It is never good when election campaigns become so heated and emotional that instead of issues becoming clearer as election day nears, they become more muddled and confused.
That is where most voters find themselves today with Measure D, a referendum on whether zoning changes requested by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation should be adopted so it can construct a four-story, 60-unit affordable-housing apartment complex for seniors.
The Weekly has provided extensive coverage on the issue and the disagreements, including a cover story last week, and we encourage readers to review those stories and past editorials for all the details. As we have previously stated, we believe this proposal was mishandled from the start by both the Housing Corporation and the city staff, prompting a neighborhood reaction that at times itself has been misguided and unproductive. And when finally debated under deadline time pressures by a City Council perceived by many as out of touch with its constituents on development issues, the resulting train wreck was almost inevitable.
The smart decision for the City Council would have been to rescind its approval when Measure D qualified for the ballot with more than 4,000 signatures back in August. That would have allowed for a fresh start and a chance for a modified proposal that would address the neighborhood's most legitimate concerns: the dense, market-rate housing. But under time pressure again, this time for getting the measure on the November ballot, the Council never considered alternatives.
Unfortunately, there is now so much inflammatory rhetoric and misinformation circulating about this issue that even an informed voter will struggle to get beyond a simple knee-jerk reaction based on their preconceived views on affordable housing, the Housing Corporation and overall development in our city.
The opponents have not helped themselves by slinging exaggerated accusations of fraud and deception, or impugning the motives of those in support of the project. Similarly, those supporters who disrespectfully resort to characterizing opponents as mere NIMBYs show they aren't listening or acknowledging legitimate concerns.
There are no villains here. It is possible to be a strong supporter of affordable housing and also believe this project is an overreach. And it is possible to sympathize with the neighbors but believe the need for this type of housing outweighs the problems of higher density development.
Peeling away all the acrimony, here are the basic facts, none in dispute:
* The Housing Corporation had a rare opportunity to buy 2.5 acres of land near the corner of Maybell and Clemo avenues, across the street from Briones Park and directly behind the eight-story Tan Apartments on Arastradero Road. A large orchard and four old ranch-style homes occupy the land, which along Maybell was zoned for single-family homes (with the ability for a small granny or cottage unit) and on the remainder of the property for 15 units per acre.
* The land was purchased in 2012 for $15.6 million, with the help of a $3.2 million loan from the city (later supplemented by another $2.6 million loan), which came before the project itself was approved, creating the appearance of a conflict.
* For the first time in its 43-year history, instead of relying entirely on the city's housing fund and other sources for funding, the Housing Corporation decided it would sell off about half the land to a developer for market-rate housing to help pay for the senior housing. It is this market-rate housing that is the key issue, in our opinion, not the senior apartments.
* To meet its financial goals, the Housing Corporation needed a change in zoning to allow for greater density and exceptions to other development rules that establish minimum lot sizes, setbacks, lot coverage and parking, and height limits. For example, instead of a minimum lot size of 6,000 square feet and side yard setbacks of 10 feet for the homes to be developed, the Housing Corporation asked, and received approval for, lot sizes of 3,200-3,600 feet and setbacks of just 5 feet.
* The City Council made some important modifications to the proposal in the face of neighborhood protests, including reducing the number of market-rate homes from 15 to 12, limiting the homes on Maybell to two stories (three on Clemo) and requiring varying front-yard setbacks on Maybell.
In essence, the Housing Corporation and the City Council opted to have the immediate neighborhood absorb the negative impacts of a dozen homes that exceed allowable density in order to subsidize the development of the apartment building for low-income seniors.
If Measure D passes, the City Council's zoning changes will take effect and the Housing Corporation will be able to proceed with its plans (subject to possible legal challenge by opponents).
If Measure D fails, the zoning will remain as it has been, and the Housing Corporation will need to decide whether to revise its concept or sell the entire property, presumably to a development company that would then either create a plan that meets the zoning or make its own attempt to obtain increased density by asking for approval of a planned community (PC) zone.
A critical and, oddly, contested question in the campaign is what actually could be developed on the property under the current zoning if Measure D fails.
In making its decision to place Measure D on the ballot, the City Council vociferously relied upon city staff assertions that the existing zoning allows for a more intense development than what is proposed by the Housing Corporation. One after another, council members expressed bewilderment that anyone would want that, and it was clearly the basis for the unanimous vote to back the project.
Remarkably, however, there remains disagreement on what can or would be built under the current zoning. And given the controversy on this point, the city planning staff could have helped immensely by producing examples of hypothetical plot plans and renderings that supported its conclusions and that could have then been critically evaluated by opponents and the public.
No one wants the outcome of this controversy to be the sale of the entire property to a developer who will maximize profits on the site, and we don't believe that is the likely outcome if Measure D fails.
With real estate values soaring since the land was purchased, we see no reason why the single-family homes cannot be developed more in conformance with the current zoning and yield most, if not all, of the $11 million proceeds the Housing Corporation says it needs. And if it doesn't, city housing funds can fund the shortfall.
We reject the notion that Measure D is a vote on whether the senior housing project should be developed on the property.
The Housing Corporation and the city made a miscalculation and asked for too much out of the market-rate portion of this development, mistakenly viewing it as an easy way to generate funding while only impacting the immediate neighborhood. That part of the project was wrong, is inconsistent with the goals of the Comprehensive Plan and in our opinion can be fixed without jeopardizing the viability of the senior housing.
Palo Alto can be proud of its record of providing subsidized affordable housing, and we support and applaud the Housing Corporation's continuing efforts to expand the supply. But this project missed the mark by overreaching and not meeting the neighborhood's concerns half-way.
There is a still a chance for a win-win with this project, but only through a fresh start after the defeat of Measure D.
October 11, 2013, Cover Story: What's Measure D really about?
May 17, 2013, Editorial: A backwards process on Maybell project
June 21, 2013, Editorial: Lessons from the Maybell fiasco
August 16, 2013, Editorial: A wasteful Maybell referendum