A coalition of Palo Alto residents have filed a lawsuit against the city, seeking to overturn the City Council's approval in June of a new housing development on Maybell Avenue.
The group, called Coalition for Safe and Responsible Zoning, served the city with the court papers Wednesday afternoon, July 31, City Attorney Molly Stump told the Weekly. The council is scheduled to discuss the lawsuit Monday night.
The lawsuit seeks to reverse the City Council's decision to rezone the site at 567 Maybell Ave. to "planned community," a designation that allows the developer to exceed density regulations. The change will allow the nonprofit developer Palo Alto Housing Corporation to build a 60-unit apartment complex for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes near the intersection of Maybell and Clemo avenues. The project is facing a massive pushback from the community, with residents having already completed two successful signature drives to bring the approval to a referendum.
The new lawsuit is the latest step in the concerted opposition, which was initially focused in the Barron Park, Green Acres and Green Acres II neighborhoods but which now includes land-use critics from other areas of Palo Alto. Joy Ogawa, who took part in a recent lawsuit challenging the proposed reduction of lanes on California Avenue, is representing the coalition in the new suit.
The lawsuit identifies the coalition as a limited liability company whose members are "residents and taxpayers in the City of Palo Alto."
"(The) coalition was formed, in part, for the purposes of protecting the environment and safety on Maybell Avenue and of preserving the character and integrity of the pastoral and residential nature of the Barron Park and Green Acres II neighborhoods and environs, which would be directly affected by the proposed project," the lawsuit states.
The suit focuses on the city's environmental-review process for the Maybell project and the council's decision to loan $5.8 million to the Housing Corporation well before the review kicked off. It also takes aim at the city's traffic analysis and argues that the council has "failed to adequately consider the significant impacts that the project would have on the neighborhood in terms of traffic and parking, safety of bicyclists and pedestrians, access of emergency vehicles, accelerated deterioration of Juana Briones Park (recreation), aesthetics, including obstruction of a public view of the foothills, air quality, greenhouse gases, and hazardous waste and hazardous materials."
Critics seek to reverse the approval and, at a minimum, require a fuller study considering all the aforementioned impacts and other reasonable alternatives for the site.
Most of the arguments in the lawsuit echo the criticism expressed by residents over a series of highly emotional meetings in May and June, prior to the City Council's approval of the project on June 18. Many critics complained about the city's process for approving the project, including its loan to the Housing Corporation in 2012. The suit alleges that the loan effectively predetermined the outcome. By approving the loan, the suit states, the council "committed itself to approval of the project without any CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review and effectively foreclosed the possibility of a 'no project' alternative, and abused its discretion, exceeded its jurisdiction and proceeded in a manner contrary to law and without the support of substantial evidence in the record."
Traffic, a subject of grave concerns during the Maybell debate, also looms front and center in the suit. During the public hearings, residents presented videos of traffic conditions on Maybell, which included footage of students on bikes sharing driving lanes with long streams of slowly moving cars.
The plaintiffs point to analyses from traffic experts that dispute the city's finding that the development wouldn't cause significant traffic problems. The reviews found that the city's consultant used outdated traffic data and failed to count bicycle and pedestrian data in the busy school corridor. The city has maintained that there would be very few traffic problems because most seniors in the new development would not be driving during the peak hours.
The suit also claims the city did not adequately consider other proposed developments in the area in determining that there would be no major changes to traffic volume or patterns. It argues that the city should have completed a full Environmental Impact Report for Maybell rather than proceeding with a less-detailed review known as a "mitigated negative declaration."
For many opponents of the Maybell project, the council's approval is part of a growing trend in developers requesting and receiving zoning exemptions. Michael Lowy, a member of the Coalition for Safe and Sensible Zoning who signed the verification for the lawsuit, urged the council not to send the developers a message that they should expect the city to change its zoning code upon request.
"The idea that zoning can be changed in every instance is something that we have to guard against," Lowy told the council on June 17. "If we allow this project to go forward the way it's constituted, we're going to encourage other developers to keep asking for changes in zoning and expect it."