Residents in the 117-unit park located at 3980 El Camino Real received a letter from property owner/manager Joe Jisser last week informing them that his family is exploring redevelopment options.
The family has owned Buena Vista, located near Los Robles Avenue behind a strip mall, since 1986, Jisser said on Monday. They are working with Prometheus Real Estate Group in San Mateo.
Prometheus specializes in the acquisition, development and management of residential and commercial properties and builds apartments, according to its website. It also focuses on transit-oriented development in areas that are close to corporate campuses, such as Apple in Cupertino and Google in Mountain View.
Jon Moss, Prometheus executive vice president and partner, said Wednesday the company is considering buying the property from the Jissers and building up to 187 one- and two-bedroom apartments that are between 750 square feet and 1,050 square feet. The property is being considered because it fits into the Grand Boulevard Initiative for El Camino Real, which envisions higher-density housing with access to transit, schools and retail.
Prometheus would likely seek to have the 4 1/2 acres rezoned from 15 units per acre to 40 units per acre, said Amy French, Palo Alto's chief planning official. The property borders single-family homes in the Barron Park neighborhood and is currently home to 104 mobile homes, 12 studio apartments or cabins and a single-family residence. The redevelopment could rise from two stories closest to the homes behind the park to three or four stories closer to El Camino Real.
No application has been submitted, however, and no city commission has reviewed the plans, officials said.
Redevelopment of Buena Vista, which gradually became established as a trailer park after World War II, has been rumored for years, with the Jissers repeatedly denying they had such plans. But Jisser said that 12 years ago the city noted the park had a 10-year life span before its infrastructure, including water and electrical facilities, would need upgrading.
"We're at 12 years now. We're starting to get a feel that the infrastructure won't hold up too much longer. We figure the utilities might last another two to five years," he said.
"If you do upgrade, the cost would be enormous," he said.
Many of the pre-1950s mobile homes would also require improvements to accommodate the new utilities, including increased electrical power, he said.
A majority of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park's residents are very low and low-income, seniors or disabled, according to the city.
Upgrading the park to comply with state codes would mean the legal spacing between units would change.
"That means a large reduction in the number of homes. You would almost have to start building a new mobile home park from the ground up," Jisser said.
French said the proposed redevelopment is in keeping with the city's Comprehensive Plan, which encourages multi-family residences.
The city has no position on the redevelopment, said Curtis Williams, the city's planning director. But "we need to explore if there are ways to retain the mobile-home park or to ensure there is an affordable component to the redevelopment," he added.
In 2000 the city and the Jissers developed an agreement after rent increases threatened some Buena Vista residents with eviction.
The City Council, which called Buena Vista "an essential source of affordable housing in Palo Alto," subsequently adopted a mobile-home ordinance, No. 4696. That ordinance guarantees Buena Vista residents help with the costs of relocating.
California's Mobilehome Residency Law also requires that mobile-home residents be compensated prior to the conversion of a property.
Buena Vista residents pay about $800 to $1,300 per month for their spaces. Although the city can't require any of the proposed apartments be reserved for low-income residents, the city would have to have some serious discussions on how to retain or replace the lost affordable housing, Curtis said.
On Wednesday afternoon, children chased each other around Buena Vista's laundry room, and dogs barked at passersby. Jose, 9, and his 6-year-old brother, Jovani, played with Bumblebee, their Chihuahua, in front of their prefab home.
Moving "will be really hard on my mom and my grandma. My mom is trying to make a house for my grandma in Mexico. We aren't buying things. Both of my parents are working. My dad can barely buy the rent here," Jose said. He also does not want to leave his school, he said.
Noemi Atayde grew up in Buena Vista and still lives in a home surrounded by trees, shrubs and flowers that her mother has carefully cultivated. Atayde lives with her parents, her 2-year-old daughter, Ellie, her sister and her nephew. The 3-year-old boy has autism and is just starting to get help from the Palo Alto Unified School District. Moving to another affordable place could mean having to switch school districts, which concerns the family.
The move doesn't come as a surprise, however, she said.
"They have mentioned it for many years, and there have been rumors," she said. "Everybody is saying they have to move, and nobody can do anything about it. People are saying that everyone should be looking for another place to go now and not wait until the last minute when they can't find anything."
One person is looking for a house in East Palo Alto, and Atayde's parents want to find a house or another trailer, she said. Many people are concerned they will have to leave their mobile homes behind. Some residents are waiting to move, so they will receive some compensation for their investments, she said.
Moss said that Prometheus "would absolutely" follow the city's mobile-home ordinance.
Company representatives have started meeting with neighbors in adjacent apartment buildings and single-family homes, he said.
But some Barron Park residents are organizing to support Buena Vista residents who want to stay. Winter Dellenbach said she is starting the Friends of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park and has 12 people who are ready to speak out against the conversion.
"It's an issue of economic diversity. ... Here's one of the greatest resources in the city," she said.
"We don't want everybody to think there is a NIMBY thing going on here. They are our neighbors; we are one neighborhood. I have not received one comment about, 'Oh, good. Let's get rid of 115 units of housing and cabins.' This place is interwoven into the fabric of the neighborhood. It's not just a possession of one person who can decide the fate of a whole community of people," she said.
Dellenbach said she could not imagine the outcry if any other comparably sized part of the neighborhood was abolished. And she thinks the city should do an impact study. If the developers want a zoning change, the city would have leverage to retain affordable housing units, she said.
The Jissers also own the retail strip at 3990 El Camino and Los Robles Avenue that fronts the mobile-home park. The lessees include a Jamba Juice, Baja Fresh and C2 education center. A spa is scheduled to move into the former Blockbuster video store. They also own property under an adjacent Valero gas station and a quarter-acre behind it, but those properties are not part of the redevelopment, Jisser said.
Planning for the retail strip will follow a different track from redevelopment of Buena Vista because the leases still have years before expiration, he said.
Moss said Prometheus could file a prescreening application this week for review by the City Council. He expects the project would come up for initial study in November.
TALK ABOUT IT
Do you favor the city involvement in ensuring below-market housing at the Buena Vista mobile-home park?
READ MORE ONLINE
Buena Vista started as a tourist camp for travelers in 1926. To learn more, go to Palo Alto Online and search for "A history of Buena Vista."