In a joint meeting on Dec. 21, the San Ramon Planning Commission and City Council, along with numerous members of the public, debated plans for the future of the historic El Nido house, built in the 19th century by the Harlan family, at San Ramon Valley Boulevard and Westside Drive.
On the table for the public hearing was a proposal for a three-story, 27,947-square-foot senior care facility with a capacity of 84 beds on 0.7 acres, which would include renovating the longstanding Harlan house and incorporating it into the development.
The property owner, San Ramon resident Sohail Siddiqi, presented on the complicated recent history of the project, after years of efforts from numerous parties to develop the property. He emphasized in his presentation a "collaborative" approach to developing plans for the property, and having listened to, addressed, and incorporated community feedback.
Siddiqi said that he'd been "taken aback" coming into the first planning commission meeting on the project in 2017 at the amount of pushback from the public on proposed developments for the property.
"Right then I decided that hey, we can just not develop and design this project in a vacuum," Siddiqi said. "We've got to engage our neighbors. So we did."
Siddiqi pointed to efforts that included town hall meetings for residents at his family's house, open house events on the property, meetings with homeowners associations near the property, and collaborating with local historical societies and city officials.
Previous plans explored for the El Nido house involved moving the historic, former home of the Harlan family to a different location in order to clear the way for development, or to demolish the building entirely. Restoring the building, and incorporating it as part of a proposed senior care facility, is an option that has emerged following logistical problems with the former, and public outcry at the destruction of a historic building when it comes to the latter.
Siddiqi pointed to preserving the city's history with the restoration of the house, with plans to hold tours and events at the property organized by the San Ramon Historic Foundation, as well as adding jobs and volunteer opportunities to the area.
As an additional effort to address community concerns, Siddiqi said the proposed project would consist not just of restoring and incorporating the historic house into the new development, but of architecture inspired by the house and aimed at complementing it.
Nonetheless, some community members continued to be skeptical about what changes the development might bring to the neighborhood, citing traffic as a major concern, with some questioning Siddiqi's motives.
"This is a commercial entity for all intents and purposes, and any notion that it is done for altruistic reasons is misplaced," said Anthony Deangelis in a public comment. "This project is going to cause a fair amount of inconvenience to the people living in the surrounding areas."
"I am opposed adamantly to this project as a healthcare facility," Brea Fisher said. "Having worked in healthcare for a number of years, no one seems to be mentioning the tremendous amount of trash, chemicals, waste, laundry, noise, and light pollution that a healthcare facility will generate. This is an inappropriate area to place a healthcare facility."
Overall, neighboring residents expressed concerns about increased traffic, noise, and continued aesthetic concerns over architecture as overarching concerns, and asked for the council, commission, and applicant to consider these issues.
Other residents, however, pointed to a dearth of senior housing in the area, and were hopeful that the proposed facility could help San Ramon Valley seniors stay in the area rather than moving elsewhere in the state or country to find an assisted living facility.
"I am in my 80s," Mary Lou Oliver said. "I'm one of those people who's looking around for what kind of facilities are available, and there is a real dearth in San Ramon."
Oliver added that as a longtime San Ramon resident, she'd seen numerous arguments against new developments over the years, while watching the city continue to grow.
"When I moved here, it was the first subdivision built north of Montevideo Drive," Oliver said. "There was nothing between Montevideo Drive and my property … Most of the people, if I had said the kinds of things I heard tonight, they wouldn't have a home here."
Some further expressed frustration that, as debates over the future of the Harlan house have raged on, the house itself has fallen into further disrepair as it and the surrounding property sit unoccupied. One of these commenters was Bill Harlan, a descendant of the house's original owners.
Harlan said that when he'd come to San Ramon in 1985 to work toward a new college in the area, he found himself unexpectedly involved in the saga of his ancestors' house, and had been watching and participating in these discussions closely over the years.
"At about the same time, I got involved, because of my name and my background, the fact that my great-great-grandfather was raised in that house back in the 19th century, I was also sucked into this whole ongoing soap opera of the Harlan house," he said.
Harlan was part of the city commission that had looked for property to move the house to in the efforts that fell through in 2015.
"While all of that was going on, the house deteriorated, much of the damage done to the house was wonton and conscious and part of a political effort, and now I listen to people worrying about walking their dogs and having cars turn around on Westside Drive," Harlan said. "Joe Harlan, who built that house originally in the 19th century, brought his grandmother, Mrs. Duncan, who was 93, across the planes in a covered wagon in 1846."
"That spirit, that attitude, has survived all of the years of degradation to that house, and the Harlan Family Association of the United States of America … is really behind this plan," Harlan continued. "It makes sense to use the history as a springboard to deal with our current issues in the community."
The Dec. 21 hearing on the proposed El Nido senior living project was for informational and discussion purposes only, with no action set to be taken by the council or commission. Both bodies voted unanimously to approve the next step of discussions on the project, which will resume at the Planning Commission's Jan. 18 meeting.