If there was one lesson that anyone involved in Palo Alto policy-making should know, it is to never assume that something can be quietly approved by keeping it under the radar of affected neighbors and holding back on full transparency.
That is one of the mistakes made by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, city staff and the city council as they attempted to quietly pilot a very significant housing development through an unusually complicated bureaucratic process over the last year.
In hindsight, one can easily see the misjudgments that led to the drama of the last two weeks, where the City Council chambers overflowed with upset residents and housing advocates and the council twice postponed voting on the project.
The Housing Corporation, a well-respected and well-connected nonprofit agency dedicated to providing affordable housing for low-income individuals, families and seniors in Palo Alto, was venturing into newly charted territory.
It found itself with the opportunity to purchase two properties totaling 2.5 acres, including a large, undeveloped orchard across from Briones Park and four existing homes on Maybell Avenue, in order to build an apartment building for low-income seniors.
The plan was to tear down the existing homes and replace them with 15 narrow 2- and 3-story homes that would be sold at market prices to defray the costs of developing a 60-unit subsidized senior apartment complex behind them.
But to accomplish that goal the Housing Corporation needed two things from the city: $5.8 million in loans to help buy the property and approval of a "planned community" zoning change to enable it to build a project that didn't conform to the current zoning.
The city staff and council members early-on provided reassurance that they supported the plan, leaving the Housing Corporation with the job of getting buy-in from the neighborhood.
A few small neighborhood meetings were held, as well as several meetings of the Planning Commission, Architectural Review Board and City Council, and things seemed to be on track for smooth approval. At meetings last November and this March, the council approved the loans, essentially making the city financially tethered to a project that had not yet been approved by the Planning Commission or the City Council.
But by this spring the neighborhood had awakened, especially to the traffic and visual impacts of cramming 15 single-family homes with tiny setbacks on Maybell and Clemo. The appropriateness and legality of the council making a financial commitment to the project, which needed the zoning change to be viable, before it had approved the zoning change raised serious questions about the council's bias and ability to impartially hear concerns of the neighborhood.
Like many in the immediate neighborhood, we support the Housing Corporation's goal of building a low-income senior apartment complex on the site. But it handled its outreach to the community poorly, was not nearly transparent enough about the project and the financial constraints, and sought to take advantage of a neighborhood without much historic political influence and the council and staff's affordable-housing sympathies to push the project through.
No one anticipated the neighborhood would mobilize so effectively or become so outraged by the process.
Last weekend's 10-hour closed-door session led by Mayor Greg Scharff helped to bridge the communication gap between the neighbors and the Housing Corporation, but had this project been handled differently from the beginning it could have had a more favorable outcome.
First, the Housing Corporation and the city should have been up front from the beginning about what could be developed on the two properties under the existing zoning, with no city approvals required. That would have given the neighbors and others a way to clearly evaluate the impacts of the project being proposed by the Housing Corporation and assess and negotiate the trade-offs.
Second, the city should have proactively addressed the severe traffic problems on Maybell created by cars diverting to it after the narrowing of Arastradero Road. Arguing that the new development would not significantly worsen traffic, whether supportable or not, is of no comfort to a neighborhood that already feels it is facing a traffic crisis.
Finally, the Housing Corporation should have been very clear with neighbors about its funding strategy and invited other alternative solutions. Having never before attempted this sort of development (relying on the sale of market-rate housing to partially finance subsidized housing), the Housing Corporation should have involved neighbors in the formulation of its development plans by sharing its needs and constraints.
Barring a lawsuit challenging the city's process, a slightly scaled down project (12 homes instead of 15) will now be built and a new traffic analysis will be done for Maybell. And a neighborhood is deeply embittered by its experience.
The result might have been no different if this project had been handled better from the start, but the neighborhood would have felt respected, informed and involved. The Housing Corporation and city are right to pursue opportunities for low-income housing, but their handling of this proposal will make the next one all the more challenging.