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Proposed San Jose shopping center reignites neighborhood’s fear of bridge, traffic

By Dean Schaffer | 22 Feb 2011

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Valentina Nesci contributed to this report.

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René Dueñas doesn’t live in San Jose anymore, but he’s none too happy about what might happen there.

The San Jose planning office is reviewing a proposal to build a 400,000-square-foot retail center on an empty lot just northeast of where state Route 85 and the Almaden Expressway intersect—and only a stone’s throw from the quiet suburban neighborhood where Dueñas grew up and where his mother still lives.

Dueñas and many of the site’s neighbors worry about the proposed shopping center, but not nearly as much as they oppose the bridge into their community that might come with the project to ease traffic. For all their commotion, however, the city says the bridge simply is not part of the plan – at least for now.

Today, despite the lot’s prime location, it’s vacant farmland, overgrown with grass and weeds streaked with brown tracks from the trucks that bring pumpkins and Christmas trees each holiday season. State Route 85 borders the land on the south, but birds and insects still chirp and buzz loudly enough to break through the din of passing cars. The Guadalupe River separates the land on its western side from Dueñas’s old neighborhood.

City staff members agree the proposed project would increase traffic on Almaden, but they seem confused—or at least divided—about whether a controversial bridge across the river might be necessary to ease that traffic. The bridge would extend Chynoweth Avenue west from the quaint tract homes across the river and connect it with a road that would service the shopping center’s parking lots from Almaden (see map below).

The proposed project site is shown in brown. The red line represents a proposed road extension that would serve the shopping center. The purple line represents the proposed Chynoweth bridge.

San Jose planning spokesman Mike Enderby said, “It’s not entirely clear just yet whether or not this project will be obliged to build that bridge.” The answer, he said, will depend on an environmental report the city is analyzing that addresses the development’s impact on conditions like traffic, noise and air quality. The report will not be publicly available until the city finishes its analysis.

Janis Moore, a planning spokesperson who specializes in the city’s environmental reports, seemed to disagree. She said the bridge is still part of the city’s long-term goals—for 2040—but not part of this project in particular.

“This project has nothing to do with the bridge,” she said, noting that the development firm, Arcadia Development, eliminated residential buildings from the proposal last year, which greatly decreased its projected traffic impact.

“Some people don’t seem to understand that,” she said.

Despite its prime location next to two major roads, the proposed development site is a fallow field. (Photo: Dean Schaffer)

Another planning spokesperson, Jean Hamilton, sided with Enderby. “We’ll see as a result of the environmental analysis” whether the bridge is necessary, she said.

Either way, neighbors adamantly oppose it. They argue that a bridge would take the congestion of Almaden—one of the city’s busiest roads—and dump it into their community.

“The traffic will dissipate into the neighborhood,” Dueñas said. “It’s almost like pouring a glass of water and having it just go everywhere.” The community would be “devastated,” he added. Dueñas, a real estate agent, emphasized that a bridge would devalue homes and destroy the community’s “neighborhood feel.”

Local resident Brigitte Rince owns a house on Chynoweth Avenue, right next to the river. A bridge would pass by her driveway.

“There would be a freeway right in front of my house,” she said, adding that a bridge would so severely devalue her property that she would sell her house if the city decided to build it.

The city says it is also considering the possibility of a bridge on nearby Thornwood Drive, which would not dump traffic into a residential area.

Manuel Pineda, acting deputy director of San Jose’s Department of Transportation, estimated that the Chynoweth bridge would cost about $15 million, while the Thornwood bridge could cost up to $25 million because  the city would have to lengthen Thornwood to make the bridge possible. He stressed, however, that these were “very, very rough estimates.”

Pineda said the city needs to finish analyzing the environmental study before it can determine who would have to pay for the bridge, if it were necessary.

Moore said residents’ opposition to this bridge is what caused Arcadia to abandon the project the first time it proposed the shopping center, back in 1996. “The developers knew that everybody hated the bridge,” she said, “and you couldn’t do that project without the bridge.”

City documents from 1998 show that the original proposal included a Chynoweth bridge to help ease the extra traffic the shopping center would create in the area.

Arcadia’s development consultant, Gerry De Young, said Arcadia abandoned the project because of a conflict between San Jose City and the Santa Clara Valley Water District over the bridge — not complaints from neighbors.

Last year, however, Arcadia decided it was time to “begin to look for opportunities” and to “re-entitle the project,” De Young said. So the company submitted new paperwork in April.

The busy intersection of Almaden and Blossom Hill, just south of the proposed development site that may make it even busier. (Photo: Dean Schaffer)

This time, local resident Dave Fadness said he believes the city will eventually approve the project but expressed concerns about its effects on the community, whether or not the bridge is part of the project.

“Anyone with a brain knows that this is going to happen,” he said. The plot is “a strategically located commercial parcel, and it’s unfortunately kind of the last one on the selling block.

“We just want to make sure that when this project goes forward,” he added, “the impacts are correctly identified and the city can show us a plan for how they’re going to mitigate those impacts.”

San Jose City Council Member Donald Rocha, who represents the district that includes the proposed development, identified traffic as one of his main worries. The section of Almaden Expressway next to the proposed site is already “heavily impacted,” he said. Reports from 1998 estimated that the shopping center would increase traffic from 2,700 to over 13,000 cars per day.

“This is a neighborhood,” Fadness said, echoing a common sentiment among his neighbors. “It’s not a freeway.”

Jerry Lane, whose house faces the Guadalupe River, shared Fadness’s concerns.

“We live here—we know what that stretch of Almaden Expressway is like,” he said. “If they’re going to do that development, I’m concerned about the traffic on Almaden.”

Tony Smith, who also lives nearby, worried about the extra noise a shopping center might generate. “I want to be assured that there’s nothing loud going on at night,” he said.

Since the city classifies the land as prime farmland, Smith said he would prefer a project that would avoid disrupting the environment there. “There are things you can do to monetize that land and yet still have it be a good environmental project,” he said. “Make it a farmer’s market community farm.”

On the flipside, several city officials and staff members highlighted the sales tax the huge shopping center would generate for the budget-strapped city.

The city is “housing rich” and commerce poor, Rocha said, so the sales tax is “a great thing for San Jose.”

Rocha added that, if the development ultimately moves forward, he hopes Arcadia will work with the city to develop walking trails next to the river and reach out to the community when it decides which stores to include.

He added that neither De Young nor Arcadia has yet met with him but noted that the proposal is still in its earliest phases.

De Young said the application has not gone far enough yet for him to comment on the specific stores Arcadia is considering, but he suggested at a city hall community meeting in January that the community would have a chance to influence the selection process.

Regardless of the particulars, Hamilton argued that the development would be a boon for San Jose shoppers. “I think there have been some studies in the past that we’re still underserved from a commercial standpoint,” she said. “San Jose clearly has an interest in providing” the stores “that its residents need.”

Rince, however, said another shopping center near her house was unnecessary, pointing to the Costco, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Best Buy and other stores within just a few blocks of the proposed development site.

“Honestly, we have everything we need,” she said. “I just don’t think we need any more retail.”

Photo Gallery: Photos of San Jose’s proposed development site.

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