Palo Alto's most controversial housing development of the moment would occupy a nondescript orchard site in the Green Acres neighborhood, but the escalating battle over the proposal has already spilled over to just about every section of the city.
And that's exactly how the opponents like it.
In public comments, emails and official ballot arguments, critics of the proposed development at 567 Maybell Ave. have repeatedly characterized the project as the latest example of the city ignoring the desire of its residents and the vision expressed in its own Comprehensive Plan.
Supporters of the development, which includes 60 housing units for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes, have been focusing on the project itself and stressing the need for affordable housing in a city with a graying population and sky-high property values.
The latest battle in this debate centers on Measure D, a November referendum that could overturn the City Council's rezoning of the land at Maybell and Clemo avenues. Both sides have submitted ballot arguments as the citywide vote nears.
Opponents of the rezoning decision have criticized the city attorney's "Impartial Analysis of Measure D," saying it does not impartially lay out their concerns. Bob Moss, a Barron Park resident who has been a vehement Maybell opponent, noted that the analysis makes no mention of the residents' concerns over traffic or the project's compatibility with the Comprehensive Plan, the city's land-use vision.
The city attorney's document states that the city has conducted an environmental analysis, including a traffic study, and concluded that by taking mitigation measures, the development "would not cause any significant environmental impacts."
The attorney's analysis describes the site and the development proposal from the Palo Alto Housing Corporation. It also describes the "planned community" zone process as one that "accommodates projects that cannot be built under other zoning, contain substantial public benefits and enhance the policies of Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan."
Moss argued that this analysis is by no means "impartial." He noted that the city had relied on a traffic model that is now in the process of being replaced with one that more fully considers the cumulative effects of other projects on traffic congestion. The fact that the old model was used for the Maybell project, he said, "does not compute."
Joe Hirsch, a former planning commissioner and an opponent of the rezoning, listed his own concerns with the analysis. He took issue with the fact that it makes no mention of the fact that the city had loaned the Palo Alto Housing Corporation $5.8 million to buy the site; the fact that without the "planned community" zone the site would still be able to accommodate 41 units of senior housing; or most crucially that, while the project would support some of the policies in the Comprehensive Plan, it would violate many others.
The analysis, he said, has been written in a way that protects the interests of the city and the Housing Corporation.
"The city has not been an impartial bystander," Hirsch said. "They have been intimately linked with the Palo Alto Housing Corporation in a way that really withdrew their impartiality."
On Tuesday afternoon, Hirsch and Tim Gray, treasurer of the new group Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning, met with City Attorney Molly Stump and her staff and proposed a range of changes to the language. They succeeded in convincing Stump to make one relatively minor change. The current analysis states that "approximately 80 percent of the site is zoned RM-15, which allows multi-family units up to 15 per acre." Hirsch and Tim Gray, opponents of the zone change who met with Stump on Tuesday, said the ratio is closer to 75 percent (the rest is zoned R-2, which allows single-family homes).
Stump said the city has reassessed the properties and concluded that the 75 percent figure is actually more accurate. She said the city will ask the Santa Clara County Superior Court to make that change.
"We do want to be as accurate as possible," Stump told the Weekly.
Otherwise, she said, the ballot language will remain as is. She said that while she appreciates the thought that opponents have put into the ballot language, she believes the "impartial statement as drafted does the best job in informing the public" about what the vote means.
In a Wednesday letter that she sent to Gray and Hirsch, she noted that "impartial statements need not contain a complete catalogue of all the measure's provisions and should not be argumentative or likely to create a prejudice for or against a measure."
"I believe the Impartial Analysis that I submitted best meets my duty to inform the voters of the meaning and effect of the measure before them in a neutral and informative way," Stump wrote.
Gray disagreed and told the Weekly he believes Stump should recuse herself from writing the impartial analysis. Though state law assigns the duty to the city attorney, Gray argued that this creates an "ethical" problem in this case because of Stump's commitment to supporting the council and its decisions. Gray told the Weekly that when he asked Stump to recuse herself, she said she was committed to performing the job assigned to her.
Opponents of the zone change also maintain that the referendum is about much more than senior housing or the Maybell site. In their rebuttal to project proponents, they wrote that Measure D "is about Palo Alto's out-of-control development eroding Palo Alto as a great place to live and raise families." The rezoning, they argue, is "about the almost 60 percent of the land targeted for market-rate homes," referring to the 12 single-family homes.
"It has nothing to do with seniors or affordability," the rebuttal argument states. "It is about money. This is one more in a huge wave of oversized high-density projects engulfing Palo Alto."
The list of residents who signed the rebuttal includes former City Councilwomen Emily Renzel and Enid Pearson; Joe Hirsch; Art Liberman, president of the Barron Park Association; Warren Kirsch, resident of Green Acres II; Tim Gray; and Downtown North residents Neilson Buchanan and Eric Filseth.
Hirsch, who earlier this summer was part of the signature drive that qualified the referendum, said his experience taught him that there is much unhappiness all throughout the city about the city's recent developments. His group only needed about 2,300 signatures to get the project on the ballot. It received close to 4,000.
"To us, in Barron Park and Green Acres, this issue is two-fold," Hirsch said. "One, it's about what is happening in the Maybell property. But we're also asking people to think about this in the greater context of what's happening in all of Palo Alto and whether we are going in the right direction."
Proponents of the project, including the entire City Council and housing advocates, are taking the opposite stance and trying to shift the focus back to the Maybell site. Despite critics' claims, the ballot measure "has nothing to do with other approved of proposed 'planned community zonings' across Palo Alto." The measure, they maintain in their ballot rebuttal, "only affects the approved affordable senior-housing project at Maybell and Clemo."
The rebuttal from the project's supporters includes as its signatories Councilwoman Karen Holman, herself a longtime critic of the "planned community" zoning process; Councilwoman Liz Kniss; former Mayor Sid Espinosa; Mary Alice Thornton; Bill Reller; Judith Steiner, former executive director of Hidden Villa; and Barbara Gross, past president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce.
"No one has questioned the need for affordable senior housing in Palo Alto -- not even its opponents," the rebuttal from Measure D supporters states. "It's critical that we support Measure D to ensure local seniors are able to stay close to their children and grandchildren."