After days of studying and partying, Santa Clara University students looking for a place to rest their brains spill out into the Old Quad Neighborhood, where a grid of the city’s oldest 1850s Queen Anne and adobe homes still stand.
In addition to decades-long residents and newly arrived young families, a ruckus of parties and shirtless frat boys can be seen on any given day hucking dice into cups of beer on their lawns, encroaching deeper into the otherwise sleepy streets of million-dollar homes.
Dreams of relocating those young adults paying tuition out to another neighborhood materialized into “Santa Clara Station,” a proposed apartment complex intended to be purposely built to house nearly 600 of the Jesuit university’s students. The development took six years from its 2015 inception, including at least 17 closed door meetings between elected officials and Santa Clara lobbyists, three men named Bob, two complete exclusive negotiating agreements and one state-sponsored carveout before circling the drain.
The project is now dead, at least in the eyes of the city and the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority. Without a clear vision for preserving or replacing a vital city well and lingering, unresolved economic disagreements, the contract expired in August 2020. A 3-3 vote by the Santa Clara City Council July 13 all but assured that the apartment complex wouldn’t face reconsideration.
Blueprints of the proposed Republic Metropolitan (ReMet) development had taken aim at 2.6 acres of land owned by the city and the VTA, wedged between the Santa Clara CalTrain station, Santa Clara University and the Santa Clara Police Department, requesting a 99-year lease for $1,800/month studio rooms—all signing separate leases but sharing a bathroom sink—with “affordable” units in the back.
While affordable housing is laudable, organizations like [email protected] weren’t sold on the idea that the development was the best use of land on the front doorstep of mass transit without rooms to plausibly house local workers and families. Questions swirled about whether the project’s “dwelling units”—totaling 545 individual beds across 170 units—satisfies the city’s 15% affordable housing requirement, when compared to the 70 units set aside for renters making 30-80% of area median income.
That’s why residents threw up red flags, questioning whom the future transportation hub would ultimately benefit—and concerned that the community’s needs were giving way to backroom conversations.
“This was a colossal waste of time,” Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor commented at the July 13 council meeting, with an audible “ugh.”
She may have been referring to that night’s technical spat about whether the politically connected developer, whose name frequently pops up around VTA developments, bent rules and embellished the truth, but Gillmor’s exacerbation could also include the time she spent tangled with the city’s old political network and Santa Clara lobbyists. More than a dozen closed session discussions and public calendar RSVPs happened before Robert Mezzetti, ReMet’s attorney and failed Santa Clara City Council candidate, first publicly requested an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement (ENA) in May 2017, and campaign donations tied to ReMet's sister companies found their way to Gillmor’s coffers in the months after the agreement was signed February 6, 2018.
The character cast involved in meetings with city staff are variously connected to either the school, the developer or the local police activities’ league, which was promised a 1,800 square-foot space inside the completed building: ReMet’s President Robert “Bob” Mendelsohn; SCU women’s soccer coach Jerry Smith; Police Athletic League President Mike Walke; PAL football coach Steve Kelly, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation and consultant Norman Mineta and former council member-turned lobbyist Kevin Moore.
Additionally, former SCU VP for finance and administration Chris Shay became ReMet’s Sr. Vice President and Managing Director of Development, serving from January to June 2021.
While ReMet’s project never officially faced any competitive bids, a proposal from SummerHill Apartment Communities April 2017 was kept from public view until released by the city manager’s office in a recent public records request.
Then-planning commissioner and now-City Council member Suds Jain’s concerns with the exclusive deal proved prescient. Two-and-a-half years later, there are neither shovels in the ground nor contracts in effect.
Deborah Bress, a repeat council candidate and outspoken gadfly, questioned the development’s origins in 2017, “Is this another backyard deal by the same person who had the last ENA?” and later declared on July 13, “There is a whole lot of rotten cheese involved in this situation.”
The queso was evident when the Santa Clara City Council granted the developer even more leniency, attempting to have the decision reconsidered—despite an expired contract—in a seemingly last ditch effort to salvage the project. Several local police activities league members and university stewards cited “economic benefits,” notably the construction of a well to replace the one that supplies drinking water for 59% of the city’s residents.
In potentially a final straw concession, ReMet offered to indemnify VTA and the city—waiving any legal responsibility—after City Attorney Brian Doyle suggested in 2019 discontinuing negotiations of city-owned land due to fears of lawsuits claiming violations of the state’s Surplus Land Act, which mandates offering affordable housing developers first crack at land sales in a competitive process.
That’s where Sen. Bob Wiekowski entered the stage. The Santa Clara University Law School alumnus authored SB466, a “clear as mud” amendment to the California Constitution’s Government Code, in efforts to carve out a “special statute for the City of Santa Clara” and use the project’s “economic opportunity” to dodge SLA legal requirements.
This argument was first inked by Norman Mineta in a September 24, 2020 letter to City Hall—five months before entering the state capital.
So what happens next for the 2.6 acres of land on El Camino Real and Benton Street? Given the single city lot’s history of bringing together state and local legislators, landowners and realtors working in tandem with private developers and institutions in Santa Clara—both publicly and behind closed doors—it remains an open question if ReMet’s development lives to see another day.