A crowd of about 200 gathered for the Palo Alto City Council's public hearing on 567 Maybell Ave. The large number of speakers prompted the council to defer its decision on the development until Thursday evening. Photo by Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto's most intense zoning battle in years will have to wait at least three more days for a resolution after the City Council decided Monday night to postpone a vote on the controversial senior-housing development proposed for Maybell Avenue.
In front of a divided house of roughly 200 residents, many sporting green "YES on Maybell" stickers and many more wearing "NO REZONING" buttons, the council agreed to delay until Thursday evening a decision on 567 Maybell Ave., a development that includes 60 housing units for low-income seniors and 15 single-family homes at Maybell and Clemo avenues. With residents filling the Council Chambers seats and spilling out onto the hallways and with the fire marshal warning that the room is filled to capacity, the council was delegated to a listening role. By the time each of the roughly 50 speakers concluded his or her two-minute remark, it was well past 11 p.m. and the council decided to call it a night.
The discussion on the highly polarizing development ended, strangely enough, with a unanimous and anticlimactic vote -- to defer the ruling until Thursday. The council was scheduled to spend its Thursday night at a special retreat, setting its "core values" and discussing the efficiency of meetings. Instead, it will now spend the evening weighing the pros and cons of granting the Palo Alto Housing Corporation the zone change it needs to build its proposed development at 567 Maybell Ave.
Residents had plenty of pros and cons of their own to contribute. Close to 100 residents, many from the Barron Park and Greenacres neighborhoods and sporting the red buttons of opposition, came to argue that the new development doesn't belong in their neighborhood. They were roughly matched by the sizable army of housing advocates, who wore green stickers and argued that the Maybell project is desperately needed in a city with a growing senior population and sky-high real estate values.
At the onset of the discussion, Mayor Greg Scharff asked everyone who supports the Maybell rezoning to stand up. He then asked the same question of opponents.
"I would call this a room evenly divided," Scharff observed.
The public comments reflected that fact, with dozens urging the rezoning and dozens more arguing against it. The number of letters and emails submitted to the council on this topic filled two thick volumes.
Opponents stressed throughout the hearing that they support and highly value senior housing, just not at the site and at the scale proposed by the Housing Corporation, a nonprofit that manages affordable-housing complexes throughout the city. A.J. Lumsdaine, who lives in the area, said the main concern that she and many of her neighbors have when it comes to the project is the increased density.
"Neighbors are not opposed to having a senior-housing complex there in that spot," Lumsdaine said. "They are just opposed to the PC (planned community) zoning and massive scale, especially the market-rate homes on Maybell."
The site, a former orchard, as currently zoned to accommodate 34 single-family homes. The city's planning staff and its Planning and Transportation Commission had argued that these homes, if built, would have a more significant impact on area traffic than what's being proposed by the Housing Corporation. Most of the senior residents, proponents point out, don't work and don't have to drive anywhere.
Eduardo Martinez, chair of the planning commission, told the council that he and his colleagues had determined that the benefits of bringing more senior housing to Palo Alto outweigh the impacts, which staff believes will be minimal. The city's traffic analysis, which many in the neighborhoods dispute, determined that the development would add 16 car trips to the area in the morning rush hour and 21 during the afternoon.
"It's nice to be popular when we make a recommendation," Martinez told the council inside the crowded Chambers. "I don't feel real popular right now."
Many speakers concurred with Martinez, staff and the Housing Corporation, which received $5.8 million in loans from the city to buy the Maybell site. Manoj Bose, who is enlisted in the Army and whose mother lives at a Housing Corporation property, praised the organization's efforts and facilities and urged the council to approve the Maybell development. He disputed arguments from many of the projects' opponents about the traffic impacts of the new development.
"It's not the apartments that are creating all the traffic," Bose said. "It's just an excuse to hold (off) the project. I wish you guys would move the project (forward) as soon as possible."
John Caruso said he and his mom each live in an affordable-housing facility. Caruso, who lives at the recently built Treehouse development on Charleston Road, said he is in pain every day because of a nerve disorder. His mother, who is legally blind and suffers from a hearing loss, lives in Sheridan Apartments. Each feels "blessed" to live in the city where they had spent more than three decades, he said.
"Please take it from me and my mom that until you have a disability, you cannot fully understand how truly important affordable housing is," Caruso said. "We have some dignify left because we have good affordable housing here in Palo Alto."
Opponents didn't dispute that affordable housing is valuable and important. But they also claimed that their neighborhoods are being forced to bear more than their share of traffic impacts. Maurice Green, a Barron Park resident, spoke out in favor of senior housing but then asked the council to take a step back and work with the residents on building senior housing "the right way." Green showed the council a video of traffic conditions, which he called "Morning Mayhem at Maybell Avenue." It depicted crowded intersections, lines of cars and school children on bikes. Some said the congestion has only worsened in the past few years, when the city decided to reduce lanes on Arastradero Road.
Lydia Kou of Barron Park Neighborhood Association said the city's process on this project "borders on deceptiveness" because the council had loaned the Housing Corporation funds for the project (which to many signified that the rezoning is a done deal) and because it had briefly considered including the housing project in its Housing Element (a vision document that includes a list of new housing sites). The council ultimately decided not to include 567 Maybell in the Housing Element.
"With all the congestion the City Council and staff have already created, it is irresponsible to increase zoning," Kou said.
Joe Hirsch, who also lives in the area, asked the council to slow the process down and to work with the residents and Housing Corporation officials on designing a senior-housing project that works for everyone -- a process similar to the one used to build Terman Apartments more than 30 years ago.
"That's the challenge before you tonight -- to find how to reconcile these two groups that are here, each with their heartfelt opinions about senior housing, affordable housing and retaining the character and ambiance of their neighborhood and retaining the safety of the children who come to and from school," Hirsch said.
The council, which normally convenes at 7 p.m., began its meeting this week with a 4 p.m. closed session to discuss labor negotiations. Seven hours later, all council members agreed that it's far too late to deliberate. The decision to postpone a vote concerned Housing Corporation officials, who told the council that they hope to apply for grant funds by early July and would need to have the necessary zone change before they qualify. Given the time-sensitive nature of the decision, the council agreed to postpone its scheduled retreat until after its July break.
The council also agreed late Monday night to postpone its scheduled adoption of the fiscal year 2014 budget. That item will also now be discussed at the special meeting Thursday.