Three years after a proposed housing development on Maybell Avenue stoked a revolt in Palo Alto's Barron Park neighborhood, a new plan to build housing on the former orchard site is on the verge of winning the city's approval.
In a remarkable turnaround, the same people who led the campaign to kill the 72-unit housing proposal in 2013 are now urging the city to swiftly approve the new development. Buoyed by community's support, the new developer scored a big victory on Wednesday night, when the Planning and Transportation Commission endorsed the project.
The differences between the new project and the one that won the council's approval in 2013, only to be overturned in a citywide referendum, are significant. The original proposal from the Palo Alto Housing Corporation called for a 60-unit apartment building for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes along the perimeter of the site, near the intersection of Maybell and Clemo avenues.
The new proposal from Golden Gate Homes would bring 16 homes to the 2.46-acre property, with the only access point for vehicles coming on the Clemo side.
Ted O'Hanlon, consulting project manager for Golden Gate Homes, stressed at the Wednesday hearing that the project had been thoroughly vetted and ultimately embraced by the community. Since Golden Gate Homes bought the property in 2014, it has gradually reduced the number of units proposed from the initial 30, to 23, to the current 16, he said.
O'Hanlon told the commission that the firm took a "great leap" to limit the number of homes, given the city's astronomical housing costs. The city's zoning code, he noted, could have allowed up to 40 units.
"Golden Gate Homes is taking on a significant amount of risk to continue to reduce density," O'Hanlon said.
But the less-dense development, as well as Golden Gate's decision not to create a driveway onto Maybell, succeeded in winning neighborhood support, with more than 230 people signing an online petition in favor of the project and several dozen attending Wednesday's hearing. Some wore green stickers with "16 Homes, Maybell Safety" on them.
Residents also rallied to oppose a recommendation from city staff that the development include a pedestrian and bicycle path from its interior to Maybell. Many echoed the developer's argument that the path would get little to no use, a position at odds with that of the city's transportation staff.
Joe Hirsch, one of the founding members of the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, pointed to the level of community support and urged the commission to approve the project.
"It's clear that the vast majority of people in the Maybell neighborhood and elsewhere in Palo Alto support Golden Gate Homes' current plan," Hirsch said.
Terry Holzemer, who opposed the prior Maybell plan, joined Hirsch in praising the developer's efforts to work with the residents to design a project palatable to all.
"We have a lot to learn from what Golden Gate Homes has done here, and I hope other developers can find the same path they found, which is working with the community directly, especially those that are most affected," Holzemer said.
The only speaker on Wednesday who opposed the project was resident David Moss. He noted that the City Council often talks about the city's "severe housing shortage."
"The idea that we went from 30 units to 23 to 16 is absolutely the opposite direction from what the City Council dictated that we need to go," Moss said. "I just don't understand how we can get away with that."
The commission also heaped praise on Golden Gate Homes for winning community support and, in a concession to the developer, agreed to remove the requirement for the pedestrian path.
Joshuah Mello, the city's chief transportation official, spoke out in favor of the path, and told the commission that staff has been consistently encouraging the applicant to provide residents with access to both Clemo and Maybell and that a pedestrian path was the "minimum amount of access" that staff would support.
Without the path, he said, some of the residents in the development would have to walk about 440 feet to get to Maybell, which he said was "not a trivial addition to walking distance."
The path, he said, is consistent with the city's broader effort to shift people from driving to other modes of transportation.
"Every little bit of distance could discourage someone from taking transit, or walking to Walgreens or taking future transit along El Camino," Mello said.
The commission didn't feel as strongly about the path and, after some debate, recommended approving the application without the amenity. Commissioner Michael Alcheck said that while he believes there is value in these types of connections, in this case he would prefer to defer to the developer. Alcheck also said that he hopes, as the city moves forward, that the real takeaway is how the developer demonstrated "new ways to work with the community to create greater housing density in other locations."
Commissioner Asher Waldfogel concurred that while pedestrian connectivity is "a really great idea," the overwhelming sentiments in the community should be respected.
"If you live by the sword, you die by the sword. ... Once you construct a process, you just have to take this process where it goes," Waldfogel said.
The commission's recommendation will be forwarded to the City Council, which will make the final decision on the site map for the proposed development.