Cupertino is now a city divided over opposing proposals for the renovation of the Vallco Shopping Mall off Stevens Creek Boulevard — especially when it comes to building heights.

Currently, Cupertino’s general commercial zoning code limits building height to 30 feet, unless specially approved by the city council. [Cupertino Municipal Code §19.60.060]

However, that height limit is likely to change come the city’s November ballot. Two proposals submitted to the city council outline warring plans for the shopping site:

  • the Vallco Town Center Specific Plan (VTCSP), which replaces the existing shopping center with a mixed-use development including the addition of residential and office spaces; and
  • the Cupertino Citizens’ Sensible Growth Initiative (CCSGI), which advocates renovation of the existing shopping center and exclusion of residential and office space in favor of preserving local retail opportunities.

The VTCSP calls for various building heights, up to 95 feet. The Cupertino city council recently determined the CCSGI (albeit unintentionally) also raises building heights to 45 feet — including residential areas neighboring the shopping site — a declaration which knocked disbelieving CCSGI supporters into a tizzy. The inadvertent increase in zoning height in the CCSGI apparently comes from unclear language in the initiative text.

The conservative coalition of CCSGI supporters adamantly oppose the 15-foot increase, claiming their goal is preservation — not expansion. CCSGI supporters intended the 45-foot zoning limit to apply only to developments excepted from the city’s General Plan.

Although CCSGI advocates are fighting hard against the alleged general zoning change by their initiative, change is likely coming their way through the transition built into the VTCSP initiative. However, Cupertino residents have already carried the CCSGI to the November ballot by a vast excess of necessary signatures. Despite the Town Center Plan’s obvious long-term virtues, the initiative has yet to receive the 2,700 signatures required to make it a contender.

Get out your soapboxes

Here we go again. Bay Area skirmishes over building height and other zoning restrictions are in constant gridlock, with the occasional victory for either developers or not-in-my-backyard advocates (NIMBYs). The Bay Area’s lack of available housing supply across all income levels indicates most often, NIMBYs have been the victors, maintaining the obsolete status quo despite the area’s needs. However, the status quo they seek may evolve.

Cupertino’s local struggle is just another of these arm-wrestling matches between preservation and progress. Both proposals advocate improvements of a worn establishment for the better use by the public — a reasonable and beneficial idea — but the fight over a mere 15-foot difference in building height symbolizes the common futility of zoning battles in California. Although true that the proposals need to clearly state their purpose, squalling over minute changes won’t do local inhabitants any good.

Mixed-use developments like that proposed in the Town Center Plan are vital parts of a city’s cultural life as they provide several amenities for residents. The Town Center Plan’s intended 389 – 411 new residential units include 20% of which allocated for senior residents. The additional units serve locals by adding to the ever-dwindling available supply of housing in the Bay Area — a necessary addition to retain local employees and the businesses that hire them. Additionally, the Town Center Plan anticipates approximately $5 million in net revenue for the city of Cupertino each year.

Stay tuned to first tuesday Local for updates on the initiatives above. See all building initiatives and relevant documents proposed for the November ballot in Cupertino here.