all within blocks of each other.
The El Paseo de Saratoga shopping center redevelopment, approved unanimously by the San Jose City Council Tuesday night, is expected to vastly transform two pieces of land along Saratoga Avenue, Lawrence Expressway and Quito Road.
Branded by some real estate watchers as a Santana Row-esque development, the project will have 994 units of housing — 150 of them affordable — and 165,949 square feet of commercial space, with a Whole Foods as an anchor store.
Building heights are expected to soar 99 to 132 feet, or nine to 12 stories, into the air. And developers plan to incorporate 3.5-acres of open space, including a 1.1-acre park, with fountains, seating, garden terraces and a dog park into the project.
The largest section of the development, at 1312 El Paseo de Saratoga, will see a revamp of the westernmost part of the already-existing shopping center. AMC Theatres, REI and Ulta currently occupy the adjoining space and will continue to operate.
Four single-story commercial buildings sit on the second parcel at 1777 Saratoga Avenue and will be demolished to make way for the new development.
“This is a critical opportunity to prove that urban mixed-use development is an opportunity to create vitality in our neighborhoods and generate much needed housing and much needed jobs,” project consultant Erik Schoennauer told this news organization. “That’s the whole purpose of urban villages.”
Over a decade ago, San Jose set out to transform the city from its current sprawled locale of single-family homes into one with 60 urban villages.
But that vision has fallen short, with only a quarter of the desired blueprints approved by the council in the last decade. And according to city statistics, roughly 35% of new residential developments were built in those areas in the same time frame — a move critics have said is detrimental to San Jose’s ability to meet its housing goals.
While the El Paseo de Saratoga project will erect a nearly 11-acre urban village on the city’s west end, one councilmember raised concerns that it’s only a section of the 174 acres the city could reimagine, and took aim at what is now a more than decade-old urban village planning process.
City officials have yet to plan out the greater El Paseo/Saratoga area.
“Let’s plan for the density and be clear about our vision for where we’re going to have parks and how we’re going to mitigate this growth,” Councilmember Matt Mahan said. “That plan really isn’t specific enough here and I don’t think it is in many of our urban villages.”
Mahan’s concerns stemmed from issues raised by neighboring residents who objected to the project’s height and the impact the density will have on traffic along the Lawrence Expressway and Saratoga Avenue corridors.
“We see the need for affordable housing, for all housing here but 994 units, that’s 2,000 new residents crammed into ten acres,” Luann Abrahams, a member of the Moreland West Neighborhood Association, told this news organization. “That’s so out of scale with what’s being built elsewhere.”
City officials, however, say the El Paseo de Saratoga project is in line with other urban villages throughout the city.
The density is a crucial part of creating a vibrant urban space, according to Mayor Sam Liccardo. When the city embarked on its blueprint to create urban villages a decade ago, community members reiterated that they didn’t need a car to access many places in their favorite cities.
“Being chained to your steering wheel does not allow you to get outside and to be able to enjoy a park, a paseo, a plaza or anything else,” Liccardo said. “And in order to get those amenities, the parks, the paseos, the plazas, you need density and you need a mix of uses and you need all those things within walking distance.”
The addition of thousands of potential new residents also raised concerns about the impact on traffic as the area is dearth of public transportation options — a crucial part of urban villages.
Several council members want the developer, Sand Hill Property Company, to provide VTA transit passes to new residents. The neighborhood, however, is several miles away from the nearest light rail station and doesn’t have access to rapid bus transit.
Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, who represents the area, called the lack of transit a chicken or the egg dilemma, deliberating on what needs to come first.
“We have to lead with housing first in order to get that transportation that everyone is looking for,” he said.