By Khalida Sarwari
Cupertino residents are anxiously waiting for the final tally in an extremely tight City Council race because the three candidates who eventually emerge as victors could decidedly stay or change the course of the city’s near-vacant Vallco Shopping Mall.
Since Election Day, incumbents Mayor Darcy Paul and Councilwoman Savita Vaidhyanathan and newcomer Liang-Fang Chao have maintained their lead for three open seats, but so far with 11 percent of the votes still to be counted only eight votes separate the third- and fourth-place candidates.
Each of the top contenders brings a different perspective to the simmering debate about what to do with Vallco.
It’s a debate that has polarized the community into factions — one that favors a community plan forged as an alternate to the mixed-use proposal that Vallco owner and developer Sand Hill Property Co. has crafted against those who simply want to dump both plans altogether in the steadfast hope that the shopping mall will someday see a retail rebirth.
Sand Hill’s plan calls for 2,402 homes, 1.8 million square feet of office space and 400,000 square feet of retail, most of it covered by a 30-acre rooftop park.
Chao has supported Better Cupertino, a grassroots group of residents who for years has opposed Sand Hill’s redevelopment efforts and isn’t any fonder of the community plan. The 54-year-old engineer and Cupertino Union School District board member so far has received 8,070 votes — or 16.09 percent of the total — second only to Paul, according to unofficial figures.
With 14.06 percent of the vote, Vaidhyanathan, 54, is positioned to take the third seat on the council. But because her challenger Jon Willey, another Better Cupertino supporter, isn’t too far behind in votes, Vaidhyanathan’s position is precarious. She has been a vocal supporter of Sand Hill’s proposal, making public appearances with Vice Mayor Rod Sinks and termed-out Councilman Barry Chang on behalf of the community plan. Such support has gone both ways, with a pro-Sand Hill political action committee called Cupertino Getting Things Done Together pouring tens of thousands on behalf of her campaign. The committee also has contributed heavily toward the campaigns of Hung Wei and former mayor Orrin Mahoney.
Chao says Sand Hill singled her out in attack mailers during the campaign, but now that she may have to work with the company she’s hoping for a peaceful relationship. The company needs to be a good neighbor, she said.
“I hope that Sand Hill will finally realize they need to work with Cupertino residents,” she said. “I think they have been trying to make the Cupertino council to follow — they make a request and they expect the council to just honor that request. I hope they come to the City Council with a more respectful attitude. No one is trying not to allow them to do things but what they are doing negatively impacts their neighbors, and their neighbors have a right to say ‘no.’ ”
Chao likely would align with Councilman Steven Scharf, another Better Cupertino supporter. That would leave Vaidhyanathan and Sinks in the other camp. Paul, who often is the council’s swing vote on issues, could play a pivotal role in Vallco’s ultimate fate, a point he recently acknowledged.
“If this turns out to be a split council with me as a swing vote for any given issue, such as development, then my goal will be what it has always been: advocate for a fair representation of residential sentiment while doing the hard work of balancing out other factors,” he said. “I’ve been doing that all this time. What I will say is that it will be difficult for any side to insist on its way without answering to a critical analysis in an honest and open manner. It will take well-considered answers to earn my support.”
Paul so far has collected the most votes, 18 percent of the total. The 42-year-old attorney voted against the community-crafted alternate plan, explaining he would prefer a version that envisions more retail, fewer homes and considerably less office space.
The most significant distinction between the competing redevelopment plans is that the alternate would compel Sand Hill to offer a package of benefits such as a major performing arts center and a new city hall. Sand Hill has threatened to pare down any community benefits if obstacles continue to be hurled at it.
Paul and Better Cupertino residents have characterized that threat as a “poison pill” directed at the group’s effort to quash the community plan through a referendum and Sand Hill’s project through lawsuits. Because a new state law — SB 35 — allows developers to bypass local planning rules if their projects offer a hefty dose of affordable housing, Sand Hill can pursue its project regardless of the referendum.
If the referendum qualifies for the ballot, the City Council can either withdraw the community plan it approved by a 3-2 vote in September or allow the referendum to proceed.
Chao said she would vote to put the referendum on the ballot, “and then I hope that we can work-start a process that can figure out a better plan for Vallco.”
“I’m excited that with Steven, Darcy and me, finally we can make some progress with Vallco because it has been a stalemate,” she said. “The council has been following the direction of Sand Hill pushing for more and more office space when the community wants a shopping mall.”
Eleven percent of ballots remain uncounted and a final tally likely won’t be available until the election results are certified in early December.