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Publication Date: Friday, February 16, 2001

Efficiency Studios set for San Antonio Efficiency Studios set for San Antonio (February 16, 2001)

Last-minute $5 million offer made on downtown site

By Justin Scheck

After a decade of discussing, studying, delaying, and reviewing, the city council Tuesday approved a site on the San Antonio Loop for a 100- to 150-unit efficiency studio development. The apartments, which will measure about 300 square feet each, will provide low-cost housing for people making 25 to 45 percent of the city's median income.

According the city staff's report, between 70 and 78 percent of residents of similar developments in Sunnyvale and Palo Alto work in their communities, while approximately 25 percent are senior citizens.

In front of a packed chamber, the council voted unanimously to approve the 1.69-acre San Antonio site over the other choice, a 1-acre site downtown at the corner of Franklin Street and Evelyn Avenue.

While the location has been the source of debate for months, the situation became more complicated Tuesday after the council learned that developer Scott Ward made a $5 million offer to buy the downtown site Jan. 12.

"I specifically went to Scott Ward and asked him what the project was worth... about four weeks ago," Council member Ralph Faravelli said Wednesday.

Faravelli, who had been openly opposed to the downtown site for some time, said he expected Ward to make an offer, although he did not specifically ask for one.

Ward is the manager of Bryant Place LLC, which developed the Bryant Place townhomes, an upscale 44-unit development adjacent to the downtown site.

He would not comment on his discussions with Faravelli, but said that the offer is still on the table.

Ward's offer was sent to Ellis Berns, the city's Economic Development Manager, in a letter dated Jan. 12.

Berns and City Manager Kevin Duggan said that, while council members were likely notified of the offer due to the sensitive nature of the site, unsolicited offers to buy city property are normally dealt with by city staff.

"In a case where we don't have a piece of property for sale, we don't always forward it to the council members," said Duggan.

According to City Attorney Mike Martello, it is not unusual for council members to contact interested parties about city properties, even if they are not for sale.

"That happens all the time when people are interested in something, whether it's a casual phone call or a direct conversation," said Martello.

In characterizing Ward's offer, he said, "It isn't an offer, in my opinion as a lawyer, capable of acceptance... I look at it as a letter of interest." He added that Bryant Place LLC has been interested in the site for a long time.

Council members Rosemary Stasek and Matt Pear said they were not aware of the offer until after they received the city staff report on the issue.

At the meeting, council members agreed that the downtown site should be used for a housing development that could incorporate below-market-rate housing with housing that could be sold at or above market rate.

Stasek said she has no specific goals for this type of housing, although she is interested in a "public-private partnership," in which the city would retain ownership of the land and a private developer would build housing there.

"I'm not interested in selling the property," said Stasek.

Both of the city-owned properties have each elicited their share of controversy from community members.

Some members of the city's downtown committee, including Faravelli, have opposed the downtown site, saying that low-income housing would be a poor use of a potentially profitable piece of property, and would not attract residents who would support high-rent businesses downtown.

But the Chamber of Commerce and the Old Mountain View Neighborhood Association came out in support of the downtown site, citing its proximity to service jobs and public transportation.

Although few residents at the Tuesday meeting had negative comments on the project, a group of residents at The Old Mill, a housing development on the San Antonio Loop, wrote a letter to the council Sept. 22 advocating the downtown site.

"We, the undersigned, feel this (development) will cause more congestion, decrease safety and property values as well as draw undesirables to the area," the letter said.

Terry Sullivan, a resident who signed the letter, said Tuesday that she worried about traffic congestion and the possibility of Hispanic residents occupying the studios.

"I'm not a racist, and I know this sounds terrible, but I walk in those Hispanic areas, and they're just not clean... I just wouldn't feel very safe" with the development nearby, she said.

Adriana Garefalos, the city's senior planner, said the San Antonio site, while about 60 percent larger than the downtown site, would nonetheless accommodate a smaller building because of its irregular shape and setback restrictions.

Yan Habib, a 17-year-old Mountain View resident who spoke at the meeting, said he preferred the downtown site because of its central location, but added that he felt it was most important to get the site built as quickly as possible.

"I think we have to provide for our poor... There are a lot of low-income people who don't have the opportunity to live in nice places, and I don't think it's right to just dump them," he said.

Habib's uncle, Phillippe Habib, agreed.

"I wanted to be here to let the council know that we want something tonight... I preferred the downtown site, but I am just glad to see something happen," he said.

Dan Wu, the director of Charities Housing, the group contracted by the city to develop the efficiency studios, said he was pleased that the council had moved forward with the plan, and had no preference for either site.

"We looked at a lot of sites, and when we narrowed it down to two, both were very feasible," Wu said, adding that he would look at ways to maximize use on the irregularly shaped parcel.

"There are definitely ways to see how we can get the most bang for our buck, and the most units out there," he said. 


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