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Redevelopment is on hold because of contamination at the Vallco site
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Redevelopment is on hold because of contamination at the Vallco site

Contaminated soil at old Vallco site puts redevelopment on hold

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.

However, there are plans for a major cleanup.

Vallco property owners provided updated reports to Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health last week about the extent of contamination, and who could have been 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 found most often in gasoline, while tetrachloroethene can be used for dry cleaning.

Experts believe that the environmental pollutants came from the Sears Automotive Center, which was located at the mall, and several dry cleaners nearby that had operated in the area. Two of these are now closed. DocumentsFiled 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.

CUPERTINO, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 7: The former site of the Vallco Shopping Mall in Cupertino, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group). 

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,

“Were 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 were following the law and thats what well continue to do.”

The Cupertino City Council approved Vallco Town Center in 2018 under Senate Bill 35. This law requires cities to not build enough housing to qualify for fast-track 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. Sand Hill sued the city the following year after the council tried removing the office component of this project and limiting housing on the site to 13.1 acres.

The judge ruled in Sand Hill’s favor both times. Due to legal delays, the state Department of Housing and Community Development stated last year that the developer could be granted an extension of time.

More delays followed, and in a prepared statement Sand Hill Managing Director Reed Moulds suggested that was the city’s fault. “While the projects 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.”

Deborah Fang, former city manager, resigned abruptly in May. Greg Larson was appointed interim city manager by the city a few weeks later. Jim Throop, former Lompoc city manager, took over the reins on Jan. 3.

“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 whats important to them as we focus on the projects programming and final refinements.”

Still, Mayor Darcy Paul said he has concerns and wants the city and theSanta 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 dont have an immediate place in the local area to live.”


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