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By Matt Wilson, Cupertino Courier – March 11, 2016

Vallco Shopping Mall’s fate could be placed directly into the hands of Cupertino voters this November.

Mall owner Sand Hill Property Co. announced Monday that two Cupertino residents last week launched an initiative to lock into place a $3 billion plan to gut the mall and replace it with The Hills at Vallco mixed-use development.

If the so-called Vallco Town Center Specific Plan Initiative gets on the ballot, it will compete against a slow-growth measure that just a few days ago collected enough certified signatures to qualify for the November election. That initiative, pushed by a citizens group called Cupertino Residents for Sensible Zoning, seeks to keep Vallco a retail-only site unless residents vote to rezone it later.

The latest Vallco initiative was filed by Judy Wilson, a 30-year Cupertino resident and current city parks and recreation commissioner, and Vicky Tsai, a 31-year Cupertino resident and local businesswoman.

“Cupertino deserves better than the weary and nearly vacant mall Vallco has become,” Tsai said in a statement released by Sand Hill. “With the retail market evolving away from large indoor malls and Vallco as a tired eyesore, we cannot stay on the same course, and we know many residents believe this too.”

In August, Sand Hill unveiled plans to demolish the approximately 1.2-million-square-foot shopping mall and parking area. In its place the company wants to build 625,000 square feet of commercial and retail space areas; 800 residential units, including 680 market-rate units of which some will be restricted for seniors; and 2 million square feet of office space. The project also calls for a 30-acre green roof with public access trails.

The latest initiative would lay the groundwork by incorporating into the city’s General Plan a specific plan that mirrors the town center theme of The Hills at Vallco envisioned by Sand Hill. Integral to the theme are a 30-acre green roof atop the town center buildings, an integrated amphitheater to host events and a play space for children.

The specific plan would encompass the public benefits Sand Hill pledged if the project is approved, including construction of a new school, an innovation center for students to work on and showcase science and engineering projects, adult education facilities. The developer estimates those benefits are worth a total of about $40 million.

In addition, Sand Hill pledged to contribute $30 million toward Interstate 280 improvements. A free community shuttle program and a transit center are also proposed.

Sand Hill also pledged that all apartments in the new town center would have to pay an annual fee to the city’s high school and elementary/middle school districts that would be comparable to city parcel taxes.

To qualify the initiative for the ballot, supporters must collect valid signatures from at least 10 percent of registered Cupertino voters, or roughly 2,700. Cupertino Residents for Sensible Zoning supporters exceeded that number in less than two months by collecting 3,759 valid signatures, according to the Cupertino City Clerk’s Office.

The move sets the stage for a potentially packed and high-stakes Cupertino ballot in November. In addition to the Sensible Growth initiative, the ballot includes races for two city council seats.

Meanwhile, developer KT Urban has launched an initiative to redevelop The Oaks Shopping Center with retail, office, residential and hotel components. That plan is in the signature gathering phase.

Reed Moulds, Sand Hill’s managing director, told this newspaper he expects the Vallco signature collection process to begin in about a week.

In late 2014, Sand Hill purchased all four Vallco parcels for approximately $316 million–the first time in the mall’s nearly 40 year history that all parcels fell under the control of a single owner.

Sand Hill officials say the combination of that fractured ownership structure and competition from other high-end shopping centers such as Stanford and Westfield Valley Fair made it difficult for the mall to reinvent itself.

The company estimates current vacancy at 70 percent. Next month, the mall will lose its final anchor tenant with the closing of JCPenney. Sears closed in October and Macy’s in March last year.