GILROY—The city council will decide Monday whether to recommend annexing 721 acres of farmland north of the city to build a massive planned development with two schools, a major shopping center and several parks.
The proposed 3,996 homes would increase the city’s housing by about 25 percent. GIlroy, with 53,000 people, had 15,000 residences according to the most recent census bureau estimates.
The council will hear from a heavily divided public about the proposal Monday at 6 p.m.
Some hail the project as a solid plan for the future, providing housing and services when as many as 88,000 people are expected to live in Gilroy by 2050. Others fear endless suburban sprawl, say the land should be used for jobs and advocate new housing closer to the downtown core.
“From a planning perspective I think it’s an excellent proposal,” said Mayor Don Gage. “They can plan a whole area and make sure it’s done right. If you try to redevelop older areas, streets have to be dug up, pipes have to be replaced. They are going to build schools for the people living there. They aren’t going to have to find schools for them.”
Former city councilmember Connie Rogers counters that the plan is too much, too soon and violates the concepts in the city’s general plan, which favors denser housing closer to downtown.
“It’s a terrible idea,” she said. “It’s very premature. Housing actually costs the city money. What we really need are jobs. Building on the perimeter does nothing for the downtown.”
The new neighborhoods would be north of the city limits to Fitzgerald Avenue, bounded to the west and east by Santa Teresa Boulevard and Monterey Road. The development, proposed by applicant Martin Limited Partnership, would include 1,500 senior-housing units, 338,000 square feet of commercial space and 143 acres of parkland, according to a briefing prepared by the city’s planning staff.
The city’s planning manager, Sue Martin, said the proposal is speculative and hasn’t been formally filed. She said they were using numbers to satisfy the demands of an environmental study. The city council will vote Monday whether to send the proposal to the county for further review. The process is so slow, she added, that it could be many years before it’s built.
The Planning Commission recommended against approving the request at a special meeting last month, citing an already ample supply of vacant lots within the city area, a lack of adequate information and inconsistency with General Plan policies governing direction of growth and preservation of space.
Gilroy currently has enough vacant residential land to last 7.5 years of development and enough commercial land to last 44 years, according to the Community Development Department. Staff noted, though, that with so many different people owning land within the city, it’s more difficult to build major housing projects there.
An environmental impact report prepared by the city determined said the project would cause several “significant and unavoidable” impacts on the environment. The development would eliminate 450 acres of important farmland, raise noise levels beyond the city’s accepted thresholds inside and outside the development and cause traffic congestion at 11 intersections around the site.
Transferring responsibility for utilities and services from the county to the city would cost Gilroy $1.2 million the first year following completion of development, with costs gradually rising, according to a fiscal impact analysis prepared by the city. Staff recommended issuing bonds to offset the costs. Martin Limited Partnership would be responsible for construction of all new infrastructure.
If the expansion is approved by the city, the state will have final say. The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) of Santa Clara County—a state-mandated agency—is charged with preventing urban sprawl and preserving agricultural land.
“I think Gilroy City Council and the public [taxpayers] do not have enough information about this proposed project to approve it or deny it,” architect Reid Lerner wrote in an email. “There is a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to create a beautiful, healthy and sustainable environment with the development of this property. This is a $5 billion project in a city with a $120 million annual budget, so there is considerable civic risk and liability.
“It is surprising this big project got ‘expedited’ review, because it is so large and complicated,” Lerner wrote.
Former councilmember Rogers, who works for an environmental group called Save Open Space Gilroy, said she thinks “political pressure is being brought to bear” for speeding up this project. “Whoever wants that 721 acres is pushing the envelope really hard. They are breaking out of the envelope.”
Using that land for housing wouldn’t help the struggling downtown, she added.
“If we get more people living in the core, they will shop there, they will eat there. Many in the outskirts don’t even know where downtown is. They sleep in Gilroy and shoot out to San Jose.”
She said it costs the city $63 a year per person and $223 per household in services to support housing.
Mayor Gage argued that the developers would contribute $1 billion toward building a new community that will be needed as the city grows.
“Yes, it’s farmland,” he said. “As cities grow, they take land from the county. No one will be able to stop the growth.”