As Palo Alto nears the finish line in adopting a long overdue housing vision, residents in one neighborhood are rising up to protest a late revision in the document that would accommodate a controversial senior-housing development on Maybell Avenue.
The project at 567 and 595 Maybell Ave. was proposed last year by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit that manages the city's stock of affordable housing. Last fall, the City Council had loaned the corporation $3.3 million to buy the land, which under the current plan would house a 60-unit development for low-income seniors and 15 single-family homes. But before application gets approved, it has to undergo a "planned community" zone change that would enable the greater density. The Planning and Transportation Commission is scheduled to consider approving the zone change on May 22 (it had voted in February to "initiate" the zone change) and the council is slated to debate it in June.
But even though approval is still far from certain, the city has already included the project in its Housing Element, a state-mandated document that includes a list of city sites that could accommodate more housing. The document, which is the only portion of the Comprehensive Plan (the city's land-use bible) that is required by state law, has been in the works for more than five years, but it wasn't until last fall that staff decided to include the 60 units of the Maybell project in the document.
Now, dozens of residents are accusing the city of short-circuiting the process and predetermining the outcome for a development that they claim will exacerbate the neighborhood's traffic problems.
The criticisms hit a fever pitch at the May 9 meeting of the council's Regional Housing Mandate Committee, which voted 3-0 with Karen Holman absent to approve the proposed Housing Element with the Maybell site included. The full council is scheduled to approve the document Monday night.
Residents from the Green Acres 2 and Barron Park neighborhoods packed into the City Hall's cramped Council Conference Room to lay out their concerns. More than a dozen speakers publicly urged the council committee to reconsider the Maybell project at an emotional meeting that was frequently interrupted by jeers and applause.
Many pointed to the large number of schools in the area (including Gunn High School, Terman Middle School and Briones Elementary School) and the recent lane reduction at the Charleston and Arastradero corridor, which intended to make the streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. With all the changes, the residents argued, the neighborhoods can not absorb any more housing or traffic.
"The safety of our children and the impact on our schools and all of the services that will be required if you add anything to Maybell -- which is already substandard in its width -- is going to be just outrageous," said Rosemarie Dufresne, a resident of Thain Way, near Maybell. "I can't believe there isn't another place where you can put this project that wouldn't be more safe for all of us."
Georgia Avenue resident Kevin Hauk criticized the preliminary traffic analysis, which focused exclusively on cars and did not consider the thousands of children who bike and walk in the Maybell area. He accused staff and the developer of being involved in an "exercise of creative messaging and statistical manipulation." Another resident, John Elman, said the neighborhood already has plenty of senior-housing development and does not need any more housing, particularly given its shortage of neighborhood amenities.
"What we need is not more housing in our area," Ellman said. "We need a supermarket, a hardware store and so on because all our purchases go to Los Altos and Mountain View."
The neighborhood opposition and the renewed concerns about the traffic impacts of the Maybell project are putting the council in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, the council and the planning commission agree that the city desperately needs more housing, particularly for seniors and low-income residents.
The Association of Bay Area Governments, a regional agency that assigns housing quotas to Bay Area cities, mandated that the city plan for 2,860 housing units in the current planning period, a number that city planners have been struggling to meet given the generally built-out nature of the city. Planning Director Curtis Williams said at the May 9 meeting that including the Maybell project helps the city reach the quota and gain state approval for the Housing Element.
"It does help us meet our numbers and we're close enough that if we didn't have that site in there, it would be difficult to meet those," Williams said. "We'd have to go back to the drawing board and find that. Nevertheless, we could work on that some more."
At the same time, planners and city officials find much to like about the Maybell project. Council members often talk about the need to build more affordable housing and the Planning and Transportation Commission voiced a similar sentiment when it voted 4-2 in February to formally initiate the rezoning process for 567 Maybell Ave. At that meeting, Jessica de Witt, manager at the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, told the commission that all of the corporation's properties have long waiting lists and said that increasing the city's affordable-housing stock is "very critical and important."
Commissioners generally agreed that affordable units constitute an important "public benefit" (a requirement of "planned community" projects), with Commissioner Arthur Keller calling the project "intrinsically worthwhile."
But Greg Tanaka, one of the two dissenters, marveled at the February meeting about the lack of opposition to the Maybell development.
"I think if the people in the (neighborhood) really knew what was being built across the street, there would be more of an outcry there," Tanaka said.
Tanaka's words proved prescient. The outcry came this month, with dozens of critics submitting letters, attending the housing committee meeting. It is likely to resurface on May 22, when the project returns to the commission. At that meeting the commission will have to weigh the residents' concerns about the project's impact against the fact that the city desperately needs more affordable housing and has already committed $4 million to the development.
The fact that the Maybell project is now also listed in the Housing Element has also prompted allegations from critics that the game is rigged and that the project now has more momentum.
Anne Lawer, a neighborhood resident, marveled at the fact that a project whose impacts haven't even been vetted yet is now part of the city's housing vision. She vowed that critics will continue to attend meetings to make their case about the project's impacts.
"I was surprised you'll put a specific project into the Housing Element that hadn't been studied," Lawer said.
At the May 9 meeting, the members of the council committee asserted over and over again that the project is far from a done deal, even if it's now part of the city's official housing vision. Mayor Greg Scharff assured the assembled crowd that the planning commission and the council have plenty of leeway in rejecting the proposal and revising the Housing Element as needed.
Scharff acknowledged at the May 9 meeting that the council's loan to the Housing Corporation and the project's inclusion in the Housing Element makes it look like "the fix is in" for approving 567 Maybell Ave. But he assured the public that this is not the case. The fix, he said, is not in, and the approval process remains on track.
"I have not made up my mind on Maybell and this is not a done deal," Scharff said. "I can completely understand why you think it is."
But he supported approving the Housing Element out of recognition that it is required by law and that it can be revised if needed.
Committee Chair Marc Berman made a similar point and said he "wasn't impressed" when he saw the staff proposal to include a policy on rezoning the Mayfield site in the Housing Element. Program H2.2.8 specifically states: "Rezone property at 595 Maybell Avenue from RM-15 and R-2 zone districts to the PC zone district to allow for development of 60 units of extremely low to low income senior affordable rental housing units and 15 market units."
It didn't help that staff had initially listed the Maybell project among those that have already been approved or had received building permits. Staff subsequently moved it into a category of projects going through the process.
"I promise, my mind has not been made up on this project," Berman said. "There's lots of documents that we still need to see."
Councilman Greg Schmid took it a step further and insisted that staff include an explicit statement in its report to the Planning and Transportation Commission stating that the project's listing in the Housing Element should in no way influence the approval. He and his colleagues also directed staff to come up with a "backup plan" and consider other sites that could be included on the housing inventory should the Maybell project get denied.
"I don't want to give the Planning and Transportation Commission or anyone else or the public the notion that we had made the decision," Schmid said.