A grassroots effort to stop a proposed housing development on Maybell Avenue in Palo Alto hit another milestone Friday afternoon when citizens submitted a petition with more than 4,000 signatures to City Hall, far more than was needed to bring the issue to a citywide vote.
Shortly after 2 p.m., opponents carted into the Office of the City Clerk crates with 47 petition packets containing between them 4,018 signatures, according to a count by City Clerk Donna Grider. The petition would bring to a referendum the City Council's approval last month of a zone change that would enable construction of a 60-unit apartment building for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes. Opponents of the project only needed to collect 2,298 valid signatures to bring the item to an citywide election.
This was the second successful petition drive in less than a month for opponents of the Maybell development proposed by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation. Earlier this month, they submitted more than 3,000 signatures to the clerk's office for a different petition relating to the same development. The earlier petition would undo the change the council made to the Comprehensive Plan -- the city's chief land-use document -- to accommodate the housing development.
The new petition, by contrast, specifically targets the zone change. As part of its approval process, the council agreed to change the zoning at the site on Maybell and Clemo avenues from residential to "planned community," which allows developers to exceed density regulations in exchange for "public benefits" to be negotiated. In this case, the chief public benefit is affordable housing for seniors -- a rare commodity in Palo Alto.
In recent months, the project ran into a wall of opposition from nearby neighborhoods, whose residents protested that the zone change is inappropriate and that the project is too dense for their part of the city. Many pointed to the already congested traffic and argued that the prominent school route on Maybell cannot accommodate dense developments. Others blasted the city's process for getting the project approved, which included a $5.8 million loan to the Housing Corporation from the city before the rezoning process kicked off.
Initially, the opposition was centered in the Barron Park, Green Acres and Green Acres II neighborhoods. Over the past month, opponents of the rezoning fanned out throughout the city to collect signatures. Cheryl Lilienstein, one of the leaders of the signature-gathering effort, said she was amazed by the level of support the effort has been getting in neighborhoods far from the project site, including College Terrace and Downtown North. More than 95 percent of the people she approached were happy to sign it, she said. In areas close to new developments such as Alma Village (formerly Alma Plaza) and the the new hotel at the site of the former Palo Alto Bowl in Monroe Park, support for the petition was overwhelming, she said.
In the area around Alma Village, which includes a townhouse development and a grocery store, people were "100 percent" behind the referendum, she said.
"People are very upset about density and traffic," said Lilienstein, who helped deliver the petitions to the city clerk's office.
The second petition drive was in some ways easier than the first, which had an earlier deadline. As a result, opponents of the rezoning had only 12 days to get the needed signatures (Opponents technically had 30 days from the council's approval to get the needed signatures. But the decision to petition the council's June 17 vote to amend the Comprehensive Plan wasn't made until late June.).
Even with less pressure for the second petition, the group launched an energetic campaign with parties in the park, social events and a small army of signature gatherers. About 70 people led the signature-gathering effort. In many cases, people who signed the first petition also signed the second.
Ree Dufresne, who lives near the project site and who helped organize the referendum effort, said people in other neighborhoods were as concerned as her neighbors about "the direction Palo Alto is taking." The city, she said, tends to address problems through a "Band-Aid" approach, neighborhood by neighborhood, rather than think of comprehensive solutions.
"They're really not taking into consideration the whole of Palo Alto," Dufresne said, referring to city leadership.
Once the signatures are submitted to the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters, the registrar will have 15 days to verify them. The office is still in the process of verifying the signatures from the first set of petitions, with that verification set to be completed next week.
If both sets of signatures are verified, both referendum measures will go on the ballot, though it's not yet clear when a vote would occur. The city has to declare by Aug. 9 which items would go on the ballot in November. If the second set of signatures isn't verified by then, the election would have to wait until the next general election, which would be held in June 2014.