Vallco’s fate will hinge on recount
CUPERTINO » A 45-vote margin between two Cupertino City Council candidates on opposite sides of the controversial Vallco Shopping Mall redevelopment has triggered an automatic recount that could take weeks, putting the political makeup of the council in the balance.
If election results hold, the council majority could shift from one with a development tilt to one that opposes dense housing projects such as the mixed-use development planned for Vallco, a defunct shopping center that developer Sand Hill Property has tagged for at least 2,402 housing units, half which would be affordable.
The Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters’ final tally Thursday of the Nov. 6 election showed Jon Robert Willey with 7,400 votes and Councilwoman Savita Vaidhyanathan with 7,355 votes.
And although it could take several weeks before the recount is complete, the city planned to move on by swearing in Willey and two other candidates opposed to the Vallco project — incumbent Mayor Darcy Paul and school board member Liang Fang Chao — on Thursday evening.
“The residents have clearly sent a strong signal that they want the council to represent the residents with sensible growth,” Willey said in a phone interview.
Willey and Chao are both associated with a resident group called Better Cupertino, which has opposed the Vallco development as an outsized, too- dense development that would exacerbate traffic problems, reduce quality of life for residents and change the city’s character.
Vaidhyanathan, who was elected in 2014 and sought a second term, voted for a development plan that Better Cupertino opposed, one forged by some community residents as a a possible alternate to Sand Hill’s. She said she will wait for the results of the recount before commenting.
“There’s no matter of conceding or not conceding,” Vaidhyanathan said. “There’s no way of knowing if it will change.”
The registrar automatically recounts votes in any race where the margin is less than 0.25 percent of total votes cast. Close races have triggered recounts in four other Santa Clara County contests: Oak Grove School District Trustee Area 2, Orchard School District, the Luther Burbank School District board and a school bond measure known as Measure HH.
On the heels of Thursday night’s swearing-in ceremony, the council is set to convene a closed session Friday to discuss a lawsuit by Better Cupertino, and a regular council meeting on Dec. 18.
If a vote recount puts Vaidhyanathan on top, she would return to her seat, according to the city. A city spokesman did not immediately answer questions about whether any votes cast by Willey in the interim would be invalidated should that happen.
The city also didn’t say whether Chao and Willey will be able to participate in the closed session given their affiliation with Better Cupertino. Chao said Thursday the city attorney has cleared her to participate in the closed session because although she helped found the residents group in 2014 she is now only loosely involved.
The mixed-use development at Vallco has been a flashpoint in Cupertino since the proposal first became public in 2014.
The council in September approved the Vallco Town Center Specific Plan, which allots the project up to 2,923 housing units, 1,750,000 square feet of office space, 400,000 square feet of retail and commercial space and 191 hotel rooms.
That agreement also required the developer to contribute to a community shuttle pilot program, road improvements, construction of city hall and other projects.
One of four referenda by Better Cupertino would, if approved by voters, invalidate the Specific Plan.
The city announced Thursday that all four referenda have enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. The council now has the option to either adopt the four referenda outright, or place them before voters at a future election.
But the developer has indicated it likely will proceed with the project regardless under the auspices of SB 35, a state law that fast-tracks housing projects through the local development process by allowing them to meet certain legal requirements “by right.”
The Vallco project proposed under SB 35 includes fewer housing units — 2,405 — and no hotel component, but more commercial space at 1,810,000 square feet. It would also allow for taller buildings, up to 240 feet or 22 stories.
Both Willey and Chao are affiliated with Better Cupertino, which is sponsoring the four referenda for the 2020 ballot that seek to invalidate the Vallco project and is also suing the city over its approval of the company’s SB 35 application.
Willey was listed as the group’s president on nonprofit registration paperwork filed with the California Secretary of State’s office in 2017, although updated forms submitted this year don’t list him as an officer.
Chao said although she helped found the group in 2014 and shares many of its values, she has not been involved with its leadership for “quite some time.”
She said the previous council has been too cozy with developers, Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club, and not connected with residents.
“Finally there won’t be a divide — where the coun- cil goes in one direction and the citizens are left in black,” Chao said. “There was no transparency, and engagement was superficial.”
Willey said he isn’t opposed to new housing or commercial projects altogether, but wants to see “sensible growth” and moderately- sized projects that won’t overwhelm the roads and lead to overcrowding in local schools.
“Unfortunately the developments get put in front of any consideration of traffic and schools. We need to do it the other way around,” Willey said.
Vaidhyanathan said Willey and Chao both campaigned “to overturn anything and everything we have done” and defended her vote for the specific plan as one that prioritized new housing but also required the developer to pay for several community benefit projects.
“We negotiated $7 million for traffic impacts, a shuttle for the community, bike paths,” said Vaidhyanathan.
She also bristled at com- ments about a dearth of community engagement by the last council, pointing to high attendance at public meetings about the Vallco project.
“You can see how many people were involved, everybody knew about it,” Vaid- hyanathan said.
The new council members were to be sworn in at 7 p.m. Thursday in the council chambers.