If the Palo Alto Housing Corporation proceeds with the approved plan, it will build 60 apartments for low-income seniors and a dozen homes to be sold at market rate. Proceeds from the market-rate homes would subsidize the senior housing.
But even if voters overturn this plan in a November referendum, the land is unlikely to remain dormant. From the city's perspective, should the referendum succeed and the zone change be reversed, the election could be a Pyrrhic victory for the residents. Effectively, it would leave the door open for a project that could bring greater traffic problems than what's being proposed by the nonprofit developer.
Existing zoning rules entitle the property owner to build 34 homes on the 2.4 acre site, currently occupied by a few homes and an orchard. The number could go up, however, if the developer were to offer some of these homes at below-market rates. According to city planner Tim Wong, project manager for the Maybell proposal, a developer would be allowed to increase density by 35 percent if 10 percent of the development is devoted to housing for residents at the "very low" income level or if 20 percent is built for those earning a "low" income. If a developer were to take advantage of this "density bonus," which is encoded in state law, the number of homes allowed at the site would increase to 46, Wong said at the council's June 13 meeting.
This alternative was a major consideration in the council's deeply controversial decision to approve the zone change. Even though the Maybell project would lead to greater density at the site, council members agreed that the changes to traffic would be hardly noticeable owing to the expectation that seniors drive far less frequently, if at all. The predicted traffic would be less than that of a development that is compliant with the original residential zoning.
"We know there would be 34 (homes) if not done by this applicant. Frankly, it could be closer to 46, by right, and there's nothing we can do to stop that from being built," Councilman Marc Berman said June 13.
Berman, who analyzed the traffic in the area over a series of visits to the site, brought up this factor in supporting the senior-housing plan. Even under a conservative estimate that uses methodology from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, traffic resulting from the Housing Corporation would be equivalent to about 31 new homes, Berman said. And when seniors drive, he noted, it's usually in off-peak hours.
Senior Assistant City Attorney Cara Silver confirmed that the city would not be able to prevent a developer from getting the density bonus, which is guaranteed by state law.
"The city cannot force a developer to build a lesser project if (the developer) is requesting something that is permitted by (legal) right," Silver told the council June 13.
An analysis by Hexagon Transportation Consultants had determined that the project would result in 16 new car trips during the morning peak-commute hour and 21 new trips during the late-afternoon peak.
Residents around the project site have disputed these findings and argued consistently that their neighborhood is already a traffic mess, thanks in part to the recent reconfiguration of lanes on Arastradero Road. At recent hearings, some showed videos and photos of Maybell Avenue during peak hours, with traffic badly congested and cars sharing roads with herds of bicyclists heading to and from schools. Though residents had other concerns about the project as well, including the compatibility of new houses with the existing neighborhood, traffic was at the center of the debate.
"With all the congestion City Council and staff have already created, it is irresponsible to increase zoning," Barron Park resident Lydia Kou told the council June 10.
Officials for the Housing Corporations have disputed residents' warnings about future traffic problems. Jessica de Wit, project manager with the Housing Corporation, noted that the vast majority of the tenants in the organization's existing properties throughout town don't work, and many don't drive. In Arastradero Park Apartments, which are next to the Maybell site, 89 percent of the senior tenants don't work, she said, and 55 percent do not drive. If a development of 34 homes were built, it would produce "38 to 52 percent more peak-hour traffic than the proposed project," de Wit said.
Prior to the council's vote approving the Maybell rezoning on June 28, Councilman Larry Klein said the planned-community zone would "afford more protection to the neighborhood than the existing zoning would."