Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 8, 2013

On Deadline: Palo Alto's Maybell senior-housing rejection will have lasting reverberations

by Jay Thorwaldson

The trouncing by voters this week of Measure D, the Maybell Avenue senior-housing proposal, will almost certainly reverberate throughout Palo Alto's political spectrum, probably for years.

Some observers are already comparing the defeat of the 60 units of low-income senior housing and 12 market-rate homes that would help fund it to the 1963 "Oregon Expressway" citywide vote.

That is an unlikely sounding link on the surface, especially since voters narrowly approved the expressway to replace the traffic-clogged two-lane Oregon Avenue.

But the two elections have much in common. The main commonality is that they served to coalesce and unify neighborhood-level pockets of concern and resistance to what to many seemed to be out-of-control growth spurred and dominated by developers.

The fact that the Maybell project was promoted by the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing Corporation seemed to get lost in the angry pre-election exchanges. Or rather it was deemed irrelevant to the bigger issue of out-of-scale developments in other areas of town.

Among the hottest of those other neighborhoods are the residential areas flanking the downtown Palo Alto and California Avenue commercial areas — where overflow parking by employees of businesses has spilled further and further into the neighborhoods, saturating curbside parking.

There are other areas where developments have generated local concern and opposition.

But none of those seemed to catch fire as a citywide issue the way the Maybell plan did. And none developed the intensity of feeling that turned into name-calling and questioning of motives.

The larger, longer-lasting outcome of the Oregon Expressway vote was that a crop of community activist leaders emerged to take on the "establishment-dominated" City Council, then at 13 members in a size-reduction program from 15 on the way to the present nine members.

By 1965, boosted by an initiative to dedicate all city parks and parklands, the slow-growth "residentialist" faction of the council had grown to six members.

Last July I posted a blog on the Palo Alto Weekly's www.PaloAltoOnline.com raising the question of whether the neighborhood-level concerns might coalesce into a citywide revolt against decades of city policies and decisions that have exacerbated traffic and parking problems. (See http://tinyurl.com/mko3ybj.)

The Maybell vote bolsters that probability. Longtime community critic/watchdog Bob Moss teamed up with former planning commissioner Joe Hirsch and some relative newcomers to citywide politics to conduct a high-energy successful No on D campaign.

The size of the defeat caught a number of council veterans and observers completely by surprise. Was it a vote against low-income housing for seniors, or low-income housing in general?

Few are interpreting it that way, so far. But for some voters it may well have been.

The goodness of the cause simply did not have the sway over the concerns about overdevelopment and loss of faith in city planning and approval processes to regulate development appropriately.

The overwhelming rejection of D was more the result of a high-energy campaign that framed the issue as a citywide stand against excessive development, traffic and parking impacts of increased intensity.

Years of approval of "planned community" (PC) projects that exceeded zoning limits and then forgetting to enforce so-called "public benefits" promised by the project developers has undermined confidence in the entire planning process.

A number of persons are calling for a moratorium on new PC zones until a full review and revision of policies and guidelines for such zoning are developed to replace the current "negotiation" model for the zone.

Reestablishing confidence in zoning will be a major challenge for the city's new planning director, Hillary E. Gitelman, former director of planning, building and environmental services for Napa County, who took office this month.

But the questions really are: Can confidence be rebuilt? Or will the anti-growth concerns re-energized by Measure D dominate the political and community field?

Part of the answer will be in the collective lap of the City Council members, who unanimously supported the Maybell project, and who clouded the approval with an earlier loan to the Housing Corporation to enable it to buy the site for the project.

The fact that this council is made up of nine mostly independent thinkers could make a cohesive city response more difficult to arrive at. There are strengths in independent thinking, especially as opposed to a voting-bloc split council as in past years. But Ben Franklin's adage about not watching sausage or policies (he said laws) being made may come into play sooner than later at City Hall.

Can the city come up with a cohesive response at all, one might ask?

Measure D opponents successfully framed the issue in a simple yet compelling matrix of overdevelopment out of scale with the neighborhood, and linked it to other developments around the city, both past and proposed.

What easily understood answer to that perception can city leaders formulate? Clearly, "we need more affordable housing" didn't fill the bill this time around. And the undermined perception of the city's zoning policies and approval procedures makes it hard to rally support.

The irony, of course, is that a vast majority of residents, as shown by polls over many years, absolutely love Palo Alto, its schools, its climate, its quality of life. It is rated one of the best places to live in America, and city services consistently get high marks.

Its well-to-do liberality shows up in strong volunteerism and financial support for nonprofit social-service agencies across the board. Its support for open space in the foothills and baylands is a huge factor in that — even though saving the hills and baylands has exacerbated a jobs-housing imbalance that has made real estate and housing costs soar over the past four decades.

Bridging the perceptual gap between loving Palo Alto and fearing for its future may well be an impossible dream, a bridge too far for community leaders who still seem in some denial about the depth of concern out there in the neighborhoods.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

Comments

Posted by Greenacres, a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 8, 2013 at 4:24 pm

"The size of the defeat caught a number of council veterans and observers completely by surprise. Was it a vote against low-income housing for seniors, or low-income housing in general?"

Oh? Many of us tried to warn them that there was a lot of opposition, that they were waking a sleeping giant, etc., but they absolutely would not believe it. The justifications coming out of their mouths would have been laughable except that so many amounted to denigrating comments about the neighborhood and attacks on the motivations of people in the neighborhood.

Actually, I believe it would have been an even more convincing defeat, if the ballot had been impartial. It's too bad they won't get THAT message! In San Francisco, a far more liberal city, they had Measure C, conceptually identical to Measure D: a referendum to overturn a City ordinance allowing a big developer giveaway sugar-coated with some affordable housing. Citizens referended, the City put it to vote and shilled for the developers just like here (we all saw the ads with Gavin Newsom and Ed Lee). Yet citizens rejected Measure C by almost 67% against.

They had more ads, more money, and arguably more benefit to affordable housing, and definitely a more liberal city. Why did those measures go down to even greater defeat?

Because they have a system that ensures both sides are represented in the ballot. Their system differs from ours in two important ways:

1) In Palo Alto, the City Attorney gets to write the ballot analysis and ballot question, and it was tremendously leading. In SF, the analysis and question are written in a public process by an impartial committee from the communications community that takes input from both sides.

2) In Palo Alto, only one argument for and against are allowed, and there's a pecking order for who from the community gets theirs in. In San Francisco, anyone can write and publish an argument, though I assume they also have a pecking order as their committee isn't called the Ballot Simplification Committee for nothing.

3) In San Francisco, their ballot committee has a responsibility to describe
The way it is now
What will happen in either event
What it will cost (ever notice we saw no numbers on ours for what it would cost?)

Compare the language of the 2 ballot questions:
San Francisco: Shall the City ordinance increasing legal building height limits on an approximately half-acre portion of the 8 Washington Street Site along Drumm Street take effect?

Palo Alto: Shall the Palo Alto Municipal Code be amended to rezone the property located at 567-595 Maybell Avenue from R-2 Low Density Residential and RM-15 Multiple Family Residential to Planned Community Overlay Zone to include 12 single family units and 60 units of affordable senior housing?

You can see the difference. In our election, the City Attorney wouldn't even change the wording to say "RM-15 Low Density Multiple Family Residential" even though that's the name of the zoning in the city code.

They've been doing it that way in SF for 30 years. I have heard opinions from people who live in SF but work in PA that PA would be even more suited to such a system, because we have such an intelligent population.

I believe if the ballot had not been written to be so misleading, the election would probably have been closer to the 67%-33% split in San Francisco in nearly identical (conceptually) Measures.


Posted by Greenacres, a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 8, 2013 at 4:31 pm

P.S.
This is a great essay and spot-on perspective, but nowhere in this have you remembered that this was indeed about Maybell for most of the people who fought so hard for it. The people who live here know just how serious a safety problem we have on Maybell, which predated the rezoning. For the City to come in and tell us there would be no impact but they weren't going to do a trustworthy traffic analysis or do their duty under City policy to provide extra scrutiny of developments on school commute corridors -- it was a lot easier and less expensive for them to do that than an election, so why wouldn't they? Those who live here can see with our own eyes: given all the development the council has approved all around us and the limits of the infrastructure, that's a wholly inappropriate place to put a dense development of any kind. There were many reasons not to like the rezoning ordinance, but that one motivated many of us the most. But it became clear that it's not an easy thing to explain to other people who have never experienced it. So we emphasized the others reasons, even though for many of us, safety was underlying driver. This is, after all, a school town.


Posted by Bru, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 8, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Bru is a registered user.

Nice comment and argument Greenacres.

This whole thing makes me wonder if we go see who gets housing subsidies in Palo Alto ... how many of them have connections to the City Government, Lawyers, Contractors, etc?


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 8, 2013 at 9:28 pm

>The size of the defeat caught a number of council veterans and observers completely by surprise. Was it a vote against low-income housing for seniors, or low-income housing in general?

Few are interpreting it that way, so far. But for some voters it may well have been.

Jay, you have no idea, since you don't have an inside knowledge of the motives of the voters. You seem to be listening to those political insiders that you are comfortable with. Until major neighborhood issues are decided by secret vote, you have no idea, whatsoever, what you are talking about.

[Portion removed.]


Posted by sickofinsultingrhetoric, a resident of another community
on Nov 8, 2013 at 9:34 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 8, 2013 at 10:20 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by Garrett , a resident of another community
on Nov 9, 2013 at 9:26 am

That planned waterfront housing in the city, supported by me, we do need wealthy housing along affordable housing. In general the bay area is slowly become affordable expect if you are a top earner. Not everyone is a top earners or riding high on the tech band wagon.

More millionaires from Twitter and 2 billionaires, nothing against making money but not everyone will make this amount in their lifetime.

We keep talking about teachers, police and firefighters. I am thinking about non government works who chose to work in profession that has nothing to do with tech, IPOs, financial, lawyers or hedge fund managers. Last one I threw in for sarcasm.


Posted by marty, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2013 at 9:41 am

It is unfortunate that seniors, who are most deserving of accommodation by zoning, have been the victims of the bad decisions made by Planning commissions and City council.
I believe the wider community was so fed up with the way things get approved, they went after the next project that changed zoning, deserving or not. The immediate community did have some concerns about how this project would affect them and while I believe they were wrong in their estimation of how this project would impact us, the resonance with the wider community over the issue of zoning, which has been handled very poorly with the whiff of corruption or favoritism, caused this worthy project to go down. If the land is sold, and developed to it's present allowable zoning, the site traffic would have a larger impact than objected to, but the feeling of resentment and a legacy of bad decisions by planning mover the last decade has come to this. Palo Alto needs to round out our community with affordable senior, family, and workforce housing. We don't need more PUDs unless they address those issues.
Despite the rational for the defeat, is shameful on some level that a worthy project and worthy idea could not be built here. From the outside it would seem like saturating market rate developments (so called transit hub as an example) are ok, but projects that reveal Palo Alto as a caring community are rejected. To those that say we have enough of those projects, as a percentage of our population, it is a disproportionately small number being served.
Sad values we are teaching our children and modeling.


Posted by Defeater, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2013 at 12:11 pm

May the defeat of measure D have lasting reverberations, Hurrah!


Posted by Greenacres, a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 10, 2013 at 1:37 pm

@ marty,
"The immediate community did have some concerns about how this project would affect them and while I believe they were wrong in their estimation"

And that's how this ended up here, because those who live here are NOT wrong in their estimation, they can see what's going on here with their own eyes. But they kept asking the City to stop guessing and provide a trustworthy traffic analysis -- at which point we could at least have been arguing facts. If you look at the precinct results, those closest were almost 80% against the rezoning, even though immediately adjacent there is a large PAHC property and an apartment.

Over the past year, the amount of effort literally hundreds of neighborhood volunteers put into this could not have happened if the underlying safety issues had not been so apparent and tangible to those living here. And those same motivations are already driving them forward to ensure a more impactful market-rate development does not go there. If the City Council is so certain that's what would be built there, then given the disclosure (including their own statements) of the past months, they have a duty to prevent it. Since they have first right of refusal should PAHC decide to sell as Candace Gonzales has indicated, they should use the Stanford funds to temporarily hold the property while a working group establishes the best way forward.

The neighbors still have recourse to fight a bad market-rate plan, too, but if the City Council hears nothing else now, perhaps they will clue in to the very loud sound of people on this side of town sharpening their political knives after what we were just put through, as an incentive to reach out and work together, rather than acting in what would be perceived as retaliatory even to the point of compromising safety.

I'm not sure why you think that's such a great site for senior apartments - because trees rather than a delapidated building have to be torn down to build something? They acquired the site because it came up for sale and they wanted it, not because they had assessed the need among Palo Alto seniors, made rough plans for how to meet it, and then engaged in a search for property, armed with $15 million in public funds.

I know for a fact that the City is who directed PAHC to go after that site (straight from the mouth of someone at PAHC), I think because they wanted to maneuver a way to develop it without people screaming bloody murder about the trees -- recall the flak they took after the fewer, less grand, less established, and less well-situated trees on California Avenue were cut down. How else could they get people to overlook the cutting down of 100 established trees on a piece of property adjacent to an existing park no less? The last piece of apricot orchard in Palo Alto, when adjacent communities have preserved theirs?

@Defeater,
I hope it has the right reverberations - that we solve some of the problems the battle highlighted, rather than continuing to fight the campaign itself. City Council isn't going to learn anything useful if they just move on to the next detached justification.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 10, 2013 at 1:51 pm

I hope this will have some last effects.

I hope that the positive ones will be that the community of residents will keep more abreast of the goings on in town and the plans that are being made on our behalf.

I hope that the council will stop trying to pull the wool over our eyes as to what is going on. I hope that it will make for more transparency and honesty in Palo Alto affairs as they realize that we are being more watchful.

One thing that does concern me as a consequence is what will happen at the next council election. We don't want this to be something that causes people to be reluctant to run for election if they are the ones that would stand up against all the types of nonsense we have been seeing. I hope that Tim Gray and others of similar outlook will be prepared run and that we can give them our full support starting as soon as they are ready.


Posted by enough, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 10, 2013 at 2:05 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by RV a PA resident, a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 10, 2013 at 11:09 pm

RV a PA resident is a registered user.

The voters of Palo Alto loudly and convincingly stated to the City Council, PAHC, city staff and Planning Commission that we do not want High density in local neighborhoods, period!

The Maybell rezoning process has exposed many issues which will need to be addressed. In my opinion the worst of the issues was for the neighborhood to have to fight the City Council during the entire process. The city council was not independent and was in bed with PAHC all the way from being a financial partner to debating and advocating for them. It was despicable to hear the propaganda and the lies that the City Council, City staff and especially Mayor Schaff spewed to ensure that the development on Maybell proceeded no matter the cost. The City Council made it a senior housing issue just to mislead the voters. They disregarded the concerns the neighborhood voiced about putting high density on a particularly narrow street where traffic is already a huge problem. They disregarded the safety of thousands of students who bike to school on Maybell and Arastedero. They disregarded the way of life the seniors would have had in a location which was not convenient, would have constrained them with narrow houses all around and a large apartment complex on one side with limited in and out during student commute times. The question arises why did the City Council only advocate for PAHC and did not advocate for the neighborhood, the students and the even the seniors? I have no confidence in the current City Council and the sooner they are replaced with visionaries and true selfless noble leaders the better. Palo Alto has had exemplary Public service leaders in the past and deserves no less.

There are many options for Maybell so that it can become a positive for the neighborhood. It is imperative to ensure that traffic is not increased at that location. In my opinion the best the City Council should now do is to down zone it and make that land a true public benefit for the neighborhood. The City Council should not be looking for revenue but should use this opportunity to really help the situation at Maybell.


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