Built By & For the Community: The Origins of Vista Village
In an era of divisive politics and hyper-polarization, it can be hard to imagine a time in the not too distant past when our community came together to accomplish something transformative: building an affordable housing development and social service agency in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the County.
That project was Vista Village, the site of WVCS’ current home in Cupertino.
From project inception in 1999 to dedication in 2003, the journey of Vista Village from idea to reality is a story of how a community comes together to care for its most vulnerable residents.
When this story begins, WVCS (which at that time was called CCS - or Cupertino Community Services) was housed in a small room at Quinlan Community Center. Barbie Jones, who by that point had already worked for CCS for many years, remembers that the limitations of that space meant that staff were crowded together with limited meeting space or storage. Mary Ellen Chell, Executive Director at that time, described the space as “squishy”, challenging for an organization that was serving more people with each passing year.
So when Mary Ellen learned that the firehouse at the corner of Stevens Creek and Vista Drive was going to be renovated, potentially leaving ample space in the back for another development, she jumped on the phone to the fire chief to learn more. She had been pushing for a permanent home for CCS for a while, says Richard Lowenthal, who at that time was on the Cupertino City Council and a CCS Board Member. Additional reconnaissance work was done by City Council member Sandy James, who invited Supervisor Joe Simitian for coffee under the guise of “catching up”, and instead used their meeting as an opportunity to pitch a vision for an affordable housing community and permanent home for Cupertino Community Services. Their advocacy paid off when the fire department agreed to a long term lease on the property, providing the land needed to “raise the roof” on 24 apartment units and a 5,000 square foot office space.
The next step was to fundraise the $6M necessary to finance the project. This part of the process was orchestrated by Don Allen, community leader and founding president of Cupertino National Bank. Don was, by all accounts, a spectacular fundraiser and deeply committed to the project. Steve Andrews, a CCS board member and member of the Vista Village fundraising committee, remembers accompanying Don to a meeting with the Bank board of directors. While Don kicked off the conversation with an overview of the project, he stepped out of the room and left the fundraising pitch to Steve, who walked away from the meeting with more than $500,000 committed for the project. Richard Lowenthal was “in the room when that happened” and saw firsthand the community spirit exemplified by the Cupertino National Bank board members who made significant contributions in support of the project. Richard was inspired to join the fundraising committee, along with Joe Tembrock, and other committed community leaders.
As with any development, there were approvals and entitlements to sort out. CCS had to ensure there would be sufficient parking on site, and coordinate a bridge loan for short term financing. And while there was some initial push back from some of the neighbors who expressed concern about an affordable housing community, Sandy, Mary Ellen, and the CCS board worked to dispel rumors and build widespread support for the project.
Once construction began, Cupertino Rotarian Dick Lohmiller was the project manager, overseeing all aspects of the work, from hiring subcontractors to vetting the first set of residents of Vista Village Dick also provided operational support and occasional chauffeuring for Don while he completed fundraising for the project. While initially hired for a part-time gig, Dick worked round the clock on Vista Village, a role he found deeply rewarding. This job was a family affair, and his wife Kay fondly remembers their grandson Ryan - a preschooler at the time - joining Dick on his daily site inspections.
All told, the project took 4 years, and once it was completed, it was a dream come true. Mary Ellen remembers feeling deep gratitude that 24 families would now have a place to call home in Cupertino. Barbie describes the new CCS building at the front of the property as “wonderful”, providing more space for food, added refrigeration, meeting places for clients and caseworkers, and desks that didn’t need to double as program storage. CCS now had a beautiful, permanent home - a realization of the dream that ignited the imagination of the CCS board and staff in 1999.
But the real success, according to Richard, was that Vista Village was an opportunity for the whole community to come together to “do something unquestionably good”. Vista Village was a true community effort, bringing together City Council members, business leaders, Cupertino Rotarians, City and County staff, CCS board and employees, and dedicated community members to see the development through from beginning to end.
Today, just about 20 years since the vision for Vista Village was born, WVCS continues to serve as a hub of support for individuals and families facing food and housing insecurity in our community. And while our community has grown, and our programs have evolved to meet the changing needs of our clients, what hasn’t changed is the compassion of community members like you that make our programs possible. As we celebrate this milestone anniversary in the history of Vista Village, we extend our deepest gratitude to all of the donors, leaders, and workers - past, present and future - who give tirelessly to fight hunger and homelessness in our community!
Like Vista Village, this article came together thanks to interviews with community leaders who played an important role in this project, including Steve Andrews, Mary Ellen Chell, Sandy James, Barbie Jones, Kay Lohmiller, Richard Lowenthal, and Jim Walker. Thank you all so much for your time and insight!