SAN JOSE — Fighting a losing battle, Evergreen Valley College is ditching controversial plans to build up to 400 apartments on 27 acres of college land that critics say should be used to improve academics at the struggling school — not bolster the district’s finances.
College leaders, along with Republic Urban Properties and its CEO, Michael Van Every, quietly filed an application last month at City Hall to change the land use of the parcel — from its “quasi-public” designation to “neighborhood community commercial,” which allows no housing.
The application, filed on March 9, will go to Planning Director Harry Freitas and the Planning Commission for recommendations later this year, before heading to the City Council in November.
Empty land next to Evergreen Valley College is a part of 27-acre parcel that is at the center of one of the valley’s hottest land-use battles, in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, April 13, 2015. The San Jose Evergreen Community College District has declared the parcel “surplus” and is asking builders to bid on developing it for housing, medical offices and an expansion of the shopping center. The district expects to receive at least $1.5 million a year from leasing the land. A well-organized cadre of neighbors, meanwhile, is opposing the project on the grounds of traffic, impact on schools, and the effect on Evergreen Valley College. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) ( Dai Sugano )
“If the conversion were approved, I can tell you for certain housing would not be allowed,” said Freitas, adding that the requested designation generally allows for office space, medical uses and retail centers.
Without the housing component, which is opposed by many Evergreen residents, the request is expected to gain approval. Van Every declined to comment on the new plans.
Evergreen last year faced scrutiny for soliciting bids to develop so-called “surplus” land on Yerba Buena and San Felipe. College leaders said leasing the land would generate $1.5 million in revenue a year — less than 2 percent of the district’s annual $100 million budget — that could help shoulder future budget deficits. Though the budget is balanced today, district leaders want to build protections for the future.
It’s unclear how much revenue the college can collect from its lease with Republic without the housing.
New Chancellor Deborah Budd, who started her job in January, said the dollar amount is “currently being negotiated.” Budd said the school was excited about new housing but is “fine tuning the plan to work within the city’s planning guidelines.”
“While it’s unfortunate to not have housing for students, including veterans, international students, athletes, faculty and staff, we respect and have been responsive to the city’s zoning regulations and the voice of the community,” Budd said in an email.
College President Henry Yong didn’t return calls for comment.
Republic, the only developer to submit a bid, released early plans that included up to 250 market-rate apartments and 80 to 150 senior apartments, along with 40,000 square feet of retail, up to 40,000 square feet of office, a gym and an aquatics center.
But the Evergreen district is already plagued by too much housing and not enough services. Residents there face some of the worst traffic congestion in the city because of limited options for entering and exiting the area.
“I would not have recommended approval of that plan,” Freitas said. “There’s no capacity for additional housing in Evergreen from a traffic standpoint.”
City leaders in 2008 adopted a plan — the Evergreen-East Hills Development Policy — that limited housing units to 500 total. The city is close to that capacity, and only 207 more new units can be built.
That means Republic and the college would need City Council approval to build more — an uphill battle rooted in political controversy.
“I was very upfront that I would not support housing,” said Vice Mayor Rose Herrera, whose district includes the college. The original project would have required converting land that could be used for jobs to housing, which Herrera wouldn’t support.
Herrera and other council members, including Mayor Sam Liccardo, have taken a stand against allowing housing on land that could be used for jobs because of San Jose’s anemic job rate compared to housing. Herrera said she’s “undecided” on the new plan without the apartments because she wants to see more specifics and a guarantee that the aquatic center and other amenities would be built. She also called for more public outreach from the college.
Longtime Evergreen resident Sandra Randles says the community has been kept in the dark about the project and potential changes. As a private educator, Randles said, she believes the 27 acres should be used to add more academic programs by adding more classes and degree programs.
Roughly 18,500 students leave the district to attend college somewhere else, and the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District, which includes San Jose City College, has half the students as Foothill-DeAnza and 100 fewer degrees and certificates.
“Why should we be driving somewhere else to go to school?” Randles said. “The focus needs to be on having an outstanding program at our college.”
A cluster of Evergreen residents last year launched a petition and Facebook page to stop the project, citing concerns about traffic, pollution, quality of life and the impact on students. More than 1,800 residents signed.
“The land should be used for education, not to support private ventures,” wrote residents Brenda and Lauren Serpa.
The Serpas in November seemed to reverse their position in a letter to the city, even before the apartment plans got dropped.
The letter praised Canyon Snow — the lobbying firm of Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino’s wife, Leslee Guardino, who was hired by Van Every for public outreach — and said the project is “the only avenue to obtain a higher level of service” for students.
Contact Ramona Giwargis at 408-920-5705. Follow her at Twitter.com/ramonagiwargis.