For the second time in three years, Palo Alto in preparing to approve a housing development for a former orchard site on Maybell Avenue.
This time, however, both the project and the community's reaction is drastically different. Unlike in 2013, when residents struck down in a referendum a council-approved housing project featuring 12 single-family homes and a 60-unit complex for low-income seniors, the current proposal for 567 Maybell has won widespread support in the Barron Park neighborhood.
The new proposal from Golden Gate Homes includes 16 homes: five along Maybell Avenue and 11 in the interior of the 2.47-acre site. The latter would be accessed through a private road that would stretch from Clemo Avenue.
The proposal has already gone through numerous revisions since April 2014, when Golden Gate Homes purchased the property from the Palo Alto Housing Corporation. While initially envisioned as a 30-home development, the project was scaled back to 24 and, ultimately, 16 homes based on feedback from residents. As of Friday afternoon, more than 230 residents signed a petition urging the council to support the project.
The high level for resident support was a key consideration for the Planning and Transportation Commission, which unanimously voted on May 26 to recommend approval of the new proposal. Based on public feedback, commissioners also rejected a recommendation from the city's planning staff that the developer include a pedestrian path that connects the housing development to Maybell (in the existing plan, the path that comes off Clemo terminates in the interior of the site).
The path was the main point of contention between city planners and the developer. Ted O'Hanlon, consulting project manager for Golden Gate Homes, argued at the May 26 meeting that the path is not necessary and that requiring it would be unreasonable, given how few residents would use it.
"Clemo will provide residents with adequate pedestrian access to Maybell Avenue," O'Hanlon said.
But Chief Transportation Official Josh Mello said the city has consistently requested that the developer offer residents access to both Clemo and Maybell. Without it, the walk from the private street at the site's interior to Maybell would be about 440 feet, Mello said, or equivalent of about two city blocks. The distance, he said, is long enough to potentially discourage people from walking to area services.
"It's not a trivial addition to walking distance," Mello said.
The commission generally agreed that a pathway would be a good idea. But they ultimately sided with the neighborhood residents, who joined O'Hanlon in arguing against the pathway.
Joe Hirsch, who was one of the leaders of the 2013 referendum, called the current proposal a "unique circumstance" in which a developer has been collaborating with the neighborhood.
"We encourage the city to respect the wishes of this neighborhood, and we ask this commission to recommend approval without the condition requiring a pedestrian path," Hirsch said.
The commission ultimately deferred to the public sentiment and voted 4-0, with Chair Adrian Fine and commissioners Kate Downing and Eric Rosenblum absent, to recommend approval without the path. Commissioner Asher Waldfogel, representing the view of the majority, argued that the city should respect the will of the community.
"Once you construct a process, you just have to take this process where it goes," Waldfogel said.
Now, it will be the City Council's turn to consider the project and the potential pathway. The council is set to consider approving the tentative map for the proposed development. If the project gets approved, Golden Gate Homes would still need to go through the architectural-review process before it could start building.