The uprising began with a simple loan.
It was November 2012 and no one in Palo Alto had expected either the loan or the project it would ultimately fund to generate any community interest, much less opposition.
But within months, residents in Green Acres and Barron Park would be leading an insurrection against high-density zoning all over Palo Alto; Candice Gonzalez, executive director of the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, would be sucked into her first political campaign, and her nonprofit, which builds low-income housing, would be labeled "big development" by some city residents; and the $3.2 million loan itself would trigger a chain of events leading to a citywide election a year hence.
By unanimous vote last November, the City Council approved a loan that helped the Housing Corporation to buy a 2.46-acre orchard site near the corner of Maybell and Clemo avenues. The proposal at the time was to build 60 units of affordable housing for seniors and 15 single-family homes in the Green Acres neighborhood. The new senior housing would be nestled at the back of the property, away from Maybell, a busy route to multiple schools. It would sit adjacent to Arastradero Park Apartments, a 66-unit Housing Corporation development for low-income families, and Tan Apartments, a market-rate eight-story complex that was around before Palo Alto's 1975 annexation of the adjacent Barron Park area.
The council approved the loan with no dissent or debate. The only surprise from the council's perspective was that such a site was available in a city that members often refer to as "built out." Adding housing for low-income seniors seemed to the council like a no-brainer. With the city's senior population rising almost as rapidly as its property values and nearly 20 percent living at or near the poverty level, the council quickly got behind the loan.
"Many of us are surprised that we have a parcel of this size sort of hiding in plain sight," Councilman Larry Klein said at the Nov. 19, 2012, meeting. "I think this an excellent use of the property, and I'm happy to support the proposal."
The horizon had looked sunny two months prior, in September, when the Housing Corporation unveiled its plan at a community meeting attended by at least 30 people from the neighborhoods.
No one was revolting on Nov. 30, when the Housing Corporation closed escrow on its $15.6 million purchase of the orchard site, beating out at least five developers.
A mid-January meeting didn't turn up neighborhood dissent, according to Housing Corporation board member Jean McCown. And City Hall was a place of wonky serenity on Feb. 13, when the Planning and Transportation Commission voted to initiate a "planned community" zone change, a frequently controversial process by which the city allows developers to break from zoning rules in exchange for giving "public benefits." Commissioner Greg Tanaka, who joined Alex Panelli in dissenting, marveled at the lack of people attending the meeting and proclaimed: "I think if the people in the (neighborhood) really knew what was being built across the street, there would be more of an outcry there."
And things were so calm on March 4, when the council supplemented its $3.2 million loan with another one totaling $2.6 million, the decision was approved on the council's "consent calendar," with nary a syllable of discussion.
A final neighborhood meeting, held in late April, focused on traffic and the revised designs for the project.
It wasn't until May 9 that Tanaka's prophecy began to unfold. That afternoon, dozens of residents packed into the cramped Council Conference Room to lay out for the first time their concerns about the development. The residents, mostly from the Barron Park and Green Acres neighborhoods, came to protest the inclusion of the not-yet-approved Maybell project in the city's Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lists the city's plans for complying with regional housing goals. They decried the proposed development's expected additional traffic, the lack of nearby amenities for seniors who would live there, and the denseness of the buildings on the site. More notably, they lashed out at the city's process for approving this new development, the fact that the city had loaned the development money and included it in the Housing Element before actually approving the project. Robert Hessen, a Georgia Avenue resident, said he and his neighbors felt like they were being "fundamentally disrespected" by the city.
"I have the sense we're being played," Hessen said.
The rhetoric heated up and the crowds swelled over the next five weeks as the project wound its way through the city's approval process. Faced with about 150 spectators and 60 speaker cards, planning Commissioner Eduardo Martinez observed on May 22 that this was the largest crowd he had ever seen at a commission meeting. The following month, when the project came to the City Council for approval, veteran councilman Klein observed that he had never experienced "such virulent opposition" to a project.
Klein's proposed solution, a weekend summit moderated by Mayor Greg Scharff, brought the sides together for pizza and fact-exchanges about 567 Maybell Ave. But there was little compromise. Residents suggested reducing the number of homes from 15 to eight, four on Clemo and four on Maybell. On June 17, the project received the final green light from the council, which reduced the number of single-family residences to 12 (seven along Maybell and five along Clemo) and required that the Maybell houses be restricted to two stories and have no driveways exiting on to Maybell.
On Nov. 5, thanks to a referendum campaign, Palo Alto voters will determine whether this approval will stand. If they vote yes on Measure D, the project will move ahead. If they vote against it, the site will retain its existing zoning designations, which would allow up to 46 units of housing at the orchard site.
In the meantime, each side is offering its own version of what the election is really about. Tempers continue to flare. On Sept. 28, Councilman Marc Berman angrily confronted Measure D opponent Tim Gray after a debate on Measure D to demand "an apology or proof" to back up Gray's assertion that the council made a "backroom deal" with the Housing Corporation long before giving its official approval to the project. Gray offered neither. But 4,000 citizens had signed the referendum petition to put Measure D up for a citywide vote, suggesting that public discontent is far more widespread than the area around the orchard.
The city is also facing a lawsuit from a new group, Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning, which alleges that the city violated environmental law in approving 567 Maybell.
Over the course of long public hearings, passionate debates, ballot arguments and legal threats, each side in the Measure D debate has made numerous questionable statements. All the noise has made it difficult at times to distinguish facts from rhetorical exaggerations. After hearing each side out during public meetings, in-depth interviews, a tour of the orchard site and dozens of conversations with supporters and opponents, the Weekly zooms in on eight iffy claims that both sides have put forth in the hope they will convince voters come Nov. 5.
"They made a backroom deal for some loans then brought it to the public and reversed engineered a democratic process to justify the end." (Tim Gray, Sept. 28 debate on Measure D)
Opponents of Measure D have repeatedly accused the council of an unethical, if not illegal, approval of a loan to the Housing Corporation before the details of the project were released to the public. Gray, treasurer for Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning, repeated this assertion during Sept. 28's debate at City Hall, prompting the heated response from Councilman Berman after the debate.
Similarly, resident Bob Moss, who helped get the referendum on November's ballot, called the council's approval of the project a "done deal done under the table." Moss softened his stance on Sept. 30, when he addressed the council and clarified that he believed the council's action was ill-advised but not illegal.
The sequence for the council's approval was irregular, but irregularity hardly constitutes a "backroom deal." The loan was made weeks before the Housing Corporation, under pressure of a deadline, bought the orchard site. While the council had a general idea of what the project would entail, there was no project on the table to approve.
The loan ordinance that the council approved in November explicitly states: "By approving the acquisition loan agreement, the City has made no commitment to approve the project or any particular application for land use approvals on the property." The ordinance also states that "site-specific environmental review will be completed when an application for specific land-use approvals is made and plans are developed for the project."
The terms of the loan also shields the city from financial risk. In the event of a default, the loan will continue to accrue interest until repaid, according to the loan documents. The loan agreement also states: "The parties recognize that the City has the sole discretion and right to terminate this agreement without fault or default if City determines not to approve the land use approvals for the project."
Clearly, the loan didn't formally commit the council to anything. Informally, however, it created some political problems. The Housing Corporation has asserted that municipalities frequently find themselves as both lender and project approver. But even though law allows a council member to wear two hats, that doesn't mean it's a good look. In most situations, being both a lender and the impartial judge on a project would constitute a conflict of interest.
Gray's statement that the money was approved in the "back room" is an overreach, but his assertion that the game at least appeared to be predetermined before the council approved the project is reasonable. The awkward sequence may have been necessary to make the land deal, but it fostered cynicism and made residents feel disrespected months later, when opposition to the Maybell project began to snowball.
On a related note, that of whether the community was left out of the process, Moss said the "first real public meeting" on the project was in late April, attracting what he characterized as a furious mob. For the record, the Housing Corporation held neighborhood meetings in September 2012 and January and April 2013, in addition to public reviews of the project with city boards. But the project was fluid, and plans for such issues as traffic flow changed over time so the project that neighbors learned about a year ago was not exactly the same project that the public scrutinized in April.
"PC zones are not springing up in your local neighborhood. I think people need to realize that." (Greg Scharff, Sept. 28 debate on Measure D)
Measure D opponents have two objectives: to stop the rezoning at 567 Maybell Ave. and to take a firm stance against "planned community" projects in general. As Joe Hirsch, one of the leaders of the campaign, told the City Council on Sept. 30: "We want to send a clear message to you and City Hall to stop incremental degradation of Palo Alto by approving 'planned community' zones that sweep away longstanding and historic site regulations that have protected all of us in Palo Alto for decades."
At the Sept. 28 debate, Mayor Scharff had tried to downplay such anxieties, characterizing them as "over the top."
"No one is going to come and put a PC zone next to your house," Scharff said. "It's not going to happen. It's way over the top. When I've been on the council, we've had two PC zones that we've approved. Two.
"PC zones are not springing up in your local neighborhood. People need to realize that."
This is true, as long as your "local neighborhood" isn't around 2180 El Camino Real, 101 Lytton Ave. (aka Lytton Gateway), the Maybell site, 27 University Ave., 395 Page Mill Road, 2755 El Camino Real or anywhere near the Stanford University Medical Center.
The council has actually approved three PC projects Lytton Gateway, Edgewood Plaza and Maybell since Scharff joined the council in January 2010. But the College Terrace Centre at 2180 El Camino Real, a PC project, earned the green light in December 2009, between the time Scharff was elected and the time he joined the council.
The colossal expansion of the Stanford University Medical Center was approved in 2011 and, while not a PC project, required revisions in the city's Comprehensive Plan to enable the density Stanford requested.
Developer John Arrillaga's proposal for 27 University Ave., while not yet formally submitted as a plan to the city, conceptualizes four office towers, two of them taller than 100 feet, and a theater near the downtown Caltrain station. Much like with any other PC process, approval would give Arrillaga permission to far exceed zoning regulations in exchange for public benefits a new theater and various improvements around the transit station.
It was this project that most recently was responsible for stoking community frustration and suspicion over the city staff's and council's predilection for zone-busting PC projects. A product of months of closed-door negotiations, staff's enthusiasm for Arrillaga's "concept" and recommendation to hold a special election on the massive proposal moved it forward quickly even without a formal application. When it finally got to the council, along with intense public outcry, members pulled back on the reins on the project.
The concerns from Measure D opponents that the city often looks past the Comprehensive Plan, the city's guiding land-use document, in considering dense projects appears to be valid. The staff report for 27 University waxed ecstatically about all the transportation improvements the project would bring to the city. But it remained strangely silent on the Comprehensive Plan policies the project would violate, including policies guiding historical preservation and protection of "views of the foothills by guiding building heights and massing."
The Jay Paul Co. proposal for 395 Page Mill Road, which would bring 311,000 square feet of office space, is another PC proposal, one that would offer as its public benefit a new police station for the city. The council's Infrastructure Committee was so excited by that prospect, it agreed earlier this year to accelerate the timeline for the approval process.
The council is also considering a PC proposal at 2755 El Camino Real, a four-story office project that would occupy what is now a parking lot near the most congested intersection in Palo Alto: Page Mill and El Camino.
Scharff's statement is misleading in its implication that PC projects are rare exceptions and not likely to infringe on residents. There is a reason why three planning commissioners authored a memo earlier this year calling PC zoning "the greatest challenge to land-use planning in Palo Alto today."
At the same time, despite the furor over PC zones, the Housing Corporation's McCown has also pointed out that Measure D does not contain any language or requirements that would alter the city's consideration of PC zones. Its defeat, while sending a message, would not bring with it any concrete or specified changes to the PC process.
"It has nothing to do with seniors or affordability. It is about money." (Measure D rebuttal argument)
Critics can reasonably take umbrage with the process by which the Maybell development was approved or with the recent wave of PC proposals, but associating a nonprofit developer with commercial builders like Jay Paul Co. or Arrillaga is a stretch. Palo Alto Housing Corporation has a four-decade history of building affordable housing throughout the city. Opponents could have hardly picked a worse poster child for the "It is about money" argument.
The Housing Corporation competed against at least five private developers to purchase the site from Maybell Sambuceto Properties, LLC and Sambuceto Partners. Its bid wasn't the highest, but the family that owned the property agreed to sell to the nonprofit because of tax write-offs. Given the market demand, and the opposition to its project, the Housing Corporation could at this point sell the property and probably walk away with a profit. Instead of doing that, it is pursuing an aggressive and costly election campaign the first time it has been forced to do so.
The Weekly recently asked the Housing Corporation's Gonzalez: Why not simply sell the land and walk away with a profit? She acknowledged the Housing Corporation could probably "make more than we bought it for."
"That's been discussed. Should we just avoid this expensive referendum?" Gonzalez said. "That's the easy way out, but it doesn't feel good, and it doesn't serve our mission."
There is one part of the project, however, that opponents have most vehemently opposed and questioned: the market-rate homes that would subsidize the senior housing. This is the first project developed by the nonprofit that includes a market-rate component.
At the 11th-hour summit that concluded before the council's approval of Maybell in June, Green Acres and Barron Park residents said they'd be willing to compromise if the number of homes was reduced from 15 to eight. The Housing Corporation chose not to go that route, claiming the change would compromise the entire project financially. At a recent interview, Gonzalez said each lot is projected to bring in about $1 million for the total development when re-sold to a private home builder. By selling that part of the land, it helps makes the senior-housing component more financially viable. Because of the City Council mandate that the number of homes be reduced from 15 to 12, the Housing Corporation was already left scrambling to bridge the $3 million gap, Gonzalez said.
When questioned about why eight larger lots could not be sold for the equivalent of 12 smaller ones, Gonzalez said in an email that the Housing Corporation didn't believe the revenue would be equal, as developers wouldn't pay premium unless they had guarantees that larger homes could be built there.
Those questions aside, and returning to the assertion that Measure D "has nothing to do with senior housing," the claim ignores the simplest fact that, if the measure passes, the city's limited stock of affordable housing will receive a huge boost.
"The PC zone here will produce a project that is less dense, less impactful and protects the neighborhood better than existing zoning." (Councilman Larry Klein on Aug. 8.)
Council members and Housing Corporation officials have repeatedly asserted that changing the zoning for 567 Maybell Ave. would result in a less not more dense development than what could be built with current zoning. Opponents say the PC project represents an intensification that would harm the neighborhood character.
What is clear is that the two sides wildly disagree on what could be built under the current zoning. Scharff predicted dozens of condominiums would go up; Gray and Moss countered that developers would likely construct around 15 single-family homes.
The City FAQ on Maybell states: "Under the existing zoning (R-2 and R-15) approximately 34-46 homes could be built."
So let's do some math. The existing RM-15 zone, which allows up to 15 multi-family residences per acre, makes up more than 75 percent of the orchard site. That's about 1.8 acres. So as many as 27 units could be built in the RM-15 portion.
Then there's the R-2 part, known as a "two-family residence district," along Maybell Avenue. It's much like R-1, the standard single-family-home neighborhood, except that it allows a second unit with each house. Currently, the zone includes four homes. If redeveloped, each home in the R-2 zone could theoretically add a dwelling unit, raising the number of residences to eight. The total for the parcel would then be 35.
The number can go up further, though, if the developer offers to designate some of the residences "below market rate." State law would give the developer a bonus of 35 percent more density if 10 percent of the project is devoted to the "very low" income level. Thus staff's estimate that the site could accommodate 46 units under existing zoning seems accurate.
There are some complications, though. The R-2 zone, for example, allows a second dwelling unit but requires a lot of at least 6,000 square feet. The whole R-2 site itself is not quite 14,000 square feet and has four homes on it, meaning the lot sizes are nowhere near 6,000-square-foot minimum. That calls into question the city's calculation that there could be two residences on each lot.
Even if homeowners were allowed to build a second residence, the type would be a small granny unit, according to the city's zoning code hardly a true "duplex," as the city's FAQ states.
Opponents call the city's upward estimate of 46 residences "pure fantasy." Joe Hirsch has labeled the staff analysis a "scare tactic" and has criticized the smallness of the lots that 46 residences would have to be built on.
But city staff has countered with examples of other RM-15 zones in Palo Alto where single-family homes were located on lots smaller than 2,330 square feet. The Wisteria Lane development, built in 1999, has 13 detached condominiums and lot sizes ranging from 1,742 to 2,010 square feet, according to the planning department. The Sterling Park development on West Bayshore Avenue is not in an R-15 zone, but it includes detached homes on 1,398-square-foot lots.
Hirsch dismissed this possibility and argued that a developer is unlikely to build "stack-and-pack homes" of this sort on the Maybell site, noting that these homes would have no front yards, no back yards and would be "totally out of character with surrounding single-family neighborhoods."
There are problems, too, with the Housing Corporation's assertion that the development does not represent an increased density for the neighborhood. On Maybell, there are currently four homes on the 0.6 acres of R-2. With the PC zoning, the same land would host seven homes.
Those homes would be setback from the street about 20 feet, with lot widths of 48 feet. The five three-story homes on Clemo would have 20-foot setbacks.
Comparing the numbers of residences is a bit like apples and oranges, admittedly. Councilman Berman, in supporting the Housing Corporation's proposal, noted that the numbers of bedrooms and people need to be considered. Sixty one-bedroom senior apartments, he said, would have less of an impact than a 34-unit market-rate development in which most homes would have multiple bedrooms. One could also argue that, depending on the size of lots, four larger single-family homes could have more people living in them than seven smaller homes.
The question of what can be allowed at the site was critical in the council's decision on whether to approve the zone change at 567 Maybell Ave. The council, which includes former planning commissioners Pat Burt, Karen Holman and Klein, did not challenge staff's analysis. In fact, the two council members most familiar with the fine print in the zoning code, Burt and Holman, both struggled to see why the neighborhood is opposing the zone change, given what can be approved under the existing zoning designation.
On Aug. 8, just before the council voted to hold an election in November, Burt argued that even without the benefit of senior housing, the zone change will result "in a project with less density and less impacts than existing zoning."
"Affordable senior housing can be built within existing zoning." (Rebuttal argument from Measure D opponents)
In theory, opponents of Measure D are correct in asserting that existing zoning would accommodate senior housing. In practice, this would be a long shot.
The Palo Alto Housing Corporation was able to get funding for the purchase through the state's tax-credits system precisely because of the project's density and its ability to devote 20 of 60 units to the lowest-income seniors, who make 30 percent or less of the area median income (monthly rent here would be about $500). The other 40 units would serve seniors who earn up to 60 percent of the area median income and generate higher rents (up to about $1,000), making it financially feasible to run the housing complex.
Existing zoning would allow 41 units of senior housing, but if the Housing Corporation had pursued that option, it may have missed out on the roughly $13 million in state tax-credit funding. According to the Housing Corporation, the tax-credit application process awards applicants "more points for extremely low-income units," yet also expects projects to "have a mix that allows the project to support itself over the long term."
"The application looks at total project costs per unit. More units offset costs to balance out the high cost of land, especially in a real estate market like Palo Alto. The fixed costs stay the same (e.g., land, architect fees, etc.) so costs per unit go down with more units," the Housing Corporation stated.
Gonzalez said that if Measure D fails, the Housing Corporation may sell the land. It's far from a given that whoever buys it will choose to build affordable housing. Both opponents and proponents of Measure D have speculated on what a developer would do with the land, but neither side has suggested that a private developer would use it to build affordable housing for seniors, even though, technically, he "can."
"I'd argue there are lots of opportunities for seniors without cars to travel to get on the bus, get off the bus, transfer from this area to a wide range of services." (Jean McCown, Sept. 28 debate)
Proponents of Measure D claim the area around Maybell and Clemo has plenty of services and amenities for seniors. Opponents disagree. At the June 10 council meeting, area resident John Elman provided an oral catalog of oil-change services and motels in the area. The El Camino Real corridor has more than a dozen motels, some of which "entertain people for the whole night" and others are for people who have "an hour to kill or so." Real amenities for seniors, he said, are sorely lacking.
"I suggest you rezone parts of El Camino Real so you have a supermarket or a hardware store, if you're in the rezoning business," Elman said.
McCown made an argument to the contrary at the Sept. 28 debate on Measure D.
She pointed to the Walgreens and Starbucks nearby and lauded Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) bus service, specifically Line 22, which runs up and down El Camino Real.
"El Camino is really a transportation corridor that works very, very well," she said.
But though Walgreens offers groceries, it is "not like a supermarket," McCown admitted.
As for medical facilities? At a recent tour of the orchard, Gonzalez pointed to Planned Parenthood on San Antonio Road, which she stressed provides more than just birth-control and family-planning services.
Gonzalez also noted that there would be synergies between the new development and the adjacent Arastradero Parks Apartments, a project for low-income families that is run by the Housing Corporation. There would be shared vans for runs to the grocery store. A residential-services coordinator would also be able to offer rides to seniors heading to medical appointments.
Still, it's a tall order to claim that the area is rich in accessible amenities for seniors. The site may be a short walk from El Camino, but it's well south of both downtown and Town and Country Village.
Planning and Transportation Commissioner Alex Panelli, who lives in south Palo Alto, was the sole member of the commission to vote against the project largely on the basis of inadequate services.
He said he doesn't consider the amenities near the Maybell site to be "significant enough" to satisfy seniors' needs.
"This project, as a PC zone, will create as much or more traffic than existing zoning." (Bob Moss, Sept. 30 meeting of the City Council)
Residents have every right to be concerned about adding traffic to Maybell Avenue, a popular school route to Gunn High, Terman Middle and other schools. During the morning commute, a trail of slow-moving cars competes with groups of bicycling children for space on the narrow road. Things also get hairy in the afternoon when Gunn gets out, and its growing legion of bicyclists hits the streets.
Otherwise, the road is quiet. On a recent weekday afternoon, the orchard site was perfectly serene, with silence occasionally punctuated by a cruising vehicle.
At recent council meetings, proponents and opponents agreed that the traffic situation around Maybell and Clemo is far from ideal. Barron Park resident Maurice Green, who opposes Measure D, and Councilman Marc Berman, who supports it, each showed videos to illustrate that same point.
Green suggested the Maybell development would make the situation even worse.
"Seniors may not drive very much, even during morning hours, but what about their caretakers, the staff that comes to the senior housing project to take care of them?"
Another area resident, Kevin Hauck, lamented at a recent meeting that residents around Maybell are "forced to play defense about concerns that our kids are going to be in a very dangerous situation every morning and afternoon."
Unfortunately, unless the site remains an orchard (which neither side expects will happen), development is coming and with it more traffic. The big question is whether the Housing Corporation project would worsen commute-hour traffic more than would a development built under existing zoning. City staff's position on this matter has been unequivocal: Traffic caused by the Maybell project will be less.
At the Arastadero Park Apartments, a low-income housing complex next to the orchard site, 55 percent of its senior tenants don't drive, according to the Housing Corporation. Those who do drive, typically do it during non-rush hours.
At the Sheridan Senior Apartments, the only Housing Corporation development devoted exclusively to seniors, only one out of 66 seniors works, and the job is part-time, Gonzalez said.
The Maybell development would generate 16 additional car trips during the morning peak hour and 21 during the evening commute, according to a city traffic study.
By contrast, a 34-unit subdivision that could be built under existing zoning would generate 22 and 32 peak-hour trips in the morning and afternoon, respectively. If the subdivision were to get a "density bonus" to build 35 percent more housing units, the numbers would go up to 32 and 43, respectively, city Planner Tim Wong told the planning commission in May.
Former planning director Curtis Williams said at the meeting that even if the Housing Corporation development produced twice as many cars as estimated, it's "one car every five minutes at that location at most."
The city's environmental analysis concludes that, with mitigation, "There would be no significant adverse impacts to traffic and circulation from the proposed project."
Hogwash, say opponents. Bob Moss pointed to a paper prepared by traffic engineer Stephen Corcoran and presented to the Institute of Traffic Engineers in 1995. Corcoran analyzed data on 24 senior-housing developments from transportation agencies in California, Arizona and Florida and concluded that the average number of daily trips per unit was 4.52. Applying it to 60 units would net 271 trips a day from the senior development alone. Moss took that figure and added it to the projected traffic from the proposed 12 single-family homes. Using a figure of 10 trips per day, which Moss attributed to former city Chief Transportation Official Joe Kott (Corcoran's figure of 9.55 is in the ballpark), the 12 houses would result in 120 trips. Under this formulation, the entire development would result in 391 additional trips. (Using a higher ratio for the senior housing listed in Corcoran's report, 5.64, Moss estimated the additional trips could total as much as 458.)
Under existing zoning, if 28 apartments are built in the R-15 zone, Moss estimated they each would net 7.5 or 8 trips per day, bringing the total to 210 to 224. That number could rise to 304 with the 35 percent density bonus. At the highest end of the spectrum, a project complying with existing zoning could generate 370 trips under Moss' calculation.
"That's why we keep saying this project, with the PC zone, will create as much or more traffic as existing zoning," Moss told the council on Sept. 30.
This calculation requires some caution, however. Corcoran's study came out in 1995 and it relies on methodologies that were formulated in 1991 and 1987, respectively. Even disregarding the passage of time, the study is loaded with caveats and limitations, including the small sample of data on which it was based. Corcoran warned that the study lumped various types of senior housing regular apartments, assisted-care units, senior single-family homes, etc. together.
"The trip-generation rates for individual facilities varied. Insufficient information on all the survey locations made it difficult to statistically draw conclusions on individual impact of those factors," he wrote.
Corcoran's paper did confirm the Housing Corporation's assertions that seniors are far less likely than other residents to drive during the morning peak hour (though his average trip rate, at 0.22, was roughly double that of the Housing Corporation's estimate). The busiest commute time in California was between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., depending on the facility. He noted that residents "do not have or want to travel during the rush hour."
Corcoran also pointed out that "as the average age of residents increases, the number of trips and parking demand decreases." His conclusion on the issue of traffic?
"Compared to other residential land-uses, senior developments generate significantly less traffic on a per-unit basis."
"Almost all, if not all, senior housing and affordable housing in Palo Alto has required a PC rezone." (Candice Gonzalez, June 10 City Council meeting)
Palo Alto's history is filled with examples of the city supporting low-income developments. There are plenty of precedents for the city granting PC zones to affordable-housing proposals, including the Housing Corporation's most recent development, the 35-unit Treehouse on Charleston Road. Proponents have pointed out repeatedly that PC projects are required to create the kind of density these projects need to be financially viable.
"Every affordable senior project, and I think virtually every affordable-housing project, is a PC zone," McCown said in an interview at the Weekly. "So the zoning that (the city) created for market-rate assumptions doesn't actually work for affordable-housing projects. Every project has had to come in and present itself slightly outside the box of traditional zoning that the PC allows for."
But to imply that every affordable-housing project requires a PC zone is inaccurate. The city's most prominent and recent affordable-housing development, 801 Alma St., is a case in point.
Spearheaded by Eden Housing and the Community Working Group, the project was initially proposed as a PC zone and included 50 housing units for low-income families and 46 units of senior housing.
Much like in the Maybell debate, opponents of 801 Alma, including those living in the adjacent 800 High St., asserted the development would be too dense and that its traffic impacts would prove too much for the South of Forest Avenue (SOFA) neighborhood.
Eden Housing listened to the criticism and backed away from the zone change. It then came back with a revised proposal that eliminated the senior housing and the handful of businesses that would have been in the ground floor of that building. What was left, under existing RT-50 (residential transition) zoning, was 50 units of family housing.
The tale of 801 Alma St. can be viewed in two ways. One can argue that backing away from the PC zone doomed the senior-housing project, which underscores the need for PC zoning to accommodate senior developments. One can argue equally persuasively that sticking with underlying zoning created an affordable-housing project that was more palatable to the community (aside from the architecture, which many Palo Altans, including some council members, have recently derided as "fortress-like"). But given 801 Alma, the assertion that a PC zone is absolutely necessary for an affordable-housing project isn't entirely accurate.