San Jose’s 374-Unit 27West Project Overcomes Development Snag

San Jose, Alterra Worldwide, Bader, Baz Area, Google, Adobe, San Jose Preservation Action Committee, Laborers International Union of North America
Image courtesy of SG Studio Collaborative

By Meghan Hall

One of the largest development projects planned for downtown San Jose hit a snag in the development process, weeks after the project, proposed by the Bader family in partnership with Dallas, Texas-based Alterra Worldwide, completed a lengthy environmental review process. While the 374-unit mixed-use project, called 27West, was considered by the Director of Planning, Building and Code Enforcement in February 2019 and its associated CEQA documents were adopted, two appeals were filed challenging the project’s Addendum to the Downtown Strategy 2040 Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The appeals were filed by the Preservation Action Council of San Jose (PAC SJ) and Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA). Although the appeals addressed separate concerns and had the potential to set back the project months, the San Jose City Council ultimately upheld the approval of the development’s original environmental documents, allowing 27West to move forward.

The 27West project would be constructed at 27 South First St. in the rapidly developing Fountain Alley area of First and Second Streets in San Jose. Currently, the project site is developed with a one-story, 24,696 square foot commercial building. The Bader family and Alterra Worldwide plan to demolish the existing building to construct a 22-story residential tower. In addition to the residential units, floors one and two of the building would house around 35,712 square feet of retail. Residential amenities for the project include a game room, a cinema room, a library, fitness space and yoga studio. A pool and spa are also proposed for the third level of the building, as are 262 below-grade parking spaces.

Once constructed, 27West will be located in the heart of downtown San Jose, minutes from the SAP Center, home of the San Jose Sharks, the Children’s Discovery Museum and numerous eateries such as Taurinus Brazilian Steak House, San Pedro Square Market Bar and The Farmers Union. The project is just one of a slew of residential high-rises planned for downtown, which has attracted high levels of investor interest over the last couple of years as Google and Adobe expand their footprints in the City.

“This site is the ideal location for high-rise housing and retail because it is literally at the future BART station on SantaClara St. and currently has the light rail station right out the front door,” said Erik Schoennauer, a land use consultant with The Schoennauer Company who represents the Bader family and Alterra on the project.

The appeals filed by the PAC SJ and LIUNA put a hold on the project’s progress as the City worked to evaluate the merits of the appeals. Both were filed in the weeks following the adaptation of the project’s addendum, but took issue with different aspects of the 27West development.

LIUNA filed its appeal first, claiming that the project’s addendum failed to analyze and mitigate the potential impacts of the project on wildlife. In its appeals letter, LIUNA consulted Dr. Shawn Smallwood, an expert wildlife biologist, who stated that a number of Bay Area bird species frequently come in contact with the site through migratory patterns. Additionally, LIUNA stated the project’s environmental analysis did not adequately address impacts to birds caused from collisions with the glass windows of the project or animal-vehicle collisions caused by the 2,257 net new daily vehicle trips generated by the project.

“Compensatory mitigation ought also to include funding contributions to wildlife rehabilitation facilities to cover the costs of injured animals that will be delivered to these facilities for care,” stated Smallwood in LIUNA’s appeal letter. “Most of the wildlife injuries will likely be caused by collisions with the building’s windows and with cars driven to and from the site.”

The San Jose Preservation Action Committee took issue with a different aspect of the project, primarily the impact that it would have on surrounding historical development. The committee claimed that the approval of the project’s addendum violates CEQA and a supplemental EIR should be prepared before the project’s final approval. In its appeals letter, PAC SJ stated that the height and massing of the building will cast a shadow on the Bank of Italy, a local historic landmark, as well as other lower-rise buildings in the area.

“While we appreciate the efforts the developer has made in refining the design and slightly lowering the building height, PAC SJ cannot support the project as proposed,” states the appeals letter. “We do not feel the current height is appropriate given its proximity to the landmark Bank of Italy/Bank of America building and the Downtown Commercial National Register Historic District.”

The majority of buildings in the area and adjacent to the Bank of Italy, built between 1926 and 1970, are approximately 14 stories in height. Once completed, 27West would rise 27 stories. In response to initial concern presented by PAC SJ during the planning and design process, the Bader Family and Alterra lowered the height of the development by 20 feet.

“The expressed concern of the preservationists was the impact on the Bank of Italy across the street, which is a mid-rise building,” explained Schoennauer. “This developer acted very responsibly and lowered the height of the tower by 20 feet to ensure that the Bank of Italy spire remains the tallest element in this area. It is extremely rare for any builder in San Jose to lower the height of a high-rise. Usually they build to the maximum height limit.”

According to San Jose public documents detailing the environmental review process, the City does not frequently get appeals of CEQA documents, as the purpose of CEQA is to provide information to the public regarding the environmental impacts of a project. However, challenging the validity of a CEQA analysis is less time-consuming and costly than other revision measures.

“The reconsideration process is another way to try to get environmental issues addressed adequately through the administrative process without the time and expense of litigation,” stated the City in an Environmental Clearance Streamlining Ordinance recommendation in 2014.

Following the submittal of the appeals, city staff scheduled an appeal hearing in front of City Council. In a turn of events, LIUNA withdrew its appeal prior to the hearing on May 14, stating that after further review of the project, they were satisfied with the development moving forward.

The City Council, however still heard PAC SJ’s case but unanimously upheld the original environmental decision on the project, approving the CEQA documents and the project itself. With environmental and project approval secured, the Bader family and Alterra can move now move forward with the construction process, and the project will add much-needed housing stock to a critical site in downtown San Jose.

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