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February 22-28, 2006

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Masa Fujioka

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Remote Control: Masa Fujioka, owner of Kikusushi, says the development planned for his restaurant's space has given him few options. 'I still have 25 to 30 people working for me, some of them for more than 10 years. I have to move, to think of them. I have to try.'

Control Issues

Cupertino business owners and residents are steamed at development being orchestrated by San Jose, outside of local jurisdiction

By Sercan Ersoy

THE BORDER between Cupertino and San Jose zigzags back and fourth along the length of De Anza Boulevard so erratically that even people who have lived here for 20 or 30 years are rarely sure which city controls what. For simplicity's sake, most residents look at everything squished between Sunnyvale and Saratoga as part of their city, unaware that their street might be the domain of a different city hall 20 miles away—one in which they have no representation or political sway.

Some of these residents got a rude awakening when they heard about a development plan slated to destroy a complex packed with local businesses. They quickly discovered that not all local infrastructure falls under local control.

Most people don't know this complex by name—it's called simply the De Anza 85 Shopping Center—and descriptions like "the corner of De Anza Boulevard and Kentwood Avenue" rarely get more than a confused look in response. But if you mention the Kikusushi Japanese restaurant, people suddenly break into cries of "Oh yeah, next to the liquor store" or "in the complex with the swim club."

This strip mall, after all, has been around since the 1960s. Businesses like Kikusushi—which opened in 1982—are so well known that they are seen in Cupertino as local staples. In San Jose, however, the entire complex is considered little more than a set of unproductive properties on the outskirts of the city, not living up to their potential.

And in the Silicon Valley potential is everything, which is why Danville-based development company Braddock & Logan recently bought the 4.17 acre property and plan to tear it down, replacing local business with townhouses.

The plan took the locals who actually heard about it by complete surprise, especially the complex's small business owners, who found out about the property's change in ownership in September (after the deal went through) only to discover in December that the new owner's plans for the mall included its demolition.

Cupertino residents and business owners don't seem to think the destruction of local businesses will do much to help the community, but not even the owners themselves had a voice in the matter. The entire process fell under the jurisdiction of a government that had the ability to influence Cupertino without taking any responsibility for its people or local investments.

The official name for this predicament is "externality of governance" and, according to Cupertino Planning Commission chairman Marty Miller, this sort of thing happens all the time. But however common this situation may be, it doesn't stop the people on the verge of losing their livelihoods from feeling railroaded by the whole ordeal.

"I can't sell now," Masa Fujioka told me as he sat in the backroom of his restaurant before the day's lunchtime rush. Fujioka, who owns Kikusushi, says he has paid nearly 1 million dollars in rent since first opening his doors. "No one will buy, they'll lose money." Like most people in the complex, Fujioka, with no recourse available, had resigned himself to the situation.

"I paid 24 years of sales tax to the government, but now I can't get help," he said, frustrated. "They [Braddock & Logan] have a big company. We cannot win, or even fight." At the same time he says he feels a duty to keep his restaurant operating somewhere in the area. "I still have 25 to 30 people working for me, some of them for more than 10 years. I have to move, to think of them. I have to try."

And Fujioka is one of the lucky ones in all this. Two doors down from Kikusushi, Giang Luu, the owner of Louis' Wine & Liquors, was much less optimistic. "That's the problem," he said. "The city of San Jose makes the decision and they don't care." Luu bought his store from the previous owner five years ago and says the cost of relocating would be too much for him.

Unlike Fujioka's more stoic frustration, Luu just sounded angry and couldn't understand how both the San Jose government and Braddock & Logan could think it was right to displace so many people. "You make your money or not, I don't care," he said, lampooning Sullivan's presentation at the community meeting. "It's not my problem." And then he pulled out his calculator and started crunching numbers to show how much money he expected the developers to make from putting him out of work.

And discontent about this project goes well beyond the people whose livelihoods it threatens. Even unaffected local businessmen, like Tommy Cauge who owns the Britannia Arms Cupertino (also in San Jose, barely a half mile from the project site), are angry at the idea that this sort of thing could happen at all. "It's been here for 25 years," he said, talking about his bar, "so you think it's gonna be here for another 25."

As he saw it, when people invest in a new business they expect to keep it as their way of life. Something they can build that has value, so, even if their children don't want to take over, they can sell out and retire. But, as Tommy put it, "they aren't given the option to cash out. ... I think there should have been a little integrity, a little loyalty [from the old owners]."

The first chance anybody had to air their grievances was on Dec. 19, at a rather poorly publicized public meeting that consisted of a few dozen Cupertino residents and the effected business owners, and was run by Jim Sullivan and Sue Dillon, who manage Braddock & Logan's South Bay developments.

Braddock & Logan had applied to amend the San Jose General Plan, to change the site's designated usage from "general commercial" to "medium high density residential." (There had been some talk of altering the amendment to allow for a small allotment of commercial space—at double the current rent—as well as housing, but even this seems doubtful.)

The whole process is now in the hands of the city of San Jose; the Planning Commission votes whether to recommend the amendment on March 8, and the City Council votes on whether to implement it on April 18. After that, Sullivan will submit blueprints through the same channels, with construction expected to begin in 2007.

The whole situation raises the question: why this site? According to escrow officers at both North American Title and Chicago Title the housing market in the Cupertino area spent the last 10 years growing (regardless of the recession) due to the renown of local schools. And, as it happens, this particular complex occupies one of the only parts of San Jose to fall within the district boundaries of Monta Vista, one of the best-known schools in the entire country.

In fact, the desire to get into Monta Vista is one of the main factors driving the price of homes in Cupertino as high as they are. It's the reason Sullivan can reasonably expect each of his 80-odd townhouses to sell for nearly $1 million apiece.

According to San Jose Councilwoman Linda LeZotte's office, Braddock & Logan was in the process of informing the school district about the impact it planned to make on Monta Vista. But, with only a month to go before the scheduled San Jose Planning Commission vote to recommend the general plan change that would get the whole thing moving, Fremont Union High School District Assistant Superintendent Jeff Kielh had yet to hear about it.

Actually, no one from either the school district or the Cupertino city government seems to have heard anything about the project, let alone have an opportunity to voice any concerns. But, as Cupertino Planning Commission chairman Miller pointed out, regardless of what Cupertino residents or the city government think about the development, no one feels they can do much about it.

"The first step," he says, "is to figure out the first step."

The city has no authority over that land and local residents are not represented by the government that does. Councilwoman LeZotte's office insists it won't let a lack of representation get in the way of keeping Braddock & Logan responsible to the community. "Just because they live in Cupertino and are not my constituents," LeZotte told Metro, "doesn't mean I'm not going to listen to their concerns."

But with all but a handful of residents and nearly all public officials in Cupertino kept in the dark until the last minute, they may find any opposition they can raise to be too little, too late.

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