Like many decisions that come after much community angst, Tuesday night's final approval of 16 single-family homes on a 2.5-acre parcel between Maybell Avenue and Arastradero Road at Clemo Avenue seemed anti-climactic and routine.
The City Council, which easily could have begun tinkering with the details of the project, was anxious to finally put the issue to rest and not risk any further controversy or delay, especially with the unusual situation of neighbors being in full support of the final development proposal.
A book could be written about the history of this property and the political shockwaves it produced over the last three years in Palo Alto, including the election of a slow-growth City Council majority in 2014.
The original 2013 development proposal by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the supply of subsidized affordable housing and to managing subsidized apartments for individuals, families and seniors, became a flash point for an intense debate that ultimately led to voters overturning by a 56 to 44 percent vote margin the City Council's unanimous approval of the project. It was a humiliating rebuke of the council's approval of the plan to build a four-story, 60-unit subsidized senior apartment building and to develop 12 surrounding lots for new home construction that would generate $11 million in profits to help pay for the senior project.
With the existing zoning and building rules not coming close to allowing these 12 homes, the Housing Corporation asked for zoning exceptions reducing the lot sizes to below the minimum required and relaxing other building requirements. In essence, it asked for the immediate neighborhood to bear the full impact of upzoning the land so the city as a whole could benefit from the senior housing project.
It was an avoidable controversy. If a few things had been handled differently by the city, the Housing Corporation and the neighbors the city could have achieved the desired low-income senior apartment complex with neighborhood impacts no greater than the project approved this week.
Many hard-learned lessons emerge from the last three years, although there is still so much bitterness and residual anger that it may be too soon to fully process them. Many proponents and opponents of the original proposal still want to debate the merits of their views, the motivations of the other side and the actions that could have forestalled the breakdown in trust among all involved. We hope they can put these lingering differences aside, resist further sniping and move on.
The Weekly, long a supporter of the Housing Corporation and its mission, was not immune from criticism by housing advocates for our support of the referendum that overturned the City Council's approval of the original project and is held responsible by some for the outcome.
With hindsight, lots of miscalculations were made by all involved.
The Housing Corporation, which had never attempted a project that depended on the development of high-priced, market rate housing to finance a subsidized housing development, underestimated the importance of obtaining support from the immediate neighbors and was overconfident about its political influence and the ease with which it could obtain the needed zoning exceptions.
The city staff, Planning Commission and City Council incorrectly gauged the political dangers and waited until too late in the process, after trust of the neighborhood had been lost, to actively attempt to negotiate a compromise or to commit city housing funds to help achieve the senior housing without the need to so significantly upzone the remainder of the property.
For their part, the neighbors became so embittered by the traffic and other impacts that they feared would come from the proposed zoning changes that they mounted a campaign that took aim at every conceivable aspect of the project and the process, raising doubts about their willingness to support any compromise at all that could save the senior housing component.
And the Weekly believed, incorrectly it turned out, that the council would step up after a defeat at the polls and make city funds available, if ultimately needed, in order to reduce the number of homes and enable the core senior housing project to proceed.
The 16-home development approved Tuesday by the council is no one's idea of the ideal outcome. The community lost a chance to create 60 apartments for low-income seniors.
It's no day for celebration, except that the issue is now settled. Hopefully the cautionary lessons learned from the Maybell controversy will be long remembered by our political leaders and neighborhood activists so we can be more successful in handling and negotiating outcomes of future land-use decisions.