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."