Jul 15, 2016
Blanca Torres, San Francisco Business Times
Carmel Partners continues plowing ahead to secure approval to build the controversial Walnut Residences, a 670-unit development on a 13.7-acre cornfield in Fremont.
The project has seen strong opposition from neighbors who say it is too dense and too high at four stories to fit in with the surrounding area.
The debate highlights the challenges many cities and developers face in trying to implement new development guidelines and build higher density projects near transit in suburban cities where residents oppose changing the character of their neighborhood.
The Walnut Residences site, only half a mile from BART, is a rare large opportunity to develop new housing in the center of Fremont. The project could also generate upwards of $10 million for affordable housing and the developer wants to collaborate with St. Anton Multifamily on a separate affordable housing development.
“The city identified this site as a great smart growth housing opportunity for high-density development many years ago because it is so close to the Fremont BART station,” said Greg Christopher, vice president of development for Carmel Partners.
The city’s planning commission could have voted Thursday evening to give the proposal a green light to go before the city council for final approval, but instead voted to continue reviewing the proposal and asked for more detailed plan to manage transportation.
Christopher said the firm was pleased with the commission’s decision.
“Most commissioners complimented Carmel on design and changes in response to community feedback,” he said. “They made a clear choice not to recommend a reduction in the number of units. More important, they recommended that the Council approve the preferred project.”
The developer has been trying lock in entitlements to build housing on the site since 2014 and scaled down its proposal from 882 homes. The most recent version of the project, designed by TCA Architects, includes two 4-story buildings that wrap around parking garages.
“After two years working with the city and neighbors to fulfill this vision, we have come up with an incredible design for a new apartment community that fits great with the existing neighborhood character,” Christopher said.
While the city’s general plan, updated in 2014, calls for developing transit-oriented housing on the site, doing so requires the city to rezone the land. Other large-scale housing developments are moving forward in other parts of Fremont.
The city’s general plan recommends densities of 50 to 70 units per acre for the site at at 1031 Walnut Ave. Carmel Partners’ latest proposal is for 53 units per acre.
A public hearing on the project lasted about four and half hours with numerous residents testifying that the project would was too large and dense for the existing neighborhood and would generate too much additional traffic and increased enrollment in the city’s public schools.
One planning commissioner, Roman Reed, said the current proposal would be like planting San Francisco across the street from single-family homes in the middle of Fremont and that the developer should revise the project to have densities closer to 35 units per acre.
Other commissioners were more supportive of the proposal, saying it could help alleviate growing demand for housing in the area and allow more Fremont residents to commute car-free.
Commissioner Ed Pentaleri said on one hand, some residents frequently plead for a response to the housing crisis and while others block new development, even when it’s environmentally friendly.
Representatives of SPUR and the Greenbelt Alliance, too pro-smart growth organizations, spoke in support of the project’s design, density and proximity to transit.
During the hearing, Christopher emphasized that the project will feature pedestrian promenades and community rooms that will be open to the public.
In the meantime, Christopher said the developer plans to address the traffic planning and affordable housing component so that project can go before the City Council by the end of the summer.
This article was originally published by the San Fransisco Business Times