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December 19, 2007 > Sabercat, a bellwether of the future?

Sabercat, a bellwether of the future?

Following a lengthy debate, Sabercat Neighborhood Center has been given a green light. An appeal to the Fremont City Council of the denial by the Planning Commission of this mixed use development was successful by a 4-1 vote (opposed by Councilmember Natarajan). The project, replacing a previously approved all retail proposal, includes 158 dwelling units, approximately 55,334 square feet of commercial space and four to six stories in height. This design represents a departure from previous height limits for such developments and may be a bellwether for the future of Fremont (and surrounding cities). TCV spoke with Fremont Planning Director Jeff Schwob about the future effects of Sabercat Neighborhood Center and like developments.

TCV: Although Sabercat Neighborhood Center is not the first multistory building in Fremont, does it represent significant changes in vertical development?

Schwob: In general buildings are getting taller, whether townhomes at 2 1/2 levels or the Summerhill project at Beacon and Walnut in the Central Business District (CBD). Zoning in the CBD allows for slightly higher heights so it was not an issue. For the Sabercat area, it was clearly a trend toward higher buildings, but there aren't many other similar sites there, so it is hard to say whether this represents a trend.

TCV: Objections to the Sabercat development seemed to center on traffic and location issues rather than design. How does the planning department view this?

Schwob: Previously, an all retail project of 105,000 square feet had been approved for this site. An all retail plan would generate more traffic than a mix of residential and commercial. Retail does not usually generate much traffic in the morning but as the day progresses through afternoon and into the evening, traffic is a significant factor. Residential traffic patterns are different as many people get up, go to work and then come home but do not create heavy traffic during working hours. The Tri-City Sporting Goods site in Irvington is an example of trip reduction through a change from retail to residential. There are, however, times of the day when it may result in an increase - not everyone works the same hours.

TCV: Can an argument be made that commute hours will be a problem due to the residential component?

Schwob: There is no doubt that those times will be impacted. It is more concentrated in the morning than evening since people may shop or run errands on their way home. Sabercat is a bit unusual since it is so close to a freeway; neighborhood retail does not usually generate as much traffic as a regional center.

TCV: Was the Planning Division in favor of this project? The recommendation appeared to be lukewarm?

Schwob: It was a slightly awkward position since the Planning Commission denied the application. As a consequence, our recommendation was a bit more subdued than usual. The city council has told us that in that type of situation, they want to hear both sides of the question and we try to provide that. The other reason was that staff has always been concerned with the size and scale of this project. Councilmember Natarajan brought up the 30 foot height limit of the Hillside Combining District. This was the reason we went to the [planning] commission in 2005 to present the plan before asking the applicant to go through several expensive studies to continue the process.

At the time, we received comments such as, "This has merit" and "We should think out of the box." The hill in the background appeared to alleviate height concerns. Staff took that direction and continued to work with the developer on design, technical and safety considerations. After coming to a satisfactory conclusion of these items, it would have been odd for us to recommend against the project.

TCV: A comment was made that a prior mixed use development [The Benton] in Fremont was a 'mistake.' Is this one different?

Schwob: There have been two prior developments - Old School with 11 live/work units and two commercial buildings in front; and "The Benton" built by a residential builder. There were clear problems with the retail space - mechanical and ventilation - at The Benton. However, it now looks like it is doing well with a pretty good mix of stores. Shops are built up to the street - a much more urban design -which is different for Fremont. As a city, we are in transition mode. Diagonal parking and maturation of vegetation has improved its appearance.

TCV: Do you expect future development in Fremont to become urban?

Schwob: We are definitely moving toward a hybrid situation between urban and suburban. Even if we did a large number of very urban projects, Fremont would not be totally transformed into an urban environment. We may, however, end up with consolidated urban development in the Central Business District or a core commercial district.

TCV: Can Sabercat be considered a bellwether project?

Schwob: Mixed use is gaining popularity everywhere. Initially, financing was difficult for these projects, but several of them are out of the ground and doing quite well. Now financial people are willing to give loans to make it happen. Developers will make higher and better use of the land. When Fremont had land, horizontal use was the way to go. There are many Fremont residential planned districts that were formed in the 80's with commercial components although many believe these to be separate zoned districts. In many cases, they are not.

Open space at Sabercat was a good outcome, but to a large extent it was dictated by the fault, hillside and easements. Fremont views open space as an integral part of planning even in the Central Business District. For example, the Summerhill development includes a civic plaza in the extension of State Street. In that case, we did go vertical, encourage a mix of uses and create open space. That is the concept of the Central Business District. Although this is not set forth in our codes as a requirement for mixed use, we do encourage open space with a focus on quality rather than quantity.

TCV: Any additional thoughts about Sabercat?

Schwob: It was a challenging project that over quite a bit of time was thoroughly reviewed. Hopefully the marketplace will allow it to be built.

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