Imagine making a substantial family investment in something before determining its value, how other family members felt about it and deciding if it was the best way to meet your family goals?
That's exactly what has happened with the city of Palo Alto's botched handling of a development proposed by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation (PAHC), and neighbors of the Maybell Avenue project site in Barron Park have every reason to feel the fix is in.
The problem began last November when the council agreed to loan PAHC $3.2 million to acquire the land for the project at 567 Maybell Ave., a street with no sidewalks one block north of Arastradero Road that has been severely impacted by drivers and bicyclists trying to avoid the congestion on Arastradero due to the lane reductions.
The council added another $2.6 million loan in March, even though the project itself had not received approvals from the Planning and Transportation Commission or the City Council and environmental review and public hearings hadn't been completed.
PAHC's laudable mission is to increase the amount of affordable housing in Palo Alto with the goal of maintaining a diverse community. It had the opportunity to buy two large parcels totaling 2.5 acres but needed loans from the city to close the deal, and ultimately will need the city to approve a special planned community (PC) zone in order to build a four-story 60-unit apartment building and 15 single-family homes. The homes would be sold at market rate and the profits from those sales would enable the city to eventually be repaid.
Neighborhood residents, who were caught unaware during the early consideration of the loan request, now have a wide range of legitimate complaints, especially the impact of traffic which they say the city's consultant downplayed, and what they feel is the tone-deaf way the city bureaucracy went about slipping the project into the city's required Housing Element, set to be approved by the City Council Monday night.
If approved, it will be another action supporting the project taken prior to the council holding public hearings and considering the PAHC application for a PC zone. It is not credible, as some council members have stated, that their minds are completely open on whether to approve the project and that prior actions won't have any influence as they consider the development in future weeks.
Maybell-area residents have to feel like the deck is stacked against them, when before the project is even approved, it has received more than $5 million in loans from the City Council and is included in the city's much ballyhooed Housing Element.
At last week's meeting of the council's Regional Housing Mandate Committee the vote was 3-0 (Scharff, Schmid, Berman, with Holman absent) to approve the Housing Element with the yet-to-be approved Maybell housing development included.
When the Association of Bay Area Governments told Palo Alto it must plan and zone for 2,860 new housing units in the current planning period it sent officials scrambling to meet the quota. Planning Director Curtis Williams said last week that including Maybell is an important part of helping the city comply with ABAG. Without it he said, "We'd have to go back to the drawing board ..."
Despite their 3-0 vote to approve including Maybell, members of the Housing Mandate committee tried to reassure residents that their minds were not made up. There is plenty of leeway for the council to reject the Maybell housing and then revise the Housing Element if necessary, they say.
"I have not made up my mind on Maybell and this is not a done deal," Mayor Greg Scharff told the largely hostile audience at the meeting last Thursday, saying he voted to approve it because he said it is required by law but could be revised later.
New development and particularly the development of low-income housing that exceeds the allowable zoning is always going to create controversy in Palo Alto. That means city officials need to bend over backwards to ensure early and transparent engagement with neighbors and a process that progresses in an ethically and legally acceptable fashion.
This hasn't happened with this development proposal, and the City Council now needs to do the right thing and remove the proposed Maybell project from the official housing plan. That gesture won't repair the damage that has been done, but it will at least signal that the council now understands the neighborhood's outrage and accepts responsibility for the poor process.