Palo Alto's rancorous and highly emotional debate over a proposed senior-housing development on Maybell Avenue will spill over into next week after the City Council decided on Thursday not to vote on the project and directed the developer and the opposition to give diplomacy another chance.
The council voted 7-2 Thursday, with Liz Kniss and Greg Schmid dissenting, to move to Monday night a vote on whether to rezone a site at 567 Maybell Ave. to enable construction of a 60-unit complex for low-income seniors and 15 single-family homes. The proposal from the Palo Alto Housing Corporation has run into a tidal wave of resistance from residents of the Barron Park and Green Acres 2 neighborhoods, with hundreds of people sending letters, signing a petition and attending public hearings to voice their concerns.
The council was scheduled to vote on the project on Monday, but with about 200 people attending the meeting and close to three hours of public comments, council members agreed to hold a special meeting on Thursday to continue the discussion. But on Thursday, the council once again deferred a decision on the Housing Corporation's proposal after Councilman Larry Klein offered a Camp David-style solution to the city's most emotional zoning quandary: give the two parties 72 hours to reach an accord that has been eluding them for months.
"There's nothing that concentrates people's minds on reaching a resolution than knowing you have an absolute deadline," Klein said in explaining his proposal.
Klein, who had served on the council throughout much of the 1980s and who is now in the second term of current tenure, said he has never in his years on the council "experienced such virulent opposition and, frankly, stonewalling by the applicant as well." Under the process that Klein suggested and that the council approved Thursday, Mayor Greg Scharff will be responsible for facilitating the closed-door meeting with representatives of the various parties, including the Housing Corporation, representatives from the neighborhood groups in the area and representatives from the two grassroots organizations that have sprung up in recent months to voice concerns and threaten litigation over the project.
Most of the residents who had come out to oppose 567 Maybell argued on Monday that while they support senior housing, the proposal is too dense and would make the streets more dangerous in their neighborhood, which includes a busy school corridor. Opponents also took issue with the city's traffic analysis, which indicated that the traffic impact would be negligible, with about 20 extra cars added to the streets during the morning and evening rush.
On Thursday, the council received a letter from a group called Coalition for Safe and Sensible Zoning arguing that the city's environmental analysis made various errors in sections on air quality, emergency assessment and bicycle safety. A broad neighborhood group, the Maybell Action Group, is also considering holding a referendum on the proposal, should the council give it the green light, one member of the group told the Weekly.
At the same time, dozens came to support the development, arguing that senior housing is badly needed in Palo Alto and that opponents are badly overstating the project's traffic impacts.
Several council members were prepared on Thursday to approve the project, as recommended by staff. Councilwoman Liz Kniss proposed giving it the green light with several conditions, including reduction of single-family homes from 15 to 12 and a requirement that no homes would be higher than two stories. Councilwoman Gail Price joined her and added a few more strings, including conditions that the developer vary setbacks of houses along Maybell and Clemo; refine the design features of all housing units; provide shuttle services for senior residents in the new development; and provide "on an accelerated schedule" $200,000 for street improvements on Maybell Avenue.
Kniss, who spoke in favor of the project, called the proposal "very appropriate" because it would stand near other major apartment buildings, including the 100-foot-tall Tan Plaza Continental and Arastradero Park Apartments, a project that is also managed by the Housing Corporation.
"We certainly heard clearly the other night that everyone believes in affordable housing," Kniss said. "Everyone believes that teachers, firefighters and others who work in this community should be able to live in this community. It's the same with seniors."
Councilwoman Gail Price agreed, saying the proposal is a "good one" and one that "certainly addresses the need for affordable housing."
The "planned community" zone that the Housing Corporation is seeking would allow the nonprofit developer to exceed the site's zoning designation in exchange for negotiated "public benefits." In this case, the main benefit is affordable housing for seniors, a pressing need in a city where the senior population is growing almost as fast as the property values.
Councilman Marc Berman also voiced his approval, though he was more nuanced in his comments. In his longest speech as a councilman, Berman peppered city staff and Housing Corporation with questions relating to the site's history, zoning densities and setbacks before presenting his colleagues with a detailed traffic analysis he himself had conducted in the weeks before the meetings. Berman said he had spent four mornings on the intersection of Maybell and Clemo avenues, where the development would be built, and confirmed residents' assertions that Maybell gets "extraordinarily busy" during the morning school commute.
But Berman also observed (and showed photos to back up his observations) that these streets are relatively calm outside the period of 7:45-8:15 a.m. The traffic issues, he said, can be worked out by modifying curbs, making other traffic improvements and working with the schools to stagger the opening bell times to lessen the traffic.
During his long, detailed and impassioned speech, Berman pointed out that the site's existing zoning would already allow a developer to build 34 single-family homes on the site, a development that staff argued would have an even greater traffic impact than the senior complex. If the developer offers to devote a portion of the project to affordable housing, city law would allow construction of up to 46 homes. These projects, Berman said, would be far worse for the neighborhood than what the Housing Corporation is proposing.
"I think this project is a safer project for our children than any other realistic alternative that involves housing," Berman said.
Other council members kept their cards closer to the vests, largely because of Klein's proposal to continue the discussion after the 72-hour "summit period." Klein pointed to the threatened litigation and the high intensity of emotion and argued that it would do little harm to give negotiations another chance. These negotiations would take place in a closed meeting and would give Scharff some discretion over the scope of the talk.
Councilwoman Karen Holman supported this proposal, though she expressed some concern over Klein's proposal to keep the meeting away from the public eye. Like her colleagues, she observed that "the temperature in the community is not real great right now." Secrecy, she said, occasionally leads to rumors and accusations, including a recent claims from project opponents that the Housing Corporation had paid proponents to attend the Monday meeting and support the project.
Holman on Thursday asked Candice Gonzalez about these rumors: Did the agency pay supporters?
"Absolutely not," Gonzalez said.
Berman proved most ambivalent on the subject of the special summit. On the one hand, he said, it's good to give negotiations another chance.
"Community input -- which we had a lot of -- and negotiations between parties I think are always positive," Berman said. "My heart sank with every email I read that threatened litigation over this. That's not a win for anyone involved."
But at the same time, Berman said, the negotiations could open up a "terrible Pandora's box" if they're not limited in scope. The council voted 6-3, with Scharff, Klein and Councilman Pat Burt dissenting, to narrow the scope of the negotiations to the items discussed earlier in the meeting, including traffic, building setbacks and the number of single-family homes.
Berman also said he has some concern about how late in the game these negotiations would be taking place. The Housing Corporation is hoping to get a decision on its proposal before the end of June so that it can meet a deadline for grant funding. Even if the council approves the project next Monday, it would need to hold a "second reading" 10 days after the approval before the approval becomes formal.
While Berman said the idealist in him is hoping for a win-win solution from the negotiations, the city's best hope now could be a situation in which everyone is a bit dissatisfied with the final product.
"If everyone walks away unhappy, we probably came away with the right solution," Berman said.