CUPERTINO — Before shovels break ground to officially kick off construction of the new Vallco Town Center, property owners will have to rid the 50-acre site of chemicals left behind from several dry cleaners and an old automotive center.
A big cleanup is on the horizon, however.
Vallco property owners submitted updated reports to the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health last month about the extent of contamination and who could be exposed to it.
Now the fate of the old shopping mall’s redevelopment — which will bring 2,402 homes, 400,000 square feet of retail and 1.8 million square feet of office space to Cupertino — lies in the department’s hands
Soil samples from the site dating back to 2016 show several contaminants at elevated levels including petroleum hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls — which were banned in the U.S. in the 1970s — tetrachloroethene, pesticides and metals. Petroleum hydrocarbons are most commonly found in gasoline, while tetrachloroethene is usually used in dry cleaning.
Experts believe the environmental contaminants most likely came from the former Sears Automotive Center at the mall and several nearby dry cleaners that have operated in the area, including two that are now closed, according to documents filed with the California Water Resources Control Board.
Once the county signs off on the updated reports, hazardous materials program manager Jennifer Kaahaaina said site owner Sand Hill Property Co. next will have to “submit plans to address the contamination that presents an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment given the intended future use of the property.”
Because developers plan to excavate seven to 32 feet of soil to make way for underground parking, Kaahaaina said that in itself will “significantly” lower the chances that any contaminants will migrate to buildings constructed above the garage.
Other than that setback, City Attorney Chris Jensen said the project is “moving forward” despite a debate last year among the city, Sand Hill Property Co. and state housing officials over whether approval of the Vallco redevelopment was expiring,
“We’re processing applications like we would for any other project,” Jensen said. “Certainly there are community concerns about the project we approved, the use of state housing legislation with such a significant commercial component, but ultimately we’re following the law and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
In 2018, the Cupertino City Council approved the Vallco Town Center under the conditions of Senate Bill 35 – a law that requires cities not building enough housing to fast-track qualifying projects. The city declared then that the approval would expire on Sept. 21, 2021 if construction wasn’t underway by then.
But the project got tied up in court when the community group, Friends of Better Cupertino, filed a lawsuit in 2019 claiming it didn’t qualify for approval under SB 35. The following year, Sand Hill sued the city after the council tried to eliminate the office component of the project and confine housing at the site to 13.1 acres.
The judge ruled in Sand Hill’s favor both times. Because of the legal delays, the state Department of Housing and Community Development said last year that the developer could be granted a time extension.
More delays followed, and in a prepared statement Sand Hill Managing Director Reed Moulds suggested that was the city’s fault. “While the project’s progress faced several challenges in 2021 related to changes in city leadership, with new permanent staff we are optimistic that 2022 will bring a more certain and consistent process.”
Former city manager Deborah Fang resigned abruptly last May, and the city appointed Greg Larson as interim city manager several weeks later. On Jan. 3, former Lompoc city manager Jim Throop took over the reins.
“Our focus now is on the future,” Moulds said. “For the past several months we have engaged in an effort to collaborate further with the community around what’s important to them as we focus on the project’s programming and final refinements.”
Still, Mayor Darcy Paul said he has concerns and wants the city and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority to pay more attention to the “transit part of the equation.”
“We do need to be looking at the reality of the consequences of putting so many people there and not putting the commensurate amount of housing,” Paul said, referring to employees who will be commuting to the 1.8 million square feet of office space planned for the project. “I do think that there are going to be many people eventually there that don’t have an immediate place in the local area to live.”