Some call it an innovative way to create needed housing that will become the wave of the future. Others call it inappropriate spot up-zoning that would cause severe parking impacts on the surrounding neighborhood, do nothing to create affordable housing and set a terrible precedent.
On Monday night, a divided City Council heard a divided public weigh in on a proposal that would likely have been laughed out of city hall a few years ago. But in the wake of rising agitation to build more housing for the workers of expanding high tech companies and others, the plan for a 60-apartment building where a parking lot now stands at the corner of Page Mill Road and El Camino Real may actually have legs. The public should be wary.
The proposal for 60 units of rental housing (30 very small studio and 30 one-bedroom apartments ranging from 500 to 700 square feet) -- far more than would be allowed on such a small lot anywhere in the city under current zoning -- is destined to become, appropriately, a major issue in the fall City Council campaign.
As presented by developer Windy Hill Property Ventures, only 45 parking spaces would be provided, less than one per apartment and fewer than half of what would typically be required. The concept is that the project will attract residents who have decided against car ownership and will walk, bike or take public transportation to their jobs and social and recreational activities.
This is the modern millennial lifestyle described by some housing advocates, who argue the site is a perfect place to test the theory in a suburban environment, where it has not been tried before.
The developer says instead of the normal number of required parking places it would provide 84 bike parking spots, Caltrain passes and a transportation coordinator who will live on-site and help the residents get around without cars, including by utilizing shared vehicles. It says it would also support a Residential Parking Program for the California Avenue neighborhood surrounding the site that would preclude apartment tenants from getting parking permits for street parking during the day.
The immediate neighborhood, which includes several housing complexes and commercial offices, is already highly impacted by insufficient parking. And major new housing and office projects are underway or will be soon within blocks of the property. It takes a major leap of faith to think that the proposed new micro-apartments will attract residents who opt against owning a car and that such a development will have no parking or traffic impacts.
Notably, the developer has not made any estimates on rental rates. But based on the experience in Redwood City and Mountain View with newly constructed apartments, these units will not be bargains and will not be affordable to those with moderate incomes.
So as the community debates the merits of this micro-apartment concept, we must achieve greater clarity and, hopefully, some degree of consensus, on what problem we're trying to solve with our housing development priorities.
Are we simply trying to add as many units of housing as possible, regardless of the demographic being served, while doing our best to control the associated parking and transportation impacts?
Or are we trying to target the creation of housing that is affordable to lower paid but critically important service workers who help to maintain both economic and ethnic diversity in the community?
As we have stated previously, simply creating more housing that can only be afforded by highly paid tech workers is of much less value than a concerted strategy aimed at those with moderate incomes.
One problem, of course, is that it is virtually impossible for a for-profit developer, without some form of public subsidy, to build and rent new apartments at a price affordable to service workers given the high cost of land and construction. That subsidy can come in the form of allowing increased density, reduced parking or through public ownership of the land. (Building housing above city-owned parking lots at higher density, for example, would eliminate land costs and allow for less expensive rental rates.)
The Page Mill-El Camino site, however, is owned by a private developer and the city must decide what to allow there. Currently zoned "public facility," any development will require new zoning. This gives the city complete control over what it chooses to encourage and ultimately approve, and the developer knew of that uncertainty when it bought the property.
The microunit housing concept's allure is in its aim to provide many more rental units than traditional zoning would permit, without any increased parking and traffic impacts. But allure should not lead to policy decisions. The developer and supporters need to show examples of similar, successful under-parked developments, and the city should perform the independent economic analysis needed to determine how to negotiate for the maximum number of designated affordable units.
In the meantime, the proposal gives the public an unusual opportunity to pin down the 11 City Council candidates on their housing positions and to elect those who most reflect their views.