The chain-link fence around the "mystery project" went up next to Gail Wooley's house on Mariposa Avenue nearly seven years ago and has remained there since.
The house behind the fence on the 1600 block of Mariposa was demolished in January 2008, within months of the fence's installation. After that, she said, not much has changed. Today, the site remains fenced off, turning a section of the former mayor's block in the Southgate neighborhood into a perpetual construction site, much to the chagrin of nearby residents.
It's not just the unsightliness that irks the nearby residents, though that certainly is an issue. It's also a safety issue. Wooley said she had seen people store and sell drugs on the site. In one case, a person on a bicycle was having a beer at the site while waiting to make what appeared to be an illegal transaction, she said.
The Mariposa project isn't the only one with an unwelcome air of mystery. At Monday night's City Council meeting, the council voted unanimously to set time limits for building permits and explore penalties for delinquent projects. During the discussion, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd said she was "appalled" by what neighbors around these long-term construction sites have resorted to do in dealing with suspicious behavior at the site. Some came out to walk their dogs, others turned on their outdoor lights to "shoo off whoever was out there."
"This is what spoke to me about the type of quality of life that has really been disturbed and disrupted for the immediate neighbors around some of these projects," Shepherd said.
Shepherd was one of four co-authors, along with Councilwoman Karen Holman, Councilman Marc Berman and Councilwoman Gail Price, of a colleagues memo urging the council to clamp down on delinquent residential construction projects, which the memo states "can cause periodic traffic, parking, noise and visual impacts for community residents and businesses."
"There may be a wide variety of reasons for the delay ranging from funding issues, to bad design or contracting, to neglectful property owners," the memo states. No matter the reason, the resulting incomplete construction project can become an eye-sore, attractive nuisance and a problem for the residents and neighborhood. These incomplete projects detract from neighborhood quality of life and residents deserve an ordinance that they can rely on to ensure that housing projects start and finish in a reasonable amount of time."
Mayor Greg Scharff and Price said such projects exist all throughout the city. Scharff said he experienced it "next door, where fencing goes up and stays up for five years and nothing happens." Price argued that these projects can cause dangerous conditions and commended Wooley and other residents for seeking action from the council.
"The sense of concern and urgency has become very clear by very articulate community members who have simply had enough of this kind of condition," Price said, adding that "it's extremely important" to act on the changes because of "impacts on our neighborhoods."
Councilwomen Karen Holman and Liz Kniss both acknowledged that this action should have been taken long ago and likewise stressed the need for near-term action. The new law, which will be hashed out in the coming months by the council's Policy and Services Committee, should consider requiring the offending property owner to pay for street repairs relating to this project, Kniss said. Holman argued that in addition to setting firmer time limits for building permits, the ordinance should include strong code-enforcement provisions.
Under existing law, building projects have no timeline requirements. A building permit can be extended indefinitely, as long as the applicant completes enough work within six months to progress to the next level of inspection, according to the memo. If it expires, there is no requirement that the project be completed.
The memo notes that unfinished buildings "cause visual blight; construction fencing can obstruct the view of pedestrians and motorists; and unsecured buildings can present numerous safety concerns since the properties may become destinations for unlawful behaviors."
"Ideally, these situations can be resolved quickly and amicably," the memo states. "However, when projects are stalled indefinitely or abandoned, Palo Alto must have an ordinance that encourages their swift completion."
The memo doesn't proscribe the penalties for delinquent construction, it states that penalties "should increase the longer a project is delinquent." It also specifies that the proposed ordinance would not apply to existing projects (unless a new permit is issued), though it would give staff "an important enforcement tool going forward."
Councilman Larry Klein joined the rest of the council in supporting the gist of the memo, though he argued that the city should go further and look for ways to target ongoing projects like the one on Mariposa. He asked staff to "explore any other tolls that might be appropriate" with respect to existing construction sites that are not under permit. Councilman Pat Burt added another provision -- that staff also consider "improved fencing" at stalled construction yards. After a brief discussion, the council unanimously voted to pursue the law changes.