I would like to add some insights to the Palo Alto Weekly editorial, "A bittersweet outcome," published in the July 1 issue. There are parts of the editorial that I agree with, and some that I, from my perspective and the perspective of the neighborhood I live in, simply have to disagree with.
Yes, the neighbors were "embittered" (although "frustrated" might be a better characterization) but not by "traffic and other impacts" but by the City Council (our elected representatives), city staff and the Palo Alto Housing Corporation (PAHC) completely ignoring the concerns of the people who would be most directly affected on a daily basis for many years by the proposed Maybell Avenue housing project if it had been built.
In June 2013, I personally asked the council for a Terman Working Group-like process, which in the early 1980s reached agreement in four-party discussions about the future mixed use of the then-closed Terman Middle School. What were we offered? A few rushed days on a weekend in June with Mayor Greg Scharff, an openly vocal proponent of the project, then and later, as the not-so-neutral mediator. Clearly that was going, and went, nowhere.
During the interview that Cheryl Lilienstein and I had with Palo Alto Weekly publisher Bill Johnson in August 2013, he asked if we would reach out to the PAHC to see if some compromise could be agreed upon. Walking out of the meeting, I immediately met Jean McCown in the lobby of the Weekly (Jean was a former colleague of mine for four years on the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission) and told her that if representatives of the PAHC wanted to meet and discuss the situation, we would be happy to meet with them at any time. I repeated that statement to the City Council the week before the referendum and the week after the referendum (even though we had won).
People in this city need to know that at no time did PAHC leaders ever respond to those offers. Not once, not at all, not a single word, not a single call to this very day -- even after they lost the referendum. In that regard, as the editorial correctly notes, the PAHC "underestimated the importance of obtaining support from the immediate neighbors."
I don't agree with the editorial's observation that there were miscalculations by the neighborhood. Because the PAHC was not willing to meet with representatives of the neighborhood (they were, after all, going to soundly defeat the referendum), we were left with absolutely no other alternative but to file the referendum and see it through to the vote and the victory for us that ensued.
In doing so, we touched upon the very strong feelings that Palo Altans want to be more involved, and listened to, in what happens in their neighborhood. They still do.
What I do agree with is that it was "an avoidable controversy," which is the lesson that has to be learned from the Maybell controversy. If -- and that remains a very big if -- developers, city staff, the City Council and others take the time to meet with, listen to and appropriately consider the feelings and opinions of residents who will be affected by any proposed development, controversies such as what evolved over the Maybell site may very well be avoided. Current developer Golden Gate Homes did so with the project just approved by the council for that site.
One final point, and this also needs to be clearly understood by the people of Palo Alto, as some don't understand it even today: The neighborhood was never opposed to having senior housing on the Maybell site (although we thought it was not a good site for senior housing for many reasons). As Cheryl and I said in our Oct. 4, 2013, op-ed piece in the Weekly: "Our opposition to the ordinance is not about senior housing. We are not opposed to development of senior apartments on the Maybell site if developed within the current RM-15 zone. We are against the high-density rezoning in residential neighborhoods, particularly by the Planned Community process, which creates problems for all Palo Altans." (As an aside, it is interesting to note that the counter op-ed piece in favor of the proposed development with senior housing on the Maybell site was written by Scharff and placed next to the op-piece written by Cheryl and myself. So much for Scharff trying to position himself as a "neutral" mediator.)
We, and many others, still believe that residents need to be actively and genuinely consulted with regard to significant developments proposed to take place in their immediate neighborhood, maybe even more so now that our quality of life seems to be degrading as new developments are approved.
And with all of the above said, I agree with the concluding sentence in the Weekly's editorial: "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."