When Palo Alto officials convene tonight to determine their next steps on a divisive Maybell development, dollars and cents will be just one part of the conversation.
The development, which includes 60 housing units for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes, has already qualified for a referendum. The City Council is scheduled to consider at a meeting tonight whether the referendum vote should be held during a special election this year or in 2014, as part of its regularly scheduled council election. The council will also have the option of repealing its June 18 approval of a zone change that would enable the project to go forth.
The decision on when to hold an election once again pits the developer, the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing Corporation, against opponents of the project, many of whom are residents in the Barron Park and Green Acres neighborhoods. The Housing Corporation, which manages affordable-housing complexes throughout the city, is urging the city to hold a special election this year. Candice Gonzalez, the nonprofit's executive director, told the Weekly that the project has already been unanimously approved by the council and that there is no sense in delaying the development for more than a year while so many seniors are in need of affordable housing.
Delaying the election, she said, would unfairly put the burden on the nonprofit and put in jeopardy the grants that the Housing Corporation is banking on to develop the project on the former orchard site.
"This is the opposition's referendum so the project should not bear the burden of the delay," Gonzalez said. "It's best for us and the City to move forward."
If the council does not schedule an election for this year, the nonprofit would have to "explore all our options," Gonzalez said, which include withdrawing the application and selling the property. Existing zoning would allow construction of between 34 and 46 single-family homes on the property.
Gonzalez said her organization is prepared to campaign "seriously and aggressively" for the development and has hired political consultants to assist with strategy. She noted that while the Housing Corporation has encountered resistance for its proposals in the past, none have reached the level of a referendum. In most cases, she said, opponents end up supporting the project after a community-engagement process.
In this case, that has not happened. Over the past week, opponents of the development have submitted letters asking the council not to schedule a special election, which is by far the costliest option on the table. According to a new report from the City Clerk, a special election would cost an estimated $634,400, which includes a $584,400 bill from the Registrar of Voters and $50,000 in expenses for the clerk's office. A vote on June 3, 2014, the day of the primary elections, would cost $404,800. If Palo Alto waits until Nov. 4, 2014, the cost would be $353,000.
Critics of the Maybell project, most of whom oppose its density and potential traffic impacts, urged the council to repeal its approval or, in the absence of that, to wait until 2014. Michael Maurier, a Green Acres resident, pointed to the higher cost of proceeding with an election this year as a good reason to wait until 2014. Holding a special election this year would present a burden to the taxpayers for the sole benefit of a developer, he wrote.
Rosemarie Dufresne, one of the leaders of the signature drive, made a similar point in her letter.
"I encourage you to act in a responsible and prudent manner 'going forward' and not add to the burden of the taxpayers of Palo Alto, by trying to push this to a Special Election," Dufresne wrote.
Palo Alto last had a referendum in 2003, when residents unsuccessfully challenged a development at 800 High St. That year, the referendum was held during a regularly scheduled council election. Since then, the council has shifted its elections to even years.
Tonight's special meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at Cogswell Plaza. The council will then convene at 7 p.mm. in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave., to discuss the Maybell referendum.