Opponents and proponents of Measure D all say they are in favor of more senior housing in Palo Alto.
What they clashed on during Saturday afternoon's debate was whether senior housing is what the measure is really about.
If approved by the voters in November, the measure will uphold the City Council's zone change last June of land at the corner of Maybell and Clemo avenues, which would enable the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing Corporation to build a 60 units of senior housing and 12 market-rate homes on the orchard site.
During a two-hour debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters, supporters of Measure D focused on the details of the project and argued that the development would both provide a sorely needed amenity and protect the neighborhood from the greater impacts of developments that could be built under existing zoning designations.
Opponents countered that the ballot measure isn't about senior housing but about zoning. Specifically, it's about the city's willingness to revise the zoning code to allow dense developments that threaten the character of single-family neighborhoods, argued Bob Moss and Tim Gray, who represented the opposition at the Saturday debate.
"Measure D is not about affordable senior housing," said Gray, treasurer of the group Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning. "Measure D is about high-density rezoning of residential neighborhoods."
Moss, a land-use watchdog who helped lead the successful petition drive to put the referendum on November's ballot, noted that this will be the first project offered by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation that includes a market-rate component. This setting of precedent, he said, makes approval particularly dangerous.
"We've been told once this goes through it's going to start happening all over Palo Alto because it will be taken as a model for how PC zoning can be put in anywhere it can be fit in," Moss said.
Moss told the audience of about 100 at City Hall that if they like the kinds of developments that have recently been winning approval throughout the city, they should support the measure.
"If you want to keep Palo Alto the kind of neighborhood and community that we all treasure -- low intensity, low density, safe for kids in the schools -- vote against Measure D," he said.
Supporters of the measure, Mayor Greg Scharff and Jean McCown, a board member for the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, disputed this characterization and argued that the new homes would be completely consistent with the surrounding neighborhood. Scharff stressed that the new single-family homes would have 48-foot-wide lots, very similar to what other homes in that neighborhood have. The development, he told the crowd, will have "a single-family feeling" once built.
Providing housing that allows Palo Alto's low-income seniors to remain in the city is "simply the right thing to do," Scharff said. The project, he said, is consistent with the values of a "compassionate community."
He also said he believes the Housing Corporation's proposal "does a better job of preserving the single-family feeling of surrounding neighborhoods of any project that is likely to get built if this doesn't go forward," an assertion that project opponents vehemently disputed.
Existing zoning would allow construction of up to 35 or 46 residential units on the 2.46 acres, with the exact limit depending on whether the developer will provide below-market-rate housing. Opponents of Measure D argued that existing zoning should be respected because it provides specific guidelines for things like lot sizes and setbacks.
Supporters countered that, unlike the small units in the senior-housing proposal, most of the homes that would likely be built on the land, should Measure D fall, would have two or three bedrooms. Scharff said the total number of bedrooms in the Housing Corporation proposal is 103, compared to 161 that could be a part of a project under existing zoning.
Gray and Moss both said they don't object to senior housing at the site, as long as it's under existing zoning, which would allow 41 housing units. There's no reason, Moss said, why senior housing couldn't be built under existing zoning.
McCown said the economics for such a project wouldn't work. The proposed greater density and the single-family homes are needed to finance subsidized housing for the seniors whose income is in the lowest category.
"You cannot achieve the affordable level we're shooting for on such a low density," McCown said. "A 'no' vote will lose that opportunity and will likely result in a market-rate development with far greater impacts on the neighborhood."
She later added that the proposal's density is "absolutely in common with all the other senior projects you think of when you look around the community."
While opponents occasionally waded into the details of the proposed development, they saved their fiercest criticism for the process used by the City Council to approve it. Gray and Moss both highlighted the city's loan to the Housing Corporation of $5.8 million last year, months before the project was reviewed and approved. The game, they said, was rigged against the neighborhood.
"It was clear this was a done deal before it was ever taken to the neighbors or taken to the general population of the city," Gray said. "We're reverse engineering and trying to create the look of a democratic process to back into a predetermined solution."
Scharff countered that the loan the city offered came from a fund specifically devoted to affordable housing and that it in no way committed the council to approving the project. The council ultimately approved it on June 17 by a unanimous vote.
Scharff also disputed allegations from opponents that the Measure D vote is about "planned community" zones citywide. While Gray called the Maybell proposal the "tip of the iceberg" and warned that if approved, it will lead to other high-density projects taking over single-family neighborhoods, Scharff disagreed unequivocally.
"This is about this project," Scharff said. "That's what you're voting on. Do you want this particular project?"