Boston Properties’ 2MM SQFT Development in San Jose Receives Planning Commission Approval

Boston Properties San Jose 447 Almaden KPF
Rendering courtesy of KPF

By Vladimir Bosanac

What transpired as a relatively tame, albeit with some controversy, Planning Commission meeting in San Jose resulted in the approval of one of the largest development projects the city’s downtown has seen to date. Developer Boston Properties brought to the Commission its 2.05 million square foot mixed-use, two-tower development that it plans to bring to life at 447 Almaden Boulevard. The project is planned to rise 16 stories including 37,603 gross square feet of ground-floor retail and amenity space and 1,416,717 gross square feet of commercial office space as well as three levels of parking.

“We are very excited about the building that we are presenting to you today. It’s been a highly crafted building that we believe is very unique and that it does a lot of interesting things to bring the community together,” said the project’s architect, Hugh Trumbull, a principal at KPF. As he reviewed the visual aspects of the project, he focused the openness of the development, including the “urban window,” a dramatic space in the middle of the two buildings that breaks the project into two parts, as well as the open concept of the pedestrian experience that is engaging and inviting. “The lobbies have been lifted off of the ground, and one of the things that is really wonderful about that is that it allows the ground floor to be completely open to the public realm,” he added.

Most of the city’s planners and staff liked the development. In a number of comments supporting the project, some members of the Planning Commission proclaimed their excitement for a development that has a chance to reanimate a blighted part of the city’s downtown core, especially one that features a surface parking lot. Others spoke about the opportunities a project like this could bring to the city, from construction jobs to high-paying tech jobs of the building’s tenants. But another group, a smaller subset of the Commission, also raised questions about the environmental impact this development will have on the Guadalupe River, which runs alongside the property, and they wondered if the city was losing an opportunity to set a tone for future developments with an eye toward a sustainable future.

From the onset, the Planning Department staff focused on the challenges posed by the river’s presence in the development plans. The Guadalupe River, which runs through the city, intersects the block between Woz Way, Almaden Boulevard and E. San Carlos Street. On the west side of the river is the Discovery Meadow and Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose. On the east side is a 3.57-acre public service parking lot adjacent to the 303 Almaden Blvd. building. 

Boston Properties San Jose 447 Almaden KPF
Rendering courtesy of KPF

The development team is proposing the structures that curve along the bank of the river and follow its course from the north side of the block all the way to the south edge of the block on Woz Way. The proximity to the river’s bank means the city had to consult its Riparian Corridor Protection and Bird-Safe Design Policy, which takes into account the impact the buildings may have on nature and the waterway. In the proposal, the closest the property gets to the riparian corridor is just over three feet, which is extremely close since the city’s policy requires a minimum of 100 feet of setback. This can be reduced in certain circumstances if the project meets a number of guidelines, like its location in downtown San Jose, which counts as one of those instances, as well as if the development provides unique geometric characteristics, which it also does.

Also, since the current use of the property already incorporates an existing development, the parking lot, the conditions of the riparian corridor policy are limited, since they primarily apply to undeveloped land.

In all, the Planning Department staff concluded that the project met the conditions outlined by the riparian corridor policy, and it did not see that as a hurdle for its approval.

In addition, the environmental review process enacted through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) looked at the major environmental impact the project will produce but found no realistic alternatives that would eliminate or limit them. In conclusion, the staff also found that the project met CEQA guidelines and recommended the project as proposed.

This, however, did little to satisfy most of the public comments that came in during the meeting. 

All the public comments that came from the various labor unions that would benefit from this development, including organizations like the San Jose Downtown Association and the neighboring Children’s Museum, fully supported the development. Their focus was on jobs that the project would create immediately upon the start of construction, as well as after occupancy is finalized. 

Sherman Chan, senior vice president with CBRE, a company that has been engaged as the listing agent on the development, explained that the city needed more supply of projects like this one in order to attract large technology companies. “We’ve been trying to get large tech companies here for two decades. We believe downtown’s time has come. Caltrian, BART, housing, restaurants and other amenities make it a great location for large tech companies to thrive. One question: Why aren’t they here already? The simple answer is that existing building supply does not work,” he said.

Most of the present structures do not offer floor plates that are large enough to accommodate the collaborative expansive setting tech firms are seeking in office buidings. He added that Google would not even consider buildings with floor plates smaller than 40,000 square feet, and developments like the proposed one will be crucial to bringing the types of jobs that will help transform San Jose into a hub of innovation.

Boston Properties San Jose 447 Almaden KPF
Rendering courtesy of KPF

However, organizations with a mission toward preserving the environment didn’t quite see the appeal of the development in the same light. The Sierra Club was against it in its current form and asked the Planning Commission to consider putting into place a 35-foot setback from the riparian corridor. Two members of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society cited the buildings’ proximity to the river and nature as their main objection to the proposal adding that years of positive policies toward the environment would be diminished if this development was approved.

A member of the California Native Plants Society also did not like what was presented, although her reasons were based more on the developer’s ambiguous plans to protect the river in the future. She cited the organization’s support for the Google project, also in San Jose’s downtown core, which outlined in great detail the company’s efforts around environmental consciousness. Nothing like that, she said, was presented by Boston Properties.

The developer did have an opportunity to respond to these comments. Christina Bernardin, Boston Properties’ development project manager, outlined the efforts the company was implementing to enhance the site. She presented current photos of the parking lot and showed the neglect of the river and nature in its form today. Presently, the parking lot features only 670 square feet of park space, while the company plans to add 12,500 square feet of landscaping across the development. This would also include filtering systems and a focus on preserving the river bank. Initial design, Bernardin added, had no setback, and this has been increased to 14 feet along the length of the development, reducing the size of the building by 290,000 square feet.

Some members of the Planning Commission moved to push the decision for two weeks, since they felt that additional clarity was needed on the environmental impact of the project. This motion was defeated in a 6 – 2 vote. As the members in support of the project focused more on the positive aspects of the development and saw no further need for review, they agreed in a 6 – 3 vote to approve the development and send their decision to the City Council, which could provide the final approval over the next few weeks.

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