11 May Déjà vu? Ohlone College, developer again scrap plans for frontage property – East Bay Times
Faced with resistance from residents and city officials, Ohlone College and its development partner have scrapped plans to build stores, flats and townhouses on the front lot of its Fremont campus — a project the school had hoped would generate much needed revenue.
The announcement comes after more than two years of joint efforts to bring 275 residential rental units and 6,500 square feet of retail space to three parcels on Ohlone’s frontage property along Mission Boulevard between Witherly Lane and Pine Street.
This marks the second time in just four years development plans for the land have been cancelled. Officials have discussed the idea of leasing or selling the frontage property several times over the past three decades.
College officials had hoped to cash in on the 15-acre chunk of real estate by leasing it to the developer for up to 99 years, in exchange for about $1.3 million in rent annually — money the school said it could use to maintain or expand educational programs and services during tight state budget years.
But residents said the plans — by developer SteelWave LLC of Foster City — included too much housing, not enough retail, and would worsen traffic in the city’s Mission San Jose district, which is already heavily congested during commute hours.
“I think the big issue is traffic,” Gari Browning, the college district’s president and superintendent said of the concern she heard most about the project.
“And just the idea that they don’t want more development. That was, I think, a backdrop,” she said in an interview Thursday.
Browning said the college had been reaching out to residents and community leaders for about two years to try and balance the community’s wants with Ohlone’s revenue needs.
“We tried really hard to pull those ideas into our project, but it continued to be obvious that the community was not pleased with the project,” she said.
“So we listened and we came to a very difficult conclusion, a joint conclusion with Steelwave, the developer, that we wouldn’t go forward.”
Browning also said the project wasn’t getting a warm reception from some elected and appointed officials.
In January, Browning and a Steelwave representative appeared before the city’s Planning Commission to get early approval for rezoning the land so it could be developed. But the commission balked, opting to hold off on a decision until a commercial study of the Mission San Jose area was complete.
“Then (another hearing for the project) kept getting postponed, and postponed,” Browning said, “and we could see the writing on the wall.”
Vice Mayor Raj Salwan, who represents the Mission San Jose area on the city council, said he didn’t like the project, either.
“It was not the best thought out project,” he said. “I just thought there was too much housing and not enough restaurants or retail, and it was just kind of the wrong spot,” he said.
“I would’ve liked to see a project that was more like, trying to revitalize Mission San Jose, kind of a main street, small village type feel.”
Salwan also said the developer didn’t seem willing to go above and beyond minimum city requirements on including affordable housing, or to offer other kinds of benefits to justify the city approving a general plan amendment for the land.
“There are extras you’ve got to do” to earn an amendment, he said. “Not just build a bunch of housing.”
Dennis Cavallari, a director at SteelWave who was working on the project, didn’t return calls or texts seeking comment for this story.
San Francisco-based Carmel Partners had pulled out of plans for the property in 2015, but Cavallari was confident in a July 2017 interview that SteelWave’s project could get built.
“I feel that we produce a superior product,” he said at the time. “Our community, when it’s complete, will be one of the most sought after apartment complexes in all of Fremont, if not the most sought after.”
Richard Watters, an Ohlone board member, wasn’t so confident, and cast the lone dissenting vote against giving SteelWave the contract in 2017, citing concerns about past development failures, and Fremont officials’ shifting views on development in general.
“Considering the last time, I have really huge concerns that the developer will walk again,” Watters said at the time. “My worry is we are getting these big bids, and these developers thinking they are going to be able to develop how they want, and then run into problems, and then they back out.
Meanwhile, Browning said plans for the frontage property are up in the air, and she’s concerned about the financial future of the college, which serves about 16,000 students annually.
In just a couple of years, Ohlone projects it will lose about $5.4 million in annual funding from the state as a new funding formula — which leans on student performance and the number of low-income students in the area — begins to take full effect.
“So we need to create some kind of income that isn’t just dependent on the state,” she said.
“We’re exploring a parcel tax, we don’t know whether we’ll be able to get support for that or not. But we’re beginning to look at that,” she said.
The college also owns undeveloped property adjacent to the school’s Newark campus, but “we haven’t even begun the discussion on that,” Browning said.
“We would probably in the long run prefer to put educational expansion in Newark, and use the frontage property for income,” she said.
“But so far, we haven’t been able to do that.”