The Construction at Winchester and Lark, How it got there; a Summary
Over the past several years, there has been one grande issue here in Los Gatos to which I have expressed some strong and studied opinions, here, on this blog — this being the Albright Development, at the corner of Winchester Boulevard and Lark Avenue. After a long while of controversy and political maneuvering, a varied period of wrangling and compromise, the real and actual buildings there have finally risen into the low sky above the flat Los Gatos Creek basin (take a quick peek at the comments made by local Anne Robinson to the town council regarding a picture she took of the Albright buildings last November — http://www.lg-ca.com/albright-development-2-of-the-5-buildings/).
These office structures are not finished as of me writing this, but the big skeletons upon which the final edifices shall be hung, are up and solid. Finally, without controversy, without speculation or educated guesses, we now know what these buildings look like. Now, with certainty and clarity, we can actually see what sort of impact these edifices will have on the perception and reality of our town. This town (and note that the Town fathers formerly incorporated this place as a “Town,” not a city, but a Town. Neighboring Saratoga and Monte Sereno were both incorporated as “Cities.”) has perceived and defined itself in a variety of ways with one of the most clear and definitive methods of this definition being the town’s General Plan. This plan has been defined and written by the people of this Town. The recent controversy about Albright was the battle between property developers from out of town and several local residents who supported him, and the people, here in town, who wanted to respect and maintain the values set forth in the local community’s guide, the town’s General Plan.
The “out-of-town” developers went to great and varied lengths to circumvent the Community’s guide. From the outset, they linked their development, and it’s nonconforming specifications, to a big tax asset, Netflix (the Apple Store now generates much more in sales tax revenue as their product sales increased, and Netflix’s sales taxes diminished as its primary product became internet streaming rather than DVD technology). The developer went to great lengths to inform the public that, if his supposed “expansion” wasn’t to be allowed, Netflix (a cash cow for Los Gatos) would leave town. Innocently, Netflix itself, a favorite taxpayer of Los Gatos, never, ever made any sort of threat regarding leaving town. Only the developer and his cronies made such threats. Constantly and unceasingly, the developer played the “Netflix card” in the most selfish and disingenuous manner to the Los Gatos residents.
Indeed, they went to the trouble and expense of hiring a bevy of petition solicitors, the ones which I talked to, who were not from Los Gatos (they were out-of-town folks, simply trying to make a living from the bucks provided them by the developer and his supporters).
It got to the point that supporters of the project contended that the (supposed) total loss of Netflix business in the town of Los Gatos would put the town’s fine schools at great jeopardy. This resulted in a nasty schism between the town’s residents, pitting some residents, who did not trust the intentions of this developer, against other residents who still had their children attending the town’s supposedly threatened schools. One had to wonder, to what lengths would this out-of-town developer go to in order to ensure the approval of his own selfish, profiteering goals, despite the desires and limits set up by the town’s people a good many years before. After using the town’s kids as smiling pawns on his advertising mailers, what would be next?
The town’s planning commission and the town council held a great many extraordinary sessions and community meetings to deal with this proposed development’s controversy. This controversy was becoming a major, detrimental consumer of the town’s resources and well-being. Finally, despite all of the rhetoric and flack poised by the developer, the town council substantially approved the developer’s proposal. The developer suggested that with the council’s restrictions, he could not proceed with the project as it would not provide him with the most minimal of acceptable profitability for his company and its shareholders (Please note here, his concern was for his company and its shareholders, not for the residents of the town he was going to effect.).
Despite the threats of the developer, the Los Gatos Town Council voted in the majority to allow the developer to proceed within the project limits the council had approved, not the maximum of what the developer asked for.
A group of concerned citizens filed suit claiming the Town Council’s approval of the project violated the 35-foot “maximum” height “limit”. The developer’s supporters took the audacious measure to raise a referendum against the Town Council’s final decision, and to circumvent a possible reversal of the Town Council’s approval of up to 65-foot tall buildings. To get the referendum onto a town ballot, the developer hired a bunch of out-of-town petition solicitors to get the required number of local signatures to “Keep Netflix in Los Gatos.” Let us remember, even up to this point, Netflix quietly supported the proposal but was not the lead actor in this controversy. Even so, the developer continued to banner the suggestion that Netflix would leave town with a bunch of non-local, “paid advocates” of this misleading information. Personally, I have to admit, such tactics just made me seethe. My cohorts told me to cool my jets. We still had options.
The group of citizens agreed to drop their suit if the developers dropped the referendum. The developers balked. They wanted a victory at the polls. So a settlement was forged where the group of citizens dropped their suits, and the developer agreed to almost the exact terms of the Town’s approval. The Citizens and Town Council agreed not oppose the referendum, and thus its passing by about 70% was without and united and vocal opposition from anyone. However, as a result of the settlement, the referendum was left to be ineffective and useless, an empty and wasted exercise.
. . . And, thus, things went forward . . .
Now we have this at the developer’s site:
(Please note that the developer’s original plan was for structures nearly twice as high as the ones being built)
In summary, here’s how I see it:
The Los Gatos General Plan limits all buildings to 35 feet in height.
In one of the northern-most corners of the town, across Freeway Number 85 from the main body of town, Netflix was allowed to build its headquarters in variance of the General Plan’s 35 foot height limit. Netflix became the large source of commercial tax income in the town.
A prominent, international developer, Carlyle Corporation (a global alternative asset manager with $203 billion of assets), acquired most of the rights of ownership to the Albright Way parcel, sleepy and dormant property, on the outskirts of town. The original plan was to build four large office buildings that would be 85 feet high. The developer was represented by Mr. Shenk, who proceeded to move the plan through the town’s Planning Department. Using a special town designation for non-conforming projects called “Planned Developments,” the development was approved by the Planning Department. However, the plan was altered by the Planning Commission as it was so far out of compliance with the 35 foot limit set forth in the General Plan. The Planning Commission approved 55-foot tall buildings. Upon the developer’s appeal, the Town Council approved 85-foot buildings, and a 20-year development contract, unprecedented in the town’s history. This was all done without an Environmental Impact Report (simply called “EIR”). A group of citizens filed suit, won, and the Court ordered an EIR, and the Town Council’s approval was voided.
The developer, returned seeking the same square footage and 550,000 square feet, and the Town Council substantially approved the developer’s plan
An article regarding the new development plan was published in the Los Gatos Weekly, and the San Jose Mercury, which was the first time the town’s people were made aware of the project beyond the town’s own records of commission and council meetings. This article made reference to the importance of the Netflix business to the town of Los Gatos and, as Mr. Shenk erroneously informed the reporter, how this was an expansion of the Netflix business and was critical to the well being of the Netflix business in the future, here, in Los Gatos.
A group of town’s people filed a lawsuit against the town to stop the town council’s approval of the Albright project, a project designed to be enormously out of scale from the General Plan’s limits.
The project was to include 550,000 square feet of office space (or some residential space, depending on future conditions), buildings that would be 85 feet high, all managed under a 20 year development contract, all of these elements far from the norm here in Los Gatos.
Advocates for and against the proposed Albright Project made efforts to make the Los Gatos residents take sides on the project, fueling a widespread and heartfelt controversy that led to numerous official, and unofficial, town meetings on the topic. The local community was getting polarized for and against the project, and, as well and mistakingly, polarized about the future of Netflix in Los Gatos.
An election was held in the Town of Los Gatos that found new members on the Town Council, members who held different views than their predecessors.
A group of Los Gatos citizens filed a law suit calling for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Some argued that any proposed building development on such a monumental scale as this should automatically require such an EIR, however, neither the Town Planning Department, the Planning Commission or the Town Council ever required any such report. The judge agreed with the citizens and ordered that the town provide this Report. This order voided the Town Council’s approval of the project. After voting on the reconsideration of the developer’s plan, this new council did approve a down sized version of the original proposal by the developer, but still, a plan that was in variance to the General Plan’s 35 foot height limit. Surely, it was a compromise. However, while, at one time the developer suggested the this very same compromise as unprofitable and, thus, unacceptable for his business, now, the compromise was acceptable. How earnestly had this developer actually presented his case to the people and the government of this town?
A group of incensed residents brought a lawsuit demanding that the town government stick to the limits of the General Plan and not allow any buildings over 35 feet in height. This group was suing the town council for accepting the compromise plan.
The town’s people were getting weary of this controversy. Were they going to support this extreme position demanding accordance to the original specifications of the General Plan, the 35 foot limit?
Despite the wear and tear on the community, the developer decided to take the controversy one step further. Supporters of the developer initiated an effort to, basically, revise the Town’s General Plan and to remove the 35 foot height limit altogether. They petitioned for a referendum in the next town election to alter the Town’s General Plan in the developer’s favor.
In order to get the proposed referendum on the next ballot, the supporters had to submit a specified number of signatures of the town’s registered voters on a petition requesting the referendum. For a number of months prior to the election, Los Gatos locals would be approached by any number of solicitors hired by the developer and/or his supporters to obtain the needed number of signatures. Personally, I questioned a handful of these “solicitors” and none of the ones I spoke to could admit to being residents of the town of Los Gatos. In fact, several of these solicitors told me that they wished they were as rich as me so that they could also live in this glorious town. I had to smirk, if they only knew . . .
When approached by these “hired gun” solicitors, the town’s people would usually be confronted with a simple question “Do you want to see Netflix leave town?” There was the usual, quick and simple answer, “No! Of course not!”
“Surely then, you must be in favor of this petition, please sign here.”
The problem with this approach was that it was misleading. Netflix, itself, had not indicated, even in any serious terms, that they would leave their Los Gatos headquarters if this developer didn’t get what he wanted. Only the developer and his supporters had said as much, with no actual, open support from the Netflix company at all. How many Los Gatos residents signed this petition in good faith, convinced to do so with trickery and falsehoods, presented to them, with not so much good faith on the part of the developer or his supporters?
While this petition signing campaign was proceeding, while the lawsuits were making their way through the courts, apparently everyone was seeming to get weary of this controversy and its determination not to give up the ghost. Under the covers of all this wrangling, machinations were taking place to finally resolve and end this controversy, once and for all.
The town’s people who brought the law suit agreed to drop the suit if the developer agreed to abide by the original approval and pay the town an additional $350,000 for traffic mitigation, up to $80,000 for the election costs and up to $125,000 for attorney fees and costs incurred by the citizen’s law suit. The developer insisted on proceeding with placing the referendum on the ballot. The bringers of the suit and the Town Council agreed not to oppose referendum if certain of its elements were altered. This referendum won by over 70%. However, in the end, after all the negotiating and alterations, the referendum changed very little about the operations of the Town of Los Gatos. It was rendered a moot effort for all concerned.
The Town of Los Gatos is facing many new challenges and opportunities. As the people of town consider the future of our home, there are so many factors to consider; density, compatibility, finances, traffic, so on and so forth. I’m not a student of politics, civics, law or urban planning. I surely don’t have pat answers about how to manage the future of Los Gatos but what I do have is one hell of powerful attitude regarding “out of town” developers.
If a long time resident of town wants to do something with his property, as far as I’m concerned, it is his property. So long as he isn’t doing out outrageous things with it, like putting an auto wrecker in the middle of Almond Grove, the community should allow some flexibility in its rules and regulations so the residents can follow their own wishes and desires.
On the other side of the coin, my hackles immediately flash upright and rigid when some, overly rich speculator buys his way into the community, solely with the intent of spending his money on some element of the community in order to make a lot more money for himself and then leave town. The town is left to deal the changes wrought by the outsider.
To my mind, that is exactly what we have outlined here. How sad is it for a multinational development corporation (headquartered in Washington D.C.) to buy several dormant acres in our town, and then tell us he intends to build a number of big, rectangular boxes that are 85 feet high, when we have already determined we don’t want any buildings to be more than 35 feet high? How truly audacious!
But what is really a quandary to me, is why did all of the safeguards that are supposed to enforce and protect the wishes of the people (as laid out in the town’s General Plan) fail in this particular case. In fact, as the developer involved himself with town, the “keepers of town rules and regulations” (i.e. the Planning Department, Planning Commission, the Town Council) actually acted as though they were encouraging the out-of-town developer to proceed with his audacious plans. Indeed, in that the developer’s plan was allowed to proceed finally after an appeal to the Town Council, the developer was not only encouraged by town administration but allowed to do what he exactly what he wanted with little consideration of the town’s rules, the General Plan.
It would take a spontaneous lawsuit backed by concerned town citizens to halt the developer’s (and now the town administration’s) “UN-Los Gatos” project. Our summary, outlined above, follows the trials and tribulations which the town had to experience because of what the out-of-town developer wanted, not what the town’s folk wanted if they had all the facts. And, so follows the question, what did the town administration want? Certainly, from my perspective, the town administration paid little attention to the will of the people, the General Plan, where, in fact, they provided the developer with the means to ignore the General Plan.
There are a variety of land parcels still sitting empty and dormant all over the town-scape. What is the future of these various pieces of land? I take the effort to research and write these tracts in the hope that, just perhaps, if our town administrators let unwanted development slip through the cracks, then we, the people, will be diligent enough to catch such developments before the “UN-Los Gatos” damage is done.
— Think —
?Tesla? Dealership at Santa Cruz Avenue and Highway 9
The old Elk’s Club Lodge on the hillside above Lark and Winchester
and so many others.