San Jose Mercury News: Farm-fresh housing in Silicon Valley: Innovative plan to combine housing, farmland nears vote


by Marisa Kendall

SANTA CLARA — In a first for the Bay Area, developers hoping to break ground on a new housing complex next year are wooing potential residents by offering a quirky but increasingly popular perk. It’s not a golf course, health club or even a pet spa — the big draw will be a farm, and access to all the tomatoes, zucchini and kale you can eat.

The “Agrihood” development plan heading to the Santa Clara City Council for a vote as early as next month calls for 361 homes and a small farm to be built on vacant land across the street from Westfield Valley Fair and down the road from Santana Row, near the San Jose border. If the council approves the proposal, it would introduce the Bay Area to a trend taking the national real estate world by storm.

“We are seeing a lot of interest in this concept,” said Ed McMahon, a sustainable development expert with the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute. “I get a call at least once a week, and probably have for the last year about this.”

The Santa Clara project takes its name from the agrihood movement, where developers build residential communities around urban farms. McMahon is tracking about 100 such projects across the country, and he’s constantly finding new additions.

The communities have become a hit with millennials who value locally grown food and healthy living, McMahon said. And in some regards, they can be easier to build than traditional housing developments. Adding a picturesque farm to a proposed project can help win over city officials and neighbors who otherwise may be reluctant to approve new construction, he said. Without a farm or other community benefit to sweeten the deal, development projects often get bogged down in opposition over fears that they will make congestion worse or ruin a neighborhood’s aesthetic.

The Santa Clara proposal calls for 36 townhomes and 325 apartments, including 181 apartments priced below market rates. Of those, 165 units would be for seniors making between $28,000 and $75,000 a year, which the city first began planning for more than a decade ago.

Urban farming company Farmscape would manage the farm, which would be open to the public.

The project appears to be the first major agrihood in the Bay Area, though similar communities have cropped up around the state. Rancho Mission Viejo in South Orange County has two agrihoods where residents live among farms, greenhouses and orchards. On a smaller scale, apartment complexes like Mansion Grove Apartments in Santa Clara and Chesapeake Point Apartments in San Mateo offer community vegetable gardens as a selling point.

An agrihood community called The Cannery opened in Davis in 2015. So far, more than two-thirds of the development’s 457 single-family homes have sold — with prices ranging from about $400,000 to $1 million — and all of the roughly 60 apartments are rented. The 3.5-acre farm, run by the Center for Land-Based Learning, can produce up to 25,000 pounds of produce an acre in peak season.

Novice farmers lease plots of farm land from the center at a discount, cultivate the land, sell their produce to local businesses and at farmer’s markets, and keep the profits. The farmers also sell their fruit and vegetables once a week on The Cannery property, providing residents with easy access to everything from peppers to melons to leafy greens.

Elizabeth and Kim Middleton left Southern California and moved into a three-bedroom house in The Cannery in September 2017. They paid about $925,000, including upgrades, for a home with views of a vast expanse of farmland from their back patio. In the early mornings, Kim, a 66-year-old retired pilot, likes to sit on the patio and watch a crop duster fly low over the fields. His wife, a therapist, spends her days off weeding around the trees in the orchard, getting paid in fresh apricots, apples and pluots.

“I’m a tree-hugger,” said Elizabeth, 64. “It just gives me a good feeling.”

Developers envision the Santa Clara agrihood as a similar idyllic community. But the road to get there has been anything but peaceful so far. The site has been a source of controversy for nearly two decades.

Originally owned by the state, it was used by the University of California system for agricultural research as the Bay Area Research and Extension Center. The city bought six acres in 2005 and began planning for affordable senior housing, prompting push-back from some local residents who wanted to return the property to farmland. In 2008 the “Save BAREC” dissenters placed a referendum on the ballot asking voters to prevent zoning and general plan changes that would open the site for residential development. Shortly after, they sued to halt the affordable housing project under the California Environmental Quality Act.

“Our message was ‘keep public land public,'” said Kirk Vartan, a local pizza shop owner and one of the leaders of the Save BAREC movement.

The referendum and the lawsuit failed to stop the project, but it got bogged down in delays anyway. In 2012, the state dissolved the redevelopment agencies that had helped fund affordable housing construction — draining the Santa Clara project of key funds. Meanwhile, developer SummerHill Homes bought 11 acres of the BAREC parcel and built a separate townhome development.

Seizing the opportunity to reshape the proposal, Vartan, a former tech worker, spent $150,000 of his own money on renderings for a farm-based housing development, which he said would better serve the surrounding community. His designs helped spark the idea for the current project proposed by San Jose-based developer the Core Companies in 2015.

“It was a new thing, but I think it’s a very interesting dynamic and adds a very unique character to the development project,” said Vince Cantore, senior development manager of the Core Companies.

Now, 13 years after the city first bought the land, the plan is approaching a council vote. Thanks to legislation signed by Gov. Brown in 2016, Core was able to add market rate units to the original vision for affordable senior housing. Cantore is hopeful the council will vote by late November or early December.

Priscilla Haynes, executive director of the Santa Clara Methodist Retirement Foundation, is happy the city is getting closer to approving affordable housing on the site. Her organization was in talks with the city for years to build about 165 units of affordable senior housing there, until the deal fell apart following the Save BAREC pushback.

“You have people sleeping in tents and cars,” Haynes said, “and we need the affordable housing.”