One of Santa Clara’s biggest and most unique affordable housing projects in the pipeline promises to offer a blend of urban living and farm life.
The City Council last week granted final approvals to a housing project on a six-acre plot of land across the street from Westfield Valley Fair mall. The project, known as the “Agrihood,” will to provide 361 new homes, 181 of which will be below market rate. Of these 181 homes, 160 will be set aside for low-income seniors. The project will additionally feature a 1.7-acre urban farm and community retail and open space.
The Agrihood, which is on track to break ground by next year, consists of a partnership among real estate firm The Core Companies, the nonprofit California Native Garden Foundation and the city of Santa Clara. But it came to fruition in no small part because of its biggest champion, local business owner and activist Kirk Vartan.
“We wanted to make a vibrant place,” Vartan said. “Somewhere where people can engage. A place to go for people to unwind, meander, walkable and be human.”
Well over a decade ago, the six-acres Agrihood site was owned by the University of California for agricultural research. Santa Clara bought the land from the UC system in 2005 with the intent of rezoning it for a private single-family home and below-market-rate senior housing project. But a group of residents lobbied to preserve at least part of the plot for farmland. Vartan led the movement to stop the housing project, introducing a referendum to voters. “We wanted to keep the land public,” he explained.
Voters rejected the referendum in 2008, but by 2012 the state had dissolved much of its affordable housing funding, which halted the project anyway. That’s when Vartan stepped in with more than $100,000 of his own money to propose a new project that would combine both agricultural and residential use.
“With literally thousands of community activists involved, we created an empowered community voice,” Vartan recounted. “That voice was silenced by developer money—talking about affordable senior housing that never got built.”
“I wanted to empower the community to create a vision for this site that represented the agricultural roots of the area,” he continued. “I knew the city wasn’t going to spend any funds to explore any of this, so I funded it.”
Vartan dubbed his vision the Win-6, a community with a raised park along Interstate 280, and presented it to the Santa Clara City Council in 2015. Win-6 was soon picked up by construction and real estate firm The Core Companies, which negotiated with the city of Santa Clara to mitigate construction logistics and environmental impact.
Vartan and Core caught the attention of a new city council and freshman Mayor Lisa Gillmor, who agreed to study the proposal, which ultimately led to last week’s vote.
The final approved proposal includes Vartan’s original vision of low-income senior living, a community farm open to the public, vertical gardens, an open-air market, open green community space and potential for commercial development.
“Santa Clara’s seniors have already waited more than a decade for housing at this site,” said Vince Cantore, a senior development manager with The Core Companies. “An available below-market home for a senior can be the differentiator between a comfortable, safe environment in which to spend one’s golden years, or an extended period of financial stress and uncertainty.”
But this project isn’t just for seniors. Vartan wants it to serve as a public place where people of all stripes can walk, shop and live in Agrihood.
“It’s across the street from Valley Fair and Santana Row, which is great for developers and people,” Vartan said. “We’ve advanced so much technologically, but our land use needs to advance as well.”
The project will cost about $260 million, with about $60 million coming from Measure A, a $950 million bond measure voters passed in 2016 to subsidize affordable housing.
“We all need to be inspired by development if we’re going to embrace the needed change in the [Silicon] Valley,” Vartan said. “Mixed-use, mixed-income and intergenerational communities allow us all to thrive.”