Vallco Plans Revealed: 30-Acre Sky-Park Over Cupertino Mixed-Use Center Would Be World’s Largest
When Sand Hill Property Co. acquired Cupertino’s failed Vallco Shopping Mall last year, executives weighed two options: Propose a perfectly competent — but rather ordinary — mixed-use town center for the 50-acre site. Or go big.
They chose the latter.
On Wednesday, officials revealed a sweeping $3 billion design from international “starchitect” Rafael Viñoly, working with Olin Landscape Architects, that has, as its defining element, the world’s largest green roof — a 30-acre elevated park that seems to dance off the tops of buildings, connecting them to each other and the ground.
“After we bought Vallco, we said, let’s not to do a run-of-the-mill project,” said Sand Hill principal and founder Peter Pau in an interview earlier this week. “Why would we bother? We’re looking at a unique situation, and we have to do something unique.”
With an orchard, a vineyard, and 3.8 miles of trails meandering above Cupertino, the project — announced at a meeting Wednesday at the Rotary Club of Cupertino — is like nothing ever attempted. Its ambition continues below the landscape layer: A 15-block, mixed-use street grid filled with 625,000 square feet of retail, 2 million square feet of office and 800 residential units.
Called “the Hills at Vallco,” it’s the biggest bet yet for Pau’s Sand Hill, a prodigious development firm that is being backed in the deal by the U.S. subsidiary of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund. And it is not without risk.
The project is large for Cupertino — a town where much smaller proposals are often met with resistance, and sometimes referendums. The retail roughly equals San Jose’s Santana Row mixed-use juggernaut, while the office is twice the heft of the Adobe Systems headquarters in downtown San Jose.
Then there’s the elevated park, which would be a tremendous engineering feat. It’s at least twice as big as anything attempted before it, Sand Hill officials said. And while they say their team knows how to build it, they acknowledge the cost is huge.
“The roof is not cheap,” said Sand Hill Managing Director Reed Moulds in an interview. “There aren’t many developers out there that would be willing to do this project as proposed. We’re spending a lot of money because we want to be a long-term owner here.”
To secure the community buy-in, the developer is going all-out, promising to contribute more than $40 million to build a new K-5 elementary school, replace portable classrooms and provide an “innovation center” to the Fremont Union High School District, among other goodies. Consider it part of doing business in Cupertino, where concern over development’s impacts on the city’s world-famous schools can sink even a garden-variety apartment building.
“What we affirmed throughout the community engagement process was protecting the schools. And not only protecting them, but making them better with this project,” Moulds said.
The redevelopment is something of a personal mission for Pau. As a young college student in the 1980s, he used to window-shop at the then-thriving mall with his girlfriend (now wife and business partner) Susanna — though he says he couldn’t afford to buy much at the time. As he became established as a prodigious real estate developer, he always felt called to Vallco, which had sunk into a deep funk under a revolving ownership and series of foreclosures.
Finally, in November, Sand Hill succeeded in acquiring all of the mall’s separately owned parcels at a cost of more than $300 million — putting the asset under single ownership for the first time since it opened. Given the fact that the mall was not profitable, and that redevelopment approvals are not guaranteed, it was an audacious move.
“Cupertino’s been good to me all these years,” Pau said in a November interview. “I consider this to be good for the city and I feel like I’m the right person to get this thing done.”
Coming up with the look
Over the next eight months, Sand Hill spearheaded an intense “community engagement” effort, hosting dozens of meetings and soliciting comments from residents through a Web portal. One of the thousands of comments executives heard: That the east side of Cupertino, where Vallco is located, sees all the city’s development, but has very little open space.
At the same time, Sand Hill had initiated an international design competition that attracted some of the world’s top architecture firms — drawn to the site’s high-profile Silicon Valley location across the freeway from Apple’s Norman Foster-designed Apple Campus 2, now under construction.
Sand Hill shared the open-space message with the firms, but executives didn’t quite know what they would get when Viñoly traveled to their offices in Menlo Park last April for a first-round presentation. While other architects came armed with reams of site plans and renderings, Viñoly had a suitcase. In it was a model of his concept, which he assembled piece by piece, topping it off with the roof park.
“It was everything we asked for coming together in one unified form and concept,” Moulds said. His next thought: “We need to figure out if we can deliver this. But I think this is the project of the community’s dreams.”
After more research and a meeting at Viñoly’s New York offices, the decision was made in May to go with the architect, whose other project in the area is the New Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto. They paired Viñoly with Olin Landscape Architects, which is also working on Apple Campus 2.
“These two groups had a fabulous vision for the project,” Moulds said. “The way they responded to the city’s direction and community feedback we shared with them was gripping for us. And they understand what needs to happen to make projects come alive in Silicon Valley.”
But can they build it?
The Vallco redevelopment is just the latest in a string of high-profile project designs to hit Silicon Valley in the past several years; in addition to Apple Inc.’s “spaceship,” Google this year unveiled plans for a glass-domed campus in Mountain View, with floors that can shift according to changing workplace needs. Nvidia is starting construction this month on a massive campus based on the polygon — the basic element of computer graphics. And Samsung is about to open a new 10-story building in north San Jose that challenges a simple understanding of inside, outside and basic form.
The Viñoly proposal, though, could signal a new phase in real estate one-upsmanship, as ambitious, “statement” architecture spreads beyond the domain of tech giants to speculative real estate developers.
“It can’t be within familiar parameters anymore. It has to be really distinctive,” said Louise Mozingo, professor and chair of U.C. Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, summing up the current design environment.
Yet the Viñoly design, she said, appears to be about more than flash, signaling designers and developers are grappling with how to balance density with more bucolic tendencies, as Silicon Valley feels more and more squeezed.
“We’ve thought about layering residential, commercial, office, retail and open space on a horizontal plane,” she said. “What this is trying to do is actually layer them vertically. The advantage is you can think about creating a mixed-use, dense environment that has a great degree of livability.”
The concept also shows a kind of discomfort with density, she noted, in that it seems to ask, “How can we make density not look like density?”
Indeed, in an interview, the developer highlighted the way in which the rolling landscaped roof gradates up from the east side, making it appear as a gentle hillock to the adjacent single-family home neighborhood. At its highest point, near Interstate 280, the buildings reach seven stories high. But in renderings from the roof perspective, the view is pastoral. Oak trees, a vineyard, trails and a playground seem to merge with the Santa Cruz Mountains in the distance.
Two questions: Engineering and the retail marketplace
To be sure, the roof component is incredibly ambitious. “We know Santana Row works, but this is bigger and more complex in terms of land use and diversity of uses,” Mozingo said. “Then there’s this piece that’s swooping over it. It’s hard to know how people will react.”
The technical issues are also substantial, she noted, and the costs are likely to be enormous. While most large green roofs — such as Facebook’s building-top park in Menlo Park — are flat, the Vallco plan calls for a park that curves in gentle waves, adding even more complexity to the equation. “If you do a tar and gravel roof, this is really really different,” she said.
But that, executives said, is the whole point: “It’s not easy, but it’s possible (to build it),” Pau said. “We have a whole bunch of people looking at it, and we know it can work.”
Perhaps a larger question involves the viability of retail in the Vallco area at all. For decades, the mall withered from its position between the twin poles of Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto and Westfield Valley Fair in San Jose. Observers agree that office and apartments will lease all day long in Cupertino. But it’s natural to wonder about the retail given past history.
Sand Hill, which has done numerous mixed-use projects around the region including several in Cupertino, knows what it’s in for. “Task 1 is making retail work here again,” Moulds said.
The new plan involves a retail loop on the eastern side of the project, with larger retailers facing Stevens Creek. Shops would line the ground floor of several blocks; a market hall, plus three acres of plazas, are also in the mix. The massive amount of office space creates build-in customer base during the day; the apartments would add life on weekends and at night. The concept adheres to the general theme of an “entertainment-focused downtown” that is all the rage these days in mixed-use development. (Sand Hill announced that the extremely popular AMC theater would get a new home in the project, with the cinemas remaining in their current home in the meantime.)
There is some early sign of momentum in this area: Main Street Cupertino, a 17-acre mixed-use concept Sand Hill is developing a short hop away from Vallco, is leasing up well, with new-to-the-area stores and restaurants; the project’s 21,000-square-foot anchor space is leased, though officials have not announced the tenant.
“With this plan and the mix of uses we think we have a successful approach,” Moulds said. “But it’s no longer the mall format. It’s been proven not to work. We need to create a downtown environment.”
But won’t the added engineering and construction costs require higher rents, making the project uncompetitive? “My philosophy,” Pau said, “is if you have the best product in town, we’ll get the best rent in town. We do think, as an owner for 40 or 50 or 60 years, you’ll come out OK.”
Vallco’s redevelopment received a boost when the city allocated additional development capacity to the mall area — 2 million square feet of office, 600,000 square feet of retail and 389 housing units. The next step is for Sand Hill to turn in its development application, which the company says it plans to do in the weeks ahead. The plan’s larger number of proposed housing units will have to be reconciled with the city’s smaller allocation. But it’s safe to say that planners probably didn’t anticipate anything like the new concept and community benefits package.
“No one’s making us do it like this,” Pau said. “It’s not driven by economics. No tenant is asking us to do this. It’s just something where, people will look at it and say, ‘This is great.’ It’s something that’s more of a public amenity.”