Rendering of San Carlos’ Transit Village as originally proposed.
Transit Village opponents are so certain the San Carlos City Council will ultimately approve the mixed-use development around the train station that some east side residents are preparing for a fight at the ballot box.
Ben Fuller, president of the Greater East San Carlos group, said as soon as councilmembers pull the trigger on the project he will pull the trigger on his plan to place a referendum on the ballot overturning the approval. Fuller is proposing the plan as an individual resident, not as a board representative, he said.
“This way we can hit the ground running by having all of our ducks in a row,” Fuller said.
Following council approval, a citizen has 30 days to apply for a referendum and begin collecting the needed signatures, said City Attorney Greg Rubens.
Fuller announced his intention earlier this week to GESC members who’ve responded with vows of support and nearly $3,000 in financial pledges to fund paid signature gatherers. Fuller is not accepting any of the money until the referendum process, if necessary, begins.
But city officials and developer Legacy Partners calls the announced intention premature, particularly as the Transit Village design has yet to come before the Planning Commission and City Council. Plans for a referendum, they say, are not only untimely but imply that opponents will be against any project design no matter the ultimate concept.
“I have a feeling the project as presented now could possibly change a lot,” said Mayor Bob Grassilli.
The original proposal called for converting a 10.53-acre strip of land within the existing Caltrain station into eight four-story 407,298-square-foot buildings with 281 housing units among a mix of 23,797 square feet of offices and 14,326 square feet of retail space. The project would also include 667 parking spaces and a new Transit Center on 4.29 acres.
John Ward, who works with Legacy Partners on the project, said the developer and GESC met 11 times in mediation. The results were design changes like a smaller fourth floor and reduction of 35,000 square feet which over time will mean a significant loss in revenue.
“The goal was to come up with a project that would be sensitive to their concerns and we made a lot of changes,” Ward said.
However, it is still not enough for opponents like Fuller who say his neighborhood is receiving most of the project’s impacts without any clear benefits.
“The way the ball is bouncing right now it is marching toward approval and it’s not going to work for us,” Fuller said. “The level of compromise on our part has been incredible but they’re not offering us anything.”
He insists GESC members and a large swath of San Carlos residents respect the developer and landowner SamTrans but feel ignored and manipulated by the process, particularly the approval of environmental impact reports that conclude most impacts can be mitigated.
Fuller also calls the mediation sessions city-sanctioned “dog and pony shows” to hide the lack of progress.
The notion of a referendum was sparked by a similar move in Palo Alto over senior housing although that issue is slightly different in that the proposal has already been approved, Fuller said.
In Redwood City, opponents of the Marina Shores Village project shot down the approved project with a 2004 ballot initiative.
Under the law, an initiative can be undertaken at any time. A referendum is a direct response to a legislative action.
Most San Carlos residents would also rather have the direct democracy of a vote to decide the Transit Village rather than leave the matter in the hands of a few planning commissioners and city councilmembers, Fuller said.
The question is what ballot that might be.
If the City Council doesn’t vote in a time frame that allows the regular November election, the city will need to hold a special election which carries its own price tag and — according to Fuller — very little chance of seeing voters turn out to support the Transit Village.
However, if voters indicate they support the Transit Village, Fuller said that is the end of it for him.
“If San Carlans want this thing and if San Carlans vote for this project I am going to give up and I am going to accept their vote,” he said.
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