Palo Alto's bitter debate over an approved housing development on Maybell Avenue will be settled in the voting booth this November, when the city holds its first referendum in a decade.
The City Council voted unanimously Thursday night to set a special election for Nov. 5 to determine the fate of 567 Maybell Ave., a project that includes a 60-unit apartment complex for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes. The council unanimously approved the project in June despite intense opposition from hundreds of residents in the Barron Park and Green Acres neighborhoods, who then proceeded to spearhead two successful referendum drives challenging the council's decision to rezone the site.
The successful referendums left the council with two options: repeal its decision or bring the item to a citywide vote. On Thursday, they chose the latter and agreed to schedule a special election for Nov. 5. Like everything else about this project, the decision proved controversial.
Opponents urged the council to settle the issue in November 2014, during the city's next regularly scheduled municipal election. According to estimates from the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters and the Palo Alto City Clerk, an election this year would cost $634,400. Putting the issue on the November 2014 would cost an estimated $353,100.
More than 50 people attended the special meeting and more than 20 spoke out on the subject, representing both sides. Many criticized the city's process for approving the Maybell development, a process that included the city loaning the Housing Corporation $5.8 million months before the review process. Cheryl Lilienstein, who helped lead the signature drive for the referendums, asked the council to repeal its decision.
"It appears to residents that the City Council pretends to listen because the rules say they have to," Lilienstein said. "Now we know that the city never had any intention of considering the safety, parking, traffic, zoning, or suitability issues that the residents brought forward. I urge you to turn this around and represent the interests of those people you are charged to represent. Repeal this."
Jim Jurkovich urged the council to respect existing zoning rather than approve "planned community" zones, which allow developers to exceed density regulations in exchange for "public benefits," which in this case is affordable housing.
"If you want to see a lot of upset voters, you can choose a special election," Jurkovich said.
Supporters of the development took the opposite stance and urged an election as soon as possible. Joseph Rolfe called the referendums costly and "discouraging" but urged the council to put the matter to a vote as soon as possible.
"I feel strongly that you on the council have made a decision," Rolfe said. "Please don't back down. Please put it on the ballot in November."
The Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit that manages affordable-housing developments throughout the city, requested that the city set the vote for Nov. 5 so that the project could go forward. Candice Gonzalez, executive director of the Housing Corporation, argued that the project shouldn't have to bear the burden of opponents' decision to pursue a referendum.
"Delaying this project would be a disservice to our low-income seniors who need housing now. … If it was up to us, there would be no election because we believe in the council's decision and process," Gonzalez said.
Councilman Marc Berman made the proposal to set an election for November and appealed to both sides of the debate to "come together and move forward as one community" after the election, whether or not the opposition's referendum succeeds.
"When I look at the question of when we should put the referendum on the ballot, I don't see two sides, I see one group. That group is the broader Palo Alto community," Berman said. "It's our job as the City Council to do what we think is best for the entire city, not one side or another."
"Given the divisiveness and vitriol that existed over the last few months, it's clear to me that an extra year of delay would be so much more costly to the fabric of our community."
His colleagues agreed wholeheartedly. Councilwoman Liz Kniss concurred with project critics about city's recent "planned community" projects, some of which have been "disturbing." This one, Kniss said, is different because it offers a much needed amenity: affordable housing.
"I can only say that for me the balance in this is to provide 60 units for seniors who are low-income in this community -- I think it has great value."
The city's last referendum occurred in 2003, when voters challenged a housing development at 800 High St. Opponents of the project ultimately failed to get the needed votes to stop the development.
Mayor Greg Scharff, Councilmen Pat Burt and Larry Klein all lauded the Housing Corporation's proposal and urged citizens to think hard about the alternatives for the former orchard site. Each argued that a housing development built under existing zoning would impact the neighborhood more significantly than the Maybell plan. Without a zone change, a developer would be allowed to build between 34 and 48 housing units on the 2.4-acre site.
"The PC zone here will produce a project that is less dense, less impactful and protects the neighborhood better than existing zoning. And has a public good," Klein said. "It's hard for me to understand why the neighborhood objects. But there it is, and we'll respect the process."