A proposal for a 264-unit apartment complex on Valpico Road just west of MacArthur Drive hit a snag Wednesday when the development proposal failed to gain enough votes from the Tracy Planning Commission.
It would have been the first local project for Katerra, employing a construction concept in which a large part of the work on the housing development takes place in a local manufacturing facility, with factory-built components shipped to the construction site for final completion of buildings.
Katerra, which has its headquarters in Menlo Park, has nearly finished work on its 577,000-square-foot plant in Tracy’s Northeast Industrial Area. Once complete, the factory would employ 500 workers in a system that creates components, including prebuilt walls and floors, to be assembled as complete apartment buildings.
The Valpico Glenbriar Apartments are the third version of a complex proposed for the 11.62-acre site on the north side of Valpico Road at the intersection with Glenbriar Drive. Two separate developers gained city approval to build similar projects: a 244-unit project in 2012 and a 252-unit project in 2016. Neither project was built.
This time, Katerra needed only the approval of the planning commission for the 264-unit project. Though the commission endorsed the project on a 2-1 vote, the proposal required at least three votes to move forward. Of the three commissioners present at Wednesday’s hearing, Albert Hudson and Chad Wood supported the project and board chairman Joseph Orcutt voted against the proposal. Commissioner Rajwinder Kaur was absent, and the commission also has a vacant seat.
The vote came after a contentious 2½-hour hearing. Members of the public opposed the project, citing traffic and public safety concerns, while representatives of the developer said it’s the type of project that would move Tracy toward the jobs-housing balance so many local politicians say they endorse.
Dan Nethercott, a real estate consultant representing Katerra, told the commission that Tracy had an opportunity to be at forefront of a development trend that Katerra would lead. He described a process that reduces the production cost of housing and said the city had the land available to make it work here.
“About nine months ago, we met with senior city staff and asked if they would be interested in having the first expression of the Katerra product and its innovative process in Tracy, which would be a showcase. People would come from around the world to see this property and project,” Nethercott said. “It was also be an opportunity for people that work at the Katerra factory to perhaps live in the very thing that they helped to create.”
He said the company looked around before settling on the Valpico Road site, which needed only planning commission review of the development application.
“Essentially, the site is currently approved for exactly what is proposed tonight, and we believe we’ve improved on the project design in every respect,” he said.
He and Katerra architect Craig Curtis explained their plans for collection of 11 apartment buildings, each three stories, with mostly one- and two-bedroom apartments and 24 three-bedroom units. It would include a clubhouse with a pool and a landscaped common area with a dog park.
Curtis emphasized that Katerra’s process is far from just building and stacking modular units.
“We are more sophisticated than that,” he told the commission. “It allows us to provide things like fully loaded wall panels and floor panels. We build our own windows. We have our own cabinet shop. We have countertop functions within our factories.
“We’re essentially taking control of the entire supply chain and all of the pieces that can be manufactured, and smaller pieces are then put together very compactly on trucks and assembled in the field, removing much of the labor from the field to the factory.”
About 60 people attended the hearing, and most of those who spoke to the commission urged rejection of the project based on the amount of traffic 264 new apartments would bring to south Tracy. They also cited public safety concerns.
Theresa English Soto, who lives in the Glenbriar subdivision, pointed out that the traffic study for the project was done for the 2012 version, before Tracy Hills and Ellis began construction to the southwest.
“We already have way too many cars in the area as it is,” she said. “People who live in Edgewood literally cannot get out of their driveways in the morning to get to work. The fact people commute four hours to get to the Bay Area, or miss work altogether, is ridiculous.”
“You’re adding 200-something units, 300 to 500 more cars commuting most likely to the Bay Area every morning,” she added. “You’re making life unsustainable within Tracy. I already have to drive 20 minutes across town just to get simple things from Target or Costco.”
Others insisted that Tracy fix the traffic problems it has now before putting more cars on the road.
“We haven’t done the right traffic mitigation that we need in that area,” said Glenbriar Circle resident Gilbert Ceja. “It is going to be a problem. I’m not saying the project isn’t great, that it isn’t needed. Obviously people say they want it and what they’re doing is great, we’ll have a luxury apartment complex now.”
“Slow it down. I’m not saying stop, but at least slow it down and fix the problems we have right now. You’re taking two hours to get out of town and it’s ridiculous.”
Chris Kinzel, vice president of TJKM traffic consultants, acknowledged that the traffic study that Katerra included in its development application dates back to the 2012 version of the project, and it looked primarily at the impacts of the apartment complex on the intersections of Valpico Road with MacArthur Drive and with Glenbriar Drive, but also considered expected traffic over the next 15 years.
City engineer Robert Armijo said that Valpico Road will be eventually be widened from two lanes to four lanes. Katerra would be responsible for widening the roadway in front of its project, with the rest of the widening subject to funding from development fees and state and federal grants.
In endorsing the project, commissioner Hudson said he wouldn’t blame all Tracy’s traffic woes on this apartment project.
“Some of these issues just are not the issue with this development. I myself used to commute, 19 years from here in Tracy to Milpitas every morning,” Hudson said, describing how over the years he had to get up earlier and earlier to beat the morning backup on Interstate 580. “This project is neither going to hurt it or make it much better. Traffic is just bad. It is extremely bad.”
Orcutt, the commission chairman, said he believed the traffic problems were significant enough that he recommended postponing a vote until after Valpico Road was widened.
“I think a delay has been suggested, and I kind of lean toward that,” he said, adding that the idea of 11 large buildings next to single-family homes reminded him that design elements of new development should be among the commission’s considerations.
“One of them that was touched on by community members was community fit, the community feel of that building,” he said, adding, “I don’t think it really fits, when you look at the surrounding houses and the things there.”
After the 2-1 vote, City Attorney Leticia Ramirez pointed out that under the city’s municipal code, approving an agenda item needs a majority vote of the full commission, meaning three of five commissioners — or, in the case of the current commission, three of four — voting in favor.
She said Katerra still has the option of appealing the commission’s decision to the Tracy City Council, which has the authority to override a planning commission vote. The developer also has the option to submit a revised project or resubmit the existing proposal.