Palo Alto Weekly
News - May 24, 2013
Divisive senior-housing proposal scores zoning victory
Palo Alto planning commission votes to recommend rezoning Maybell Avenue site to enable 60 senior residences, 15 homes
by Gennady Sheyner
Everyone agrees that Palo Alto, a city with a graying population and sky-high property values, has a drought of housing for low-income seniors.
But it's the details of the latest proposed development that have driven a deep wedge in the community — a split that was on full display during Wednesday's packed and emotional meeting of the Planning and Transportation Commission. In the end, the commission voted 4-1, with Alex Panelli dissenting and Arthur Keller and Greg Tanaka absent, to recommend a zone change for the controversial project.
The proposal by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing throughout the city, includes a 60-unit building for low-income seniors and 15 single-family homes at 567 Maybell Ave. The former orchard currently includes four houses, which would be demolished.
To build the project, the Housing Corporation needs the city to rezone the site to "planned community," which would allow greater density in exchange for "public benefits." In this case, the main benefit is the project itself — affordable housing in a city in short supply. It was this benefit that prompted city staff to recommend the zone change, which the planning commission first considered in March.
"We strongly believe that regardless of our regional housing requirement or anything else, all that aside, that the city does need to provide opportunities for affordable housing, particularly for low-income seniors," Planning Director Curtis Williams told the commission.
Land for affordable housing in Palo Alto is "precious," Williams said. There simply aren't many vacant lots out there, particularly with residential zoning that would allow a senior complex.
"It's hard to find any sites for affordable housing," he said.
The commission was far less emphatic, particularly after hearing from dozens of residents who argued that the new development would worsen traffic congestion and endanger school-bound children. During two-and-a-half hours of public comments, often punctuated by applause from spectators, one resident after another warned that the neighborhood's roads cannot accommodate a major housing project and that the city's traffic analysis of the project severely understates the expected amount of new traffic and its danger to kids walking and biking to school.
Commissioners agreed with the residents that traffic around Maybell is an important problem that needs to be addressed. But the Maybell project didn't cause the current situation, commissioners reasoned, and isn't expected to exacerbate it.
Commissioner Michael Alcheck observed that more residents attended Wednesday's meeting than had attended all prior meetings throughout the year combined. Vice Chair Mark Michael called the public participation "of historic magnitude."
Many of the speakers represented larger groups. Kevin Hauck, speaking for some residents, said the street is already too narrow and that stop signs routinely get mowed down.
"The thing that's most maddening is that we're forced to play defense about concerns that our kids are going to be in a very dangerous situation every morning and afternoon," Hauk said.
The commission also heard from plenty of supporters of the Maybell project, many of whom wore green stickers imprinted with the words "Yes on Maybell." These included affordable-housing advocates and residents who agreed with staff's and Housing Corporation's contention that seniors drive far less often than other types of residents and that most of their driving occurs outside of commute hours.
Marlene Prendergast, a Palo Alto resident and former executive director of the Housing Corporation, said it's not uncommon for residents to oppose the agency's proposed housing projects, which end up having no negative consequences and being largely unnoticed.
"Each time we went through this, and each time we made it through, and now there are no problems," Prendergast said, recalling her experience in development.
But others contended that this is not a NIMBY issue — it's about traffic. Maurice Green, a Barron Park resident, showed the planning commission a video of traffic in the area of Maybell and Clemo avenues — a trail of cars moved slowly, with groups of bicyclists more quickly navigating down the road to the right of the cars.
"The question we're raising is: Is this the right project and is this the right place?" Green asked. "Seniors may not drive very much, even during morning hours, but what about their caretakers, the staff that comes to the senior housing project to take care of them?"
Another area resident, John Elman, bemoaned the lack of grocery stores and other nearby amenities and wondered aloud how the seniors would get around the area, given the congestion.
The lack of amenities was a major driver for Panelli's dissenting vote. The site, he said, isn't truly transit-oriented, despite its proximity to El Camino Real. He said he doesn't consider the amenities in the area sufficient to satisfy the needs of most seniors.
The Wednesday discussion further illustrates the challenge Palo Alto is facing in its effort to bolster its stock of affordable housing. The city is under a regional mandate to plan for 2,860 units of housing in the planning period of 2007-14. To help meet the mandate, staff had recommended including the Maybell project in the city's Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lays out the city's housing vision and identifies potential housing sites.
On Monday, with the City Council set to approve the Housing Element, staff recommended deferring the approval after a torrent of criticism from residents, many of whom argued that including the Maybell project in the document would essentially render the development a fait accompli. The fact that the council has already loaned the Housing Corporation more than $5 million to purchase the Maybell land only added to the residents' frustration about the process.
Joseph Hirsch, a resident and former planning commissioner, said there were numerous reasons to oppose the project, but NIMBYism wasn't one of them.
"This should not be characterized as 'neighborhood versus affordable housing.' We have plenty of affordable housing here. ... What I object to is the scale and intensity of the project, and the appearance that it is already politically a done deal, notwithstanding what the neighborhood feels," Hirsch said.
Under the existing zoning, the Maybell site could already be redeveloped as up to 34 houses. Planning commissioners agreed Wednesday that the proposal by the Housing Corporation, because of its focus on low-income seniors, would actually have a much smaller impact than a potential future project that would comply with the underlying zoning. Alcheck, who made the motion to recommend the zone change, said 30 three-bedroom homes at the site would create far more traffic without accomplishing the laudable goal of adding senior housing.
The traffic analysis for the development estimated an increase of just 16 car trips during the peak morning hour and 21 car trips during the afternoon commute.
Michael called the decision complex, noting that it pits an important community need against reasonable concerns about traffic safety. The city has plenty of work to do on the latter issue, Michael said. But given that the area will likely be developed anyway and that change is, to some extent, "inevitable," the city doesn't have any "feasible alternatives" to the proposal on the table.
"Here I'm convinced that the need for housing, the need for affordable housing, the need for senior housing, is a significant public benefit," Michael said.
Martinez voiced a similar sentiment earlier in the meeting, when he argued that the city needs to "brainstorm this and really come up with good solutions to reduce the traffic and make it safer."
But, he quickly added, "Let's not lose sight of the fact that this is a community that needs housing like this."
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by Elaine D.,
a resident of Barron Park
on May 23, 2013 at 9:43 pm
At the meeting of the Planning & Transportation Commission meeting last night, the commissioners voted 5-1 in favor to recommend to City Council the rezoning of 567-596 Maybell Avenue to allow for the development of 15 single-family homes and 60 low-income senior housing units by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation (PAHC) as developer.
For over two hours, 61 speakers took to the mike to voice their concerns about the serious and significant traffic safety issues in this neighborhood. One refrain came through over and over: Maybell is unsafe for bikes, pedestrians, and motorists. We have reached a crucial tipping point, and this project will put us right over the edge. The increase in traffic is largely due to the Arastradero re-striping/"calming" project that drove traffic away from Arastradero and directly into our neighborhood, thus negatively and seriously impacting our once-peaceful and safe side streets. The City Staff and PAHC argued that the development would only result in an increase of 1 additional car per hour per day ("trip rate") on Maybell.
Kevin spoke on behalf of 5 residents to question Hexagon's traffic study (hired by PAHC to conduct a traffic impact study of the proposed development), which he contended was based on deeply and fatally flawed data, such as data from two years ago, data during school Spring Break when volume is obviously low, and smoothed data showing "trip rates" over the course of an hour, when in reality, traffic in the area occurs in erratic bursts. He further challenged the City's conflict-of-interest position, as the City made a ~$5M loan to finance the acquisition of this property by PAHC in the fall of 2012. He argued that, as a result, the City did not have the impartial and independent ability to make neutral decision about this matter: here, the developer gets to write their own permits in this matter.
Dr. Maurice Green showed us an incredibly impactful video of the congested traffic at Maybell and Clemo during peak hours. The video demonstrated that Maybell is unsafely congested with a barrage of bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists sharing the road with traffic flowing in unsafe and scary "bursts." It also showed student bicyclists routinely ignoring traffic stops, forcing cars to ignore the rules of the road to accommodate them so no one gets hit. Dr. Green also showed photos of the enormous car transportation trucks that sometimes park on BOTH sides of Maybell to on/off-load vehicles from the Volvo dealership at Maybell and Thain effectively barricading the entire access way, and making the route for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists nearly impossible to pass, except by dangerous means - through the very middle of the road.
The video showing the blockage at Maybell and Thain also provided a clear demonstration of a broken promise made by the City in earlier times when they first approached Barron Park and Green Acres residents regarding the installation of car dealerships on the corner of El Camino and Arastradero. Other speakers informed us about the long string of broken promises to Barron Park residents over the years made by the City from the redevelopment of Hyatt Rickey's to the "calming" of the Arastradero re-striping project.
Debi S. poignantly told us about how she has to drive her kids to school despite living five blocks away, as the neighborhood roads are not safe, especially with no sidewalks. She told of recent accident of a car flipping over (and carrying a mother and two children) due to another reckless driver speeding through the neighborhood as a cut-through. Her story, along with many others who spoke to cut-through traffic the repeated mowing down of stop signs on Maybell, directly challenged and negated the very narrow claims made by Hexagon, the private traffic consultant hired by PAHC, that they found there had been no accidents in several years on Maybell.
A representative of the Barron Park Association spoke comprehensively about the incompatibility of the project with the character of the neighborhood, cut-through traffic and overflow-parking issues, lack of public benefit, and PC zoning. She also effectively poked holes in the comparisons made by PAHC to other projects in the neighborhood with respect to density: the adjacent Arastradero Park Apartments (APA) project has 65 housing units on over 3 acres, the Tan Plaza has 61 over 3 acres, but this proposed project (which PAHC claimed was very similar to these existing projects) provided for 65 housing units and 15 single-family homes on 1-2 acres of land over 4 times the density allowed with the current zoning. Furthermore, parking spaces allotted are clearly inadequate, and the APA project clearly doesn't have enough parking. This results in more parked cars on Maybell, and less safe access for pedestrians and bicyclists. PAHC's proposed mitigation of "no parking" would only result in increased parking in the side streets, and decreased access for pedestrians and bicyclists on those streets. She called for the project to be more appropriately reduced to half the density and size in order to adequately address all these concerns.
Some of us wanted more information and transparency: Why weren't we told, or why were we told in the 11th hour? Why this location? Why this density? Why not the El Camino corridor (which is obviously underdeveloped with blocks of empty buildings)? Why the need for high-density when there are low-income senior housing projects nearby that have had ongoing, unfilled vacancies?
Many of us strongly emphasized that our residents are not against low-income housing, and are not against senior housing, but we are against unreasonable and irresponsible high-density housing that makes existing unsafe traffic conditions much worse. We implored the commissioners to vote against the rezoning and keep the existing rezoning. We asked them to compel PAHC and the City to consider other feasible alternatives such as (or to show us they had considered other alternatives): the identification of other locations/sites, reduction in density and height of the proposed project, and more effective mitigations and improvements (bike paths and sidewalks).
Despite the concerns presented, the commissioners felt that the decision before them was not between the existing zoning and status of the land as four single-family homes and this project; but between this project and other potential development projects. They contended that under the existing zoning, PAHC or another private developer could "by right" with no review from the Planning and Transportation Commission or public input develop up to 34 3-bedroom family housing units with 7 residents in each unit (impact = 238 residents) versus the current project of 60 1-bedroom housing units with 15 single family homes (impact = 120-180 residents).
The commissioners all agreed, however, that traffic and safety is a serious and significant concern in this neighborhood of which they were not fully aware until last night. They also rebuked the City Staff and PAHC for failing to adequately acknowledge and take into account the daily, lived realities of traffic and safety for residents in this neighborhood.
In the end, the commissioners seemed to feel they had no choice but to choose the lesser of all possible evils. The Chair of the Commission, however, firmly spoke to the City Staff and PAHC that "public benefit" is not just about affordable housing, seniors' needs, and impersonal data on "perception of impact" true public benefit does not mean positive benefit for some in exchange for the negative benefit of many. True public benefit must include positive public benefits for all impacted and a small piece of sidewalk or a commemorative plaque are vastly inadequate for addressing real traffic safety concerns in this impacted neighborhood.
They didn't ask us to join the dance until they played the last song but this is not the end: OUR WORK IS NOT OVER.
We can still take action by appealing to the final decision-makers, the City Council, to deny the project or adjust the project to reduce scale and density, require additional neighborhood-wide impact studies, and/or provide for additional mitigations and improvement in the proposed plan. Web Link
We can still take action on making sure the "friendly amendment" (PAHC and City must work together to provide contiguous sidewalks on Maybell extending from Clemo and maybe even Coulombe to El Camino) is properly implemented and enforced.
We can still take action on the traffic effects of the Arastradero restriping/"calming" project.
We can still take action to ensure safe-to-school bike paths and common-sense sidewalks throughout the neighborhood for our children and our residents.
We can still take action when the construction trucks start rolling into our neighborhood.
It will take patience. It will take persistence. Most of all, it will take GRIT. And we all showed last night that we have it. We have to keep working so the City continues to hear us, continues to see us, and does everything it needs to do to make sure we have SAFE ROADS in our neighborhood for our children and our residents.
WE WON'T ACCEPT ANYTHING LESS.
Posted by a neighbor,
a resident of Green Acres
on May 27, 2013 at 2:55 pm
Palo Alto should provide low-income housing because this area is so expensive, it's impossible for many people to work and live here at the same time. Many of those jobs we need locally, and it's better for everyone if they can live near their jobs.
That said, this project is for seniors who won't be working, according to PAHC. PAHC has actually been kind of cagey about who would live there, even inconsistent with their answers. (First they're working when they want to make a point about them being in the community, then they're not when they want to claim they won't add to traffic.)
In the past, when PAHC has just assumed if they build it, it will fill the endless need, they've ended up with vacancies in a number of places, Abitair, the Redwoods, and most recently 20 unfilled spaces in a senior center (Moldaw). In addition to the cost issues at Moldaw, there are apparently some issues with lack of nearby elevators for people with mobility problems (from what I've heard) -- people who need low income housing do actually have to assess whether they can live in a given place, and drawbacks (like the elevators) could cause people to choose other alternatives, including moving away for affordability when they retire, something virtually everyone considers at a certain age, regardless of where they live (not just Palo Alto or California). In the case of this development, there are no nearby services or resources seniors need, not medical, grocery, etc. It's not really on a transit corridor, as the Commissioner said.
Palo Alto is an expensive place for everyone to live. Most seniors living here are long-time residents who stay in their homes -- many of them on fixed incomes, as the homes ARE affordable housing despite the value, just by virtue of the tax structure. So, such a project wouldn't be serving seniors in the neighborhood, or across much of Palo Alto, who wouldn't qualify if they sold their homes. The development is not a homeless shelter, people who qualify are supposed to live or work in Palo Alto, the homeless would not be eligible.
What about seniors who have needed the affordable housing all along? If so, they've had decades to work their way through PAHC waiting lines and already live in PAHC affordable housing. Or by the time they're that age, they've found alternatives.
Like most people, we've scrapped for our housing over the years, living in our share of substandard conditions in other communities and commuting. We have always assumed if we got to retirement age and couldn't afford to live here, we would move away to somewhere more affordable. That's what people typically do, everywhere across the nation. It's what many of our friends locally have done. It's what our own parents have done after they retired. Move somewhere more affordable after retirement. So why are we spending millions to provide affordable housing for retirees in Palo Alto, which would be horrendously expensive despite housing assistance, and in that location, not near any services or necessities?
PAHC representatives have themselves admitted that the underlying driver here is to push through what they can, because designating it for seniors would be easier politically in an area with schools, not because the project does the best job meeting the needs.
The vacancies over the years at PAHC facilities have been acknowledged to be in part about desirability. This project is a problem for seniors, in that the constraints of the financing have been driving the design, not the actual need, and not the accessibility of nearby necessities. And there are traffic and safety issues the neighborhood is really up in arms about, that were a problem before this proposal and will affect the residents as well. PAHC has compared traffic numbers with other local senior communities that have nearby amenities, including grocery, library, etc., just across the street, they frankly don't have any comparable experience with facilities anyone was dumb enough to build so far away from anything residents need.
PAHC has 20 senior spots at Moldaw that have gone unfilled for 3 years. In the past, they've had to actually advertise units that went unfilled so long to the general public. And they end up filling a substantial portion of their units with people from other communities. For younger workers, this makes sense, because there's a rationale for making affordable housing available to people who work in Palo Alto. But building something so controversial, in such an unsuitable location, with many drawbacks for seniors (and the neighborhood) -- it could very well end up being an expensive subsidy for people from surrounding communities to finally get to move to Palo Alto. Is that how we want to spend our tax dollars? Should we really be compromising our kids' safety over such a dubious thing? (School transit corridors are supposed to be accorded a higher level of scrutiny anyway, which has not happened, so keen is everyone to cry "NIMBY" they can get away with prioritizing this project over the safety of local children.)
I think PAHC really should be working on filling those 20 spots at Moldaw first, and understanding the needs and wants of that segment first before pursuing a huge project like this with so many drawbacks. In fact, there should be a lot more soul searching at the City level before we decide it's a priority to privilege the retirement of a few people in Palo Alto over the majority of long-time residents who could never make that choice, even if they don't need affordable housing now. This has proceeded because PAHC CAN do this, because they've found their boilerplate NIMBYism arguments work like kryptonite in this community and they don't have to ever answer for the merits of any given project, not because it's the best way to answer a clear problem.
Someone who is very good at it is burnishing their professional credentials, at the expense of safety and common sense. The City Council should never have put themselves in such a compromised position that they can't decide on this project objectively.