After several false starts, Palo Alto's bitter and deeply emotional debate over a proposed housing development on Maybell Avenue finally reached its conclusion Monday night when the City Council unanimously granted a zone change that would make the project a reality.
The council's vote concluded one of the city's most rancorous zoning disputes in years, a schism that brought hundreds of residents to the City Council over two meetings last week and that led the council to delay a decision on both occasions. On Thursday night, after discussing the proposal, the council pinned its hopes on a weekend summit between the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit developer of affordable-housing projects, and residents in the Barron Park and Green Acres neighborhoods, where resistance to the rezoning proposal has been most vehement.
The council's vote on Monday night to allow the "planned community" zone would allow the Housing Corporation to build a 60-unit apartment building for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes, three fewer than the developer had initially proposed. Under a proposal made by Mayor Greg Scharff and accepted by his colleagues, seven of these homes would be along Maybell and five would be on Clemo Avenue.
The council's unanimous vote, which included a list of conditions and design changes, belied the deeply divisive nature of the proposal. Over the past month, as the project made its way through public hearings of the council and the Planning and Transportation Commission, it had galvanized area residents, prompting the formation of two grassroots groups, threats of lawsuits over the project's environmental analysis and plans for a citizen referendum should the project pass. Seeking to cool the temperature, the council agreed on Thursday to schedule a weekend summit facilitated by Scharff and including representatives from both the neighborhoods and from the Housing Corporation.
The closed-door retreat was a stark departure for a city where council members like to talk about transparency and where the planning process is often criticized for being too thorough and inclusive. Scharff, who spent 10 hours on Friday and Saturday working with the parties, got high marks from both sides. Mike Lowy, who attended the meeting on behalf of the residents' group, called him an "honest broker," echoing comments of others. Elaine Heal, another neighborhood attendee, said the "left this weekend much more optimistic then when I went in."
But while the weekend meetings succeeded in educating residents about zoning issues and the complexities of developing affordable housing, they did not bring about the resolution the council was hoping for. The residents at the meeting were arguing in support of reducing the number of houses to eight. The Housing Corporation, which is using the single-family homes to finance the affordable-housing units, argued that this would not be economically feasible.
On Monday, the council received a memo recapping the meetings from Scharff, the Housing Corporation and the residents who attended the meeting. All parties agreed that while the meetings were educational, agreement was not achieved.
"The parties made significant progress in bridging their differences," Scharff's memo stated. "The primary difference between the parties relates to whether neighborhood compatibility can only be achieved through a reduction in additional units, or through additional architectural and site design revisions."
The neighborhood attendees wrote in their memo that they "gained a better understanding of the ways in which PAHC's hands were tied and ways in which they weren't." They learned about the great complexity and high cost of developing an affordable-housing complex. They also felt that the Housing Corporation is "inventing the rules as it goes along" on financing the development. This is the first time, they noted, that the Housing Corporation is developing a project with both a market rate and an affordable-housing component.
Even so, few minds were swayed. In the memo, the neighbors suggest that the council "stop this rush to rezone." They proposed a fresh design, with eight market-rate houses -- four on Clemo and four on Maybell. That proposal didn't get anywhere and the two sides "were not able to reach a compromise in this limited amount of time," according to the memo.
"It would have been much better to have had this type of open dialogue months earlier in the process," the memo states.
Some residents continued to express on Monday their frustration with the process. Art Liberman, a Barron Park resident who attended the weekend meetings, said he remains unconvinced by the developer's assertions that the amount of housing cannot be reduced. He asked the council to make sure the new project is consistent with the character of the neighborhood, which is composed primarily of single-family homes.
"We are convinced they can make the financing of the projects work with fewer houses," Liberman said.
For the second Monday in a row, the council fielded comments from both sides of the debate, though the number of attendees wasn't as high this time as in the past three public hearings. Just like on previous occasions, opponents of the rezoning proposal arguing that the project would be too dense for their neighborhood, which includes a busy school corridor and suffers from heavy traffic congestion during peak hours. Proponents stressed the need for building affordable housing in a city with a graying population and sky-high real estate values.
Former Councilman John Barton was in the latter camp.
"Clearly, the shotgun wedding didn't achieve a progeny, didn't develop a wonderful solution and that's unfortunate," Barton said, before he encouraged the council to vote and approve what the called the Housing Corporation's "compromise position."
Residents disputed that the position -- 12 houses rather than 15 -- is a "compromise." The City Council was prepared on Thursday to require the developer to reduce the number of houses from 15 to 12 before Councilman Larry Klein proposed holding off a vote until after the weekend summit.
On Monday, its third shot at the project, the council voted to approve in, though not before adding a list of conditions aimed to improve the design of the new development. These include varying the setbacks of the homes, setting a setback minimum of 20 feet and making sure the Maybell project shares services and staff with the nearby Arastradero Park Apartments facility, which is also managed by the Housing Corporation.
"I know that this will not satisfy everyone but I hope we have come to some point that will allow this to go forward in such a way that we have made what I think will be the concessions that work in this particular situation," Councilwoman Liz Kniss said.
Council members agreed with residents that they have a traffic problem during the morning peak hour, though the reiterated that the new development would have very little impact on this situation. A traffic study commissioned by the city and widely disputed by neighborhood opponents of the project that the development would bring 16 and 20 new car trips to the neighborhood during the morning and afternoon peak hours, respectively. Klein was one of several council members who argued that the project shouldn't be "made proxy for traffic."
Councilman Greg Schmid said the city's method for measuring traffic impacts is inadequate because it measures the incremental impact of each new project without considering the cumulative impacts of several developments. The traffic impact of several projects can be major, he said. He called for the city to re-examine its policies for measuring traffic impacts.
"There are some concrete issues in the city's traffic study that are not being measured that influence the neighborhoods that are measured by it and we need to do something about it," Schmid said.
Immediately after the vote on 567 Maybell, the council unanimously accepted Councilman Pat Burt's suggestion that staff work with the school district to evaluate possible traffic-calming- and pedestrian-safety measures on Maybell.
Council members also stressed on Monday that the Maybell site is unlikely to remain undeveloped for long, regardless of the council's decision. Existing zoning on the orchard site would allow construction of 34 homes, which staff and council members argued would cause even more traffic impacts than the senior apartments.
"If we reject this proposal, Palo Alto Housing Corp could turn around and sell it to private developer," Berman said. "No private developer who pays $16 million or more for a plot of land wouldn't maximize the profit from this development. This end result is as good as it can get."
Klein agreed and said the "planned community" zone would protect the neighborhood from potential traffic impacts of a more disruptive development that would not require a zone change.
"The people who are going to be living here under this PC will drive a lot less than people who'd be living there if we were to develop this under existing zoning," Klein said.
Klein also argued that for all the rage, the difference between the residents' position and the Housing Corporation isn't all that big. It's a matter of 12 homes versus eight homes, he said.
"It seems to me it is an issue that's hardly large enough to cause lawsuits, referendums and things of that nature," Klein said. I don't think that's where our community ought to be."