Palo Alto Weekly
News - June 7, 2013
Showdown looms over senior housing
Housing advocates, neighborhood residents clash over proposal for former orchard site
by Gennady Sheyner
After two emotional public meetings, Palo Alto officials are preparing to make a major ruling Monday on a development that has stirred anxieties and stoked anger around south Palo Alto — a project that includes 60 senior-housing units and 15 single-family homes near the intersection of Maybell and Clemo avenues.
The City Council will consider approving a zone change that would allow the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing Corporation to build the project at a former orchard site at 567 Mayfield Ave. If the council approves the change to a "planned community" zone, the Housing Corporation would be able to develop the site at a much higher density than the underlying zoning would otherwise allow.
In exchange for the zone change, developers typically provide "public benefits" that they negotiate with the council. In this case, the main benefit is the project itself, which addresses one of Palo Alto's most glaring housing needs by providing 60 units for low-income seniors. To underscore that urgent demand for affordable housing, the city had already loaned the Housing Corporation $5.8 million to purchase the Maybell site.
"About 20 percent of seniors are living around the poverty level or slightly above it. This would be a significant contribution toward that population," city planner Tim Wong told the Planning and Transportation on May 22.
But even with the benefit of more senior housing, the proposal has stoked anger among local residents, with hundreds attending recent public hearings on the project and bombarding the council with letters and emails. A new staff report on the project includes as an attachment a stack of letters more than an inch thick, with a sizable majority opposing the zone change.
Most critics cite traffic concerns and argue that the corridor in the school-heavy section of town cannot accommodate any more cars on the road. Lydia Kou, a Barron Park resident speaking on behalf of her neighborhood association, told the planning commission last month that the location is not suitable for a high-density development and recommended the city reject the zone change. Georgia Avenue resident Robert Hessen alluded to the "flotilla of kids on bicycles" who use Maybell to get to Gunn High and other area schools and argued that adding more traffic to the area is a recipe for disaster.
"Unless that area is carefully policed, there's going to be a fatality, and we're going to have hundreds and hundreds of people wearing black armbands," Hessen said.
Others have argued that the neighborhood doesn't have enough amenities to accommodate seniors. Then there's the issue of the city's loan, which many residents view as a sure sign that the process is rigged and that the project's approval is essentially a done deal.
But from the standpoint of city staff, these concerns are overstated and, in some cases, misguided. In a new report, staff notes that the area already includes several major senior-housing complexes, including one managed by the Housing Corporation that would be next to the proposed Maybell development. The traffic impacts, staff states, would be minimal. A traffic analysis, which many residents have dismissed as inadequate but which staff insists is accurate, indicates the project would generate just 16 new car trips during the peak morning hour and 16 during the afternoon commute. Jessica de Wit, project manager with the Housing Corporation, said Wednesday that most seniors at these complexes don't work and drive only in off-peak times.
The planning commission, which considered both sides of the argument and heard from dozens of speakers during its review, voted 4-1, with Alex Panelli dissenting and Arthur Keller and Greg Tanaka absent, to support the zone change. Several commissioners, including Michael Alcheck, noted that the property will be redeveloped anyway and that underlying zoning can already accommodate 34 single-family homes. The traffic from such a development could be far worse than that of a senior-family complex, he said.
Some residents have also spoken out in support of the project. Nina Haletky, resident of the nearby Arastradero Park Apartments, wrote in a letter to the city that she expects the Maybell project would benefit both seniors and the larger community.
"In an area like Palo Alto, where wealth is abundant, there is a danger of exclusivity and the rising cost of housing and gentrification have made it difficult for many different types of people to live here," Haletky wrote.
The new report by planning staff makes a similar point and notes that "a large percentage of seniors live at or below the poverty line."
"During the recent economic decline, a number of seniors have lost their retirement savings, creating even a greater number of seniors on a limited income," the report states.
While staff is recommending approval of the new development, it is also acknowledging in its report that the area around Maybell and Clemo needs to be made safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. The report states that traffic issues on Maybell currently exist and that staff had been exploring safety improvements even before the Housing Corporation filed its application.
Possible changes include giving Maybell Avenue a "bike boulevard" feel, with green pavement markings to indicate where a bike lane becomes a "shared bikeway"; restricting parking on one side of the street; and traffic-calming features such as enhanced crosswalks and bulbouts at various intersections. The Transportation Division has already hired a consultant to review and work with the community on these potential improvements, according to the report.
"Aside from the Maybell Avenue improvements required by the developer as condition of approval, the city has acknowledged, well in advance of this project, issues of traffic and school safety in the immediate area and is initiating its own improvements on Maybell Avenue and nearby," the report states.
TALK ABOUT IT
Do you support the senior-housing project? Share your opinion on Town Square, the online community forum at www.PaloAltoOnline.com.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at email@example.com.
Posted by Long-time resident,
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 9, 2013 at 10:03 pm
I want to correct a serious misrepresentation by those trying to push through this development at Maybell.
The neighbors in Greenacres and Barron Park opposed to the rezoning of Maybell are NOT opposed to senior housing. We're not opposed to low-income housing. We're not even opposed to having a low-income senior housing development in that spot, in our neighborhood.
What we are opposed to, and have always been opposed to, is the size and scale of the project, and the fact that PAHC has threatened to make it all-or-nothing unless they can rezone part of the property on Maybell and Clemo, residential streets with 4 perfectly good ranch houses there now, and sell the rezoned property to a for-profit developer for his benefit to put 15 tall, skinny 3-story houses with almost no setback, and completely out of scale with the residential neighborhood, on Maybell, a pastoral neighborhood by Juana Briones Park with mostly ranch homes.
The neighborhood has been asking all along for the following important compromises:
1) Build the houses on Maybell/Clemo within existing zoning. This is a residential neighborhood, and those tall 3-story houses are completely out of character with a pastoral neighborhood of mostly ranch homes. The market-rate developer would be taking advantage of the rezoning for the benefit of his own profit, that's not a good reason to rezone.
2) Build the senior development within the existing zoning. The existing zoning would allow 40 units with a density bonus. If the other 20 spaces are needed, as of last month, there were 20 senior BMR units at Moldaw that had gone unfilled for 3 years. With the publicity from this rezoning controversy, PAHC seems to have filled 8 of those, and the City is finally renegotiating the terms to make the rest attainable for PAHC's actual clientele. Such a compromise would make the scale of the Maybell senior project more appropriate for the neighborhood, and provide just as many low-income senior units as was originally proposed.
3) Regardless, the City must conduct a good quality traffic study before rezoning. Their own consultant admitted their study did not include the impact on the bicycles and pedestrians, nor traffic from the last 2 years or future developments in the pipeline. The proposed development can ONLY outlet onto two safe routes to school, Arastradero and Maybell, traveled by over a thousand children on foot and bike every school day. Because of the schools, peak travel times happen throughout the day, not just rush hour. Updated data show their projected number of trips per day are far too low. (See the professional review of the traffic study, linked to on www.paloaltoville.com ) In addition, Arastradero is an important east-west corridor, and the new Vmware campus will double the business traffic. The City's study didn't include traffic patterns of the last two years, the bicyclists and pedestrians, or any future developments already planned.
The neighborhood would actually prefer for PAHC to build a senior complex within existing zoning to a market-rate development.* PAHC planners are threatening if they don't get their way in rezoning to put this completely out-of-scale proposal in this residential neighborhood, they won't build the project at all, as a way of getting housing proponents on their side against the neighborhoods.
This claim is completely untrue. The financing scheme, where they sell off a portion of the land to a market-rate developer and promise to rezone it so the developer can maximize his profits it's not essential to the low-income development. There are other developers who would be able to renovate those 4 existing ranch houses and put a house or two on Clemo, and make them almost as much money. What the existing proposal does is make the low-income development cheaper per unit, which is great, except that in doing so, they are making the neighborhood pay for it, rather than the City accepting the actual cost.
If the City wants affordable housing, the City should be willing to pay the cost of it, not ask a residential neighborhood to bear the cost. The City paid the full cost of the units at the new development on Alma near University, they should do so at Maybell, too. At the new Alma development downtown they could have, too, peeled off 20% of the land and allowed a developer to put up a for-profit high-rise of 15- to 18-stories high (whatever 3 times the scale of the neighborhood is) for the market-rate developer's benefit, in order to finance the rest of the project. Anyone could see that would be ridiculous. Yet if they rezone Maybell to allow this, they would be allowing the equivalent of that in the middle of our residential neighborhood.
The neighbors would actually support PAHC to ask the City to pay the cost of the complex rather than putting the cost onto the neighborhood, but so far attempts by people in the neighborhood to offer compromises have been rejected because of the above financing scheme.
Please reject the financing scheme and the rezoning. It's bad for the neighborhood, and a bad precedent for Palo Alto. PAHC owns that property, if they don't get the rezoning, it's not the end for putting a senior complex there. They can work with the City and come back with a proposal that fits the neighborhood, where they've done a proper traffic study, and they won't see any of this opposition from the neighborhood (opposition that will continue if they rezone).
I'm personally for a low-traffic use of that site, to convert it to a community orchard with the Julia Morgan building relocated there from 27 University (John Arrillaga will move it there at his expense). Senior housing would be better as part of the 27 University public benefit, because that location is so walkable and adjacent to everything seniors need. But my next favorite option is to have a senior development at Maybell, within the existing zoning, and would support it. Most of my neighbors feel the same way. I very much doubt the above posters are from Greenacres -- more likely proponents trying to characterize the neighborhood negatively to get their way.
*The City's claims about what a market developer would build there are exaggerated using setbacks within the existing zoning, it would mean homes of less than 1400 sq ft (confirmed by Tim Wong), which no developer would do at that location because larger homes are far more desirable with higher resale per sq ft.