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SummerHill makes bet time is ripe for homes at Mirassou Winery site in Evergreen

March 7, 2010 | Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal

Hoping to hit a housing market on the rebound, SummerHill Homes is laying the groundwork to build 100 houses on the historical Mirassou Winery site in Evergreen.

The Palo Alto builder picked up the option from the Mirassou estate on the 15-acre site in September after Trumark Properties abandoned its three-year effort to develop the Aborn Road property. The Santa Clara County Assessor has valued the property at a little more than $2 million.

SummerHill President Robert Freed hopes to obtain a general plan amendment changing the property from public park/open space to mixed-use commercial and residential by autumn so he can begin construction next year.

“If we start in spring 2011, we’ll have houses built in either late 2011 or early 2012,” Freed said.

That should be enough time for the lackluster housing market to gain traction. Freed said he believes the market “hit the floor” late last summer, and he’s seen a 2 percent to 3 percent uptick in prices since then.

Denser housing proposed

In a reversal of a trend toward denser multifamily housing, SummerHill plans to build 100 single-family homes on the land whose owners, the Mirassou family, began bottling wine after Prohibition was repealed in 1933. The project includes a mixed-use component with about 20 housing units, or flats, above 10,000 to 20,000 square feet of a ground-floor retail development. The plan also calls for 25,000 square feet of office space to be built.

Even in the midst of a rough market, Freed called the project a “great opportunity.”

“There are very few single-family detached communities in San Jose right now,” he noted.

City project manager Lesley Xavier said SummerHill’s project is currently one of the largest housing developments under consideration in San Jose.

Since the late 1990s, the property has been watched by several developers, all of whom have been stymied by the city and neighborhood’s efforts to first solve traffic congestion before approving development.

Xavier said the city first addressed problems in 2003 and then updated the Evergreen East Hills Development Policy in 2009. The entire area, once covered in orchards and vineyards, stretches from the east hills west to U.S. Highway 101, north to Story Road and south to Hellyer Road.

Xavier said the city plans to circulate a draft environmental impact report by May to give the community a chance to comment on SummerHill’s project.

Mirassou family still owners

An issue that could raise questions is the long history of the property. The land is still owned by the Mirassou family, one of California’s first winemaking families who arrived in California in 1854 when Pierre Pellier sailed from France with grape cuttings to plant in the new world.

But it is now under the control of a trustee, appointed to handle the sale of the estate, according to land use attorney Andrew Faber of Berliner Cohen.

While the historical aspects make the property appealing, it’s also very challenging, Freed said. If SummerHill gets approval to build houses, it must restore the Peter Mirassou house, built in 1924, and the 12,000-square-foot winery warehouse constructed in 1937. But how the house, designated as a historic city landmark in 2005, will be used is undecided.

Joe Head, also of SummerHill, said it will take “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to restore the industrial warehouse and the 1,500-square-foot house.

“We can and will restore it to be a completely safe, seismically modern building,” he said. “But there’s still a question of what we will do with it when it’s done.”

As well as how to pay for its upkeep and preservation.

Historic consultant Bonnie Bamburg, who is very familiar with the Mirassou family, said the property is covered with structures built during the second half of the 20th century, but only the house and warehouse have historical significance.

“I have a lot of respect for what the Mirassou family has done for winery in the state of California,” she said. “The house where Peter Mirassou lived gives us a sense of our wine heritage.”

Peter Mirassou’s descendant, Edmund Mirassou, worked tirelessly to promote California wines at a time when only French wines were held in esteem. Bamburg said Edmund persuaded President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 to stop serving French wines and serve only American wines in the White House, a policy still in practice today.

The Mirassous stopped producing wine at the property several years ago and sold the label to E&J Gallo Winery in 2002. Daniel Mirassou, a member of the fifth generation, said in 2007 that he could no longer afford to operate a winery in the Santa Clara Valley. He moved his winemaking operation to the Livermore Valley in 2005, using the name La Rochelle, which is the port in France from which his ancestors sailed.

Regardless of the fact that wine is no longer made on the property, Freed said its history will give the development a unique identity.

“You do enjoy a sense of place. Some locations give more opportunity for that than others,” he said. “This is one of them.”

Homes

SummerHill Homes is a nationally-recognized home builder focusing on the unique needs of the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California. SHH has earned recognition and respect as one of the nation’s premier residential community builders. The company is renowned for developing specialized single-family detached and multi-family housing communities in established residential settings throughout California. Since its inception in 1976, SummerHill Homes’s goals have been to provide quality homes for its customers, Communities of Distinction for cities, and sound business opportunities for its partners.

Apartments

SummerHill Apartment Communities is the leader in providing quality, smart growth, multi-family rental housing and mixed-use developments located throughout the western United States. SHAC defines excellence in customer relationships, the quality of products and in every aspect of operations. Criteria for site development are highly selective to meet the company’s objectives. SHAC uses extensive market analysis to identify housing needs, and then customizes each development to achieve the highest potential.

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