Measure D (Maybell Rezoning): Cutting through the noise | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

Measure D (Maybell Rezoning): Cutting through the noise

Uploaded: Oct 11, 2013

This is not yet-another posting about how you should vote on Measure D. Instead, I will try to help undecided voters better understand the arguments being made. This is a very fine line, and I am also asking commenters to honor it.
Warning: I have strong beliefs about proper public decision-making--which may be part of your decision on this issue--and that is reflected in what I have focused on here.

The first thing to recognize is that this vote is very different from one where you are choosing between candidates, that is you are choosing the best one (or least bad). This is a choice of whether or not to allow a zoning change approved by the City Council--you are not choosing whether Council or the opponents have a better vision for the site. One way to simplify your consideration of the arguments is to decide which side bears the burden to proof. Is it the proponents who need to show that this is a good-enough project? Or is it the opponents who need to show that this is not a good-enough project? Or do the opponents merely need to show that the City failed in its processes to ensure that this would be a good-enough project?

The second thing to do is separate the merits of the arguments from their presentations. On this issue, this is particularly hard to do for both sides. In a typical campaign, unexamined and disingenuous claims are strong evidence against the speaker. However, it is very different here. Among the advocates, a significant, and very vocal, portion regard affordable housing as an actual or near religious issue. Their statements represent dogma,
and need to be ignored, and should not prejudice your consideration of the factual arguments, which can be hard to find amongst the noise. And recognize that dogmatic beliefs can easily lead to the explicit and implicit vilification of non-believers, and this also needs to be ignored.

Similarly, there is a lot of noise in the arguments of the opponents, but from a different source: anger born of years of frustration in dealing with City Staff and the ideologues that have an outsized role in setting City policy. During the meetings and hearings on narrowing Arastradero Road, the many residents felt dismissed, disparaged and derided--an assessment that I feel was entirely justified (I attended many of those meetings as a neighborhood leader, but since I lived on the other side of Barron Park from Arastradero, my involvement was not emotional, only political). This continued into the meetings on this project. The lesson they learned is that facts and rational argument have little or no effect on City policy--what matters is your ability to turn out lots of angry residents willing to sit through interminable Council meetings. Too much of that has carried forward into the campaign.

There is a basic philosophical divide in what constitutes a good-enough project. The dominant view among proponents is that there is such a large deficit of affordable housing that anything that gets built will be useful. You can see this is the thesis of Op-ed: Vote yes on Measure D by Greg Scharff: "Measure D is about one thing and one thing only--if you agree or disagree that Palo Alto needs more affordable housing for our senior residents." The opponents tend to argued that it is a misnomer to call this senior housing, because it is little more than very high density rental housing that will be restricted to seniors. Because many of the leading opponents are themselves seniors, their perspective on what is good-enough is a mix of looking back at what they considered when looking for facilities for their parents and of looking forward to what they would want for themselves. A sore point with them is that the proponents argue that this project is not meant to meet the expectations of seniors in the neighborhood while simultaneous arguing that a primary purpose of the project is to allow seniors in the neighborhood to stay part of the community.

Discussion of appropriate policy on senior housing is a large enough topic that it needs to be split off into a (potential) future blog entry. I am asking that that discussion not be pursued in the comments on this entry.

Both the proponent and opponents cast this project as setting a precedent for similar projects, with Mayor Scharff saying that he intends to use this model for future projects. A key part of that precedent is how affordable housing is financed. There are multiple tiers of affordable housing, and Palo Alto has been successful in getting units in the upper tier built using a mix of requirements and incentives for private developments. However, for the lowest tiers, it has proved virtually impossible to get such units built that way. Instead, they get built as standalone projects such as this one, using a combination of hard-to-get grants, payments made by developers in lieu of building affordable units... Because that funding falls so far short of the targets, the City is naturally inclined to try to stretch these funds. One of the big questions of Measure D is whether they went too far.

Somewhat over half of the Maybell site is to be sold to a private developer to help fund the affordable housing. It appears that the decision on number of houses was based on maximizing the property's price, and there was little or no consideration of a range of neighborhood compatibility issues. Detail: The current minimum size for new lots for single-family houses is 6000 sq ft with a 60-foot width. This project's lots (except the corner) will be 3200-3600 sq ft (53-60%) with 48 ft width (80%). While many older lots are narrower (mine is 56 ft, > 6000 sq ft), the current minimum width was instituted in response to the new-normal for houses. Zoning was created to provide predictability--protection for property owners--and a fair sharing of community resources. Is there adequate cause, and due care, in changing the zoning?

Although the affordable housing is called a "public benefit", that is stretching the concept. Normal examples of true public benefits are things like parks and libraries, that is, facilities that benefit the larger public that funded them. This project will benefit the developer of the single-family homes and a very small number of residents of the subsidized housing. And based on experience from other affordable housing in Palo Alto, most of those residents will not be from nearby--the neighborhood, Palo Alto...--but from the larger Bay Area. I would have no objection if the costs didn't fall disproportionately on the immediate neighborhood. However, this notion of "public benefit" seems to be creeping toward the now-illegal practice of cities using eminent domain to take people's homes and transfer the land to a developer under the theory that the broader public benefited from increased tax revenues (property tax, sales tax, hotel tax...).

One of the proponents' claims is that if this project isn't approved, what will be built will be worse for the neighborhood. Unfortunately, I know of no source of credible, impartial expertise for what is actually likely. One would like to expect the City's Planning staff to provide impartial information, but a long line of City Councils have made it clear that Staff is instead to advocate for projects.
Details: The proponents claim that it will likely be 46 units of 3-4 bedrooms each. This is nonsense and a cynical scare tactic. First, it is based on unrealistically simplified calculations. Second, because developers have historically found it more profitable to build far below the allowed density, the City is considering zoning that would set a minimum density. Some knowledgeable opponents have calculated that with 46 units, the average one would be less than 850 sq ft -- possibly only 700 sq ft. For a 4-bedroom unit, add 2 bathrooms, a kitchen and living room and you have 8 rooms averaging less than 100 sq ft each (10x10 ft), remembering that walls take up space. No way. However, is this too an exaggeration? Although this calculation has been circulating for some time, I haven't seen a critique of it by the other side.

Similarly, traffic impacts is a big issue, but there is no credible, impartial expertise on this. I was at the meeting where project's traffic consultant was unable to give credible responses to what seemed to be simple, basic questions. My impression was that they didn't realize that anything more than a pro forma study would be needed, and thus it failed to address the complexities of a very difficult site.

Save yourself time and skip over arguments about whether or not there were compromises made. First, what matters is the result. Second, it is impossible for the typical voter to determine whether it was actual compromise or whether it was scripted conflict with a predetermined outcome (Kabuki dance or as in Professional Wrestling), or something in between. In Palo Alto, it is absolutely routine for developers to come in with extravagant proposals and "compromise" down to something still far above what they are entitled to. And for Council to proclaim such "concessions" to be laudable.

I would dismiss the opponents' claim of bias on the part of the City resulting from the City's loaning money to buy the property. The biases they encountered go back much further, to the targets imposed by ABAG (Association for Bay Area Governments). These targets are so absurdly high that Staff is grasping at straws trying to find ways to meet them. When there are so few even faintly viable options, the incentives are against examining them critically (I have witnessed this as a citizen member of the Technical Advisory Group to the update of the Housing Element of the City's Comprehensive Plan and at other public meetings).

Although one of the most prominent claims of the proponents is that this senior housing will allow seniors to stay within their existing neighborhoods and will "keep Palo Alto families together." This is an aspirational statement--something the proponents would like to be true--but is false. Experience with other affordable housing in Palo Alto is that there will be very long waiting lists, and those lists will be dominated by people from outside Palo Alto. The typical proponent acknowledges this fact, and then dismisses it, saying that what they meant was that if enough affordable housing was built, there wouldn't be waiting lists, and that this project is simply a step to that end. I then ask how it would be even possible to build that much housing. The typical response is that Palo Altans are so rich that anything is possible, and all that is needed is for them to stop being so selfish. Conversation over.

While one can overlook this sort of thinking from a proponent who is just an individual, it is a different matter for such claims to be made by City Council members (Mayor Scharff's Op-ed cited above) and by the leadership of Palo Alto Housing (example, the campaign flyer that you likely received in the mail on Wed 9 October). When you see the opponents asking voters to "send a message" to the City, it is not an attempt to cover-up weaknesses in their arguments about the project itself. Instead, it represents intense frustration with a very bad decision-making processes, and discovering deception after deception. Going back to the beginning of this article, if you decide that the City and proponents should bear the burden of proving that this is a good-enough project, before getting enmeshed in the details of the arguments about the project itself, you may want to decide that these process problems are severe enough to warrant a vote Against.

{{Commenters: The topic of this blog is advice to undecided voters on how to better evaluate the arguments being made. Of course, anyone with enough knowledge to add to this discussion will already have a position on Measure D, and it is impractical to expect them to totally divorce that opinion from the advice. However, any comments that venture too far into right/wrong will be deleted by me (as off-topic). This is not censorship: Right/wrong has, and is, being discussed extensively elsewhere on this site. What is on-topic here is badly under-represented and obscured in that right/wrong back-and-forth." />" />