Looking through the diamond-crossed wire fence, Kirk Vartan describes his vision of the empty dirt and asphalt lot in front of the Westfield Valley Fair shopping center. In a few years, he says, those six acres could become a urban village with low-income senior housing, a community farm, rooftop, aquaponics and vertical gardens, artisan shops, studios and an outdoor market.

“This is the only open space, the only six contiguous acres left to the city of Santa Clara,” he says, holding colorful renderings illustrating the site’s tentative future as a so-called “agrihood” , an expanse built around shared farms that are cultivated in a dozen cities across the country. “We don’t want to see another boring proposition. We don’t want development for development.”

A decade after acquiring a slice of a former agricultural research site at 90 N. Winchester Boulevard in the state, the city of Santa Clara relaunched its plans to redevelop it. Based on the original terms of the sale, the city must include at least 165 low-income seniors’ residences and meet a strict deadline to pave the way in early 2017. But Vartan, neighborhood groups and some city officials want do more than revamp an outdated business plan.

“Our city is experiencing greater visibility,” said City Councilor Lisa Gillmor, who voted with her colleagues to launch a new tender. “This could be an opportunity for us to showcase our creativity while preserving this land as a small snapshot of our agricultural past.

Last month, eight developers submitted designs for the wasteland bounded by Winchester Boulevard on one side and rows of sentry straight townhouses on the other. While details of these proposals remain private, at least one project released at a neighborhood meeting borrows from Vartan’s vision: edible gardens and orchards alongside affordable housing and public gathering spaces.

the Silicon Valley Business Journal filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the names of these developers, which are listed here.

Vartan has been lobbying for this type of intergenerational urban enclave in one form or another for almost a decade. Although hers was largely a losing battle against the developers and the powers that be.

The site to be redeveloped has been vacant for a dozen years. (Photo by Greg Ramar)

Remarkably, despite considerable setbacks, he remains hopeful. Proving his faith in the project, he invested over $ 100,000 of his own money for architectural renderings of what he calls Win-6. His optimism belies a history fraught with political controversy, allegations of behind-the-scenes deals and retaliation that personally put Vartan in the crosshairs. Now, with an end in sight, he’s ready to make amends, even with former political enemies.

“Conditions have changed,” he says, “so my approach has changed. I think we can use this property that separated the community to bring it together. “

For 80 years, scientists and master gardeners have studied agriculture at the 17-acre Bay Area Research and Extension Center (BAREC). They found ways to treat plant diseases, make compost less pungent, and make new varieties of sod. They organized field trips and gave free gardening advice.

“When I was little, I lived on the streets and often went there with bugs in jars to show researchers,” recalls Teresa O’Neill, city councilor in Santa Clara. “A lot of people would go there with a leaf from their garden to ask what was going on with their plants. It was an incredible resource.

But in 1999, the University of California, which owned the land, sold it back to the state in exchange for an annual funding increase of $ 2 million. The sale took the community and even high ranking political leaders by surprise. The then state senator. John Vasconcellos called the process leading to the sale “truly abominable” to exclude the contribution of the public. A year later, the site closes. It wasn’t long before the state reneged on its promise of a pay rise for the UC system.


A first rendering of the Win-6 Village concept.

With state control and discussions of another sale in 2002, a group of concerned citizens formed a group called Save BAREC to discuss how to revive fallow farmland. They wanted to keep the property open and public, with at least part for agricultural education to honor the history of the site.

In 2005, the city spent $ 11.5 million on six acres with plans to build below market senior housing. SummerHill Homes bought the remaining 11 acres for $ 32 million, promising to reserve an acre as a public park. As head of Save BAREC, Vartan called for a referendum to prevent market-cost housing from being built, but lost to a million-dollar campaign funded by developers.

Save BAREC then filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s environmental review, which delayed construction but ultimately lost in court. SummerHill sued Vartan and his colleagues Kathryn Mathewson and Sharon McCray to recover some of the legal fees, though a judge ultimately dismissed that case as well.

“It was exhausting,” Vartan says, reiterating that he would rather talk about the future than the lengthy legal wrangles of the recent past.

Homes grew in 2010, crowding out most of the open space. Plans by Charities Housing and the Santa Clara Methodist Retirement Foundation to build homes for low-income seniors have been stalled by the economic recession and the state’s dissolution of redevelopment agencies, a primary source of funds for housing affordable. Finally, five years later, the real estate market is back in force.

“This kind of public investment is now justified,” Vartan says outside A Slice of New York, a popular local pizza chain he founded after his engineering career at Cisco brought him to work. his hometown of New York in Silicon Valley. “I have been criticized for being too grandiose, but just look at the expected growth for this area.”

Valley Fair plans to spend $ 600 million on a new high-tech parking lot, theater and 150,000 square foot Bloomingdale’s. Santana Row, across from the indoor mall, plans to build more office space and expand to the 11+ acre site of the former Century Theaters.

“We are on the verge of witnessing an unprecedented explosion in infrastructure and traffic as a region,” says Vartan, who has spent the last few months presenting his Win-6 concept community groups and decision makers. “It makes sense to do something innovative here. “

Funding, he realizes, will be a challenge. In its call for ideas, the city encouraged creative proposals with limited public funding. For example, a developer could buy three acres for houses at market price and use the resulting income to pay his low-income counterparts.

Recently, Vartan found an ally for agriculture in native plant expert Alrie Middlebrook, founder of the California Native Garden Foundation (CNGF). At least one developer, according to plans submitted in response to the city’s call for proposals, has identified CNGF as a potential nonprofit partner for the community farm.

“We could actually create an urban village here with the capacity to produce 50% of the development food supply,” says Middlebrook, who converted a parking lot in San Jose into Middlebrook Gardens, which she considers as a working model for the former BAREC site. “It’s not overkill. If anything, this is the future: providing services to people close to where they live. “

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former editor-in-chief of San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

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