After two emotional public meetings, Palo Alto officials are preparing to make a major ruling tonight on a development that has stirred anxieties and stoked anger around south Palo Alto -- a project that includes 60 senior-housing units and 15 single-family homes near the intersection of Maybell and Clemo avenues.
The City Council will consider approving a zone change that would allow the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing Corporation to build the project at a former orchard site at 567 Mayfield Ave. If the council approves the change to a "planned community" zone, the Housing Corporation would be able to develop the site at a much higher density than the underlying zoning would otherwise allow.
In exchange for the zone change, developers typically provide "public benefits" that they negotiate with the council. In this case, the main benefit is the project itself, which addresses one of Palo Alto's most glaring housing needs by providing 60 units for low-income seniors. To underscore that urgent demand for affordable housing, the city had already loaned the Housing Corporation $5.8 million to purchase the Maybell site.
"About 20 percent of seniors are living around the poverty level or slightly above it. This would be a significant contribution toward that population," city planner Tim Wong told the Planning and Transportation on May 22.
But even with the benefit of more senior housing, the proposal has stoked anger among local residents, with hundreds attending recent public hearings on the project and bombarding the council with letters and emails. A new staff report on the project includes as an attachment a stack of letters more than an inch thick, with a sizable majority opposing the zone change.
Most critics cite traffic concerns and argue that the corridor in the school-heavy section of town cannot accommodate any more cars on the road. Lydia Kou, a Barron Park resident speaking on behalf of her neighborhood association, told the planning commission last month that the location is not suitable for a high-density development and recommended the city reject the zone change. Georgia Avenue resident Robert Hessen alluded to the "flotilla of kids on bicycles" who use Maybell to get to Gunn High and other area schools and argued that adding more traffic to the area is a recipe for disaster.
"Unless that area is carefully policed, there's going to be a fatality, and we're going to have hundreds and hundreds of people wearing black armbands," Hessen said.
Others have argued that the neighborhood doesn't have enough amenities to accommodate seniors. Then there's the issue of the city's loan, which many residents view as a sure sign that the process is rigged and that the project's approval is essentially a done deal.
But from the standpoint of city staff, these concerns are overstated and, in some cases, misguided. In a new report, staff notes that the area already includes several major senior-housing complexes, including one managed by the Housing Corporation that would be next to the proposed Maybell development.
The traffic impacts, staff states, would be minimal. A traffic analysis, which many residents have dismissed as inadequate but which staff insists is accurate, indicates the project would generate just 16 new car trips during the peak morning hour and 16 during the afternoon commute. Jessica de Wit, project manager with the Housing Corporation, said Wednesday that most seniors at these complexes don't work and drive only in off-peak times.
The planning commission, which considered both sides of the argument and heard from dozens of speakers during its review, voted 4-1, with Alex Panelli dissenting and Arthur Keller and Greg Tanaka absent, to support the zone change. Several commissioners, including Michael Alcheck, noted that the property will be redeveloped anyway and that underlying zoning can already accommodate 34 single-family homes. The traffic from such a development could be far worse than that of a senior-family complex, he said.
Some residents have also spoken out in support of the project. Nina Haletky, resident of the nearby Arastradero Park Apartments, wrote in a letter to the city that she expects the Maybell project would benefit both seniors and the larger community.
"In an area like Palo Alto, where wealth is abundant, there is a danger of exclusivity and the rising cost of housing and gentrification have made it difficult for many different types of people to live here," Haletky wrote.
The new report by planning staff makes a similar point and notes that "a large percentage of seniors live at or below the poverty line."
"During the recent economic decline, a number of seniors have lost their retirement savings, creating even a greater number of seniors on a limited income," the report states.
While staff is recommending approval of the new development, it is also acknowledging in its report that the area around Maybell and Clemo needs to be made safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. The report states that traffic issues on Maybell currently exist and that staff had been exploring safety improvements even before the Housing Corporation filed its application.
Possible changes include giving Maybell Avenue a "bike boulevard" feel, with green pavement markings to indicate where a bike lane becomes a "shared bikeway"; restricting parking on one side of the street; and traffic-calming features such as enhanced crosswalks and bulbouts at various intersections. The Transportation Division has already hired a consultant to review and work with the community on these potential improvements, according to the report.
"Aside from the Maybell Avenue improvements required by the developer as condition of approval, the city has acknowledged, well in advance of this project, issues of traffic and school safety in the immediate area and is initiating its own improvements on Maybell Avenue and nearby," the report states.