As City Council returns, sticky issues await | August 2, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 2, 2013

As City Council returns, sticky issues await

From banning overnight car camping to controversial development proposals, council members face complex and emotional issues as they return from summer break

Palo Alto City Council members had better be rested after their month-long break, because they have a volatile set of issues lined up for as far as one can see.

Monday night the topic will be a proposed phase-in of a ban on sleeping in vehicles, an issue that has been cycling through city processes for the last five years without resolution. Originally planned for consideration in September, the timing of next week's discussion, during a week when more families are probably away on vacation than in town, suggests a desire by Mayor Greg Scharff to get this issue behind it with as little tumult and visibility as possible.

It will be an uncomfortable meeting regardless, as there is great compassion and concern for the homeless among Palo Altans and an organized opposition effort. But the council must separate the importance of helping the homeless from permitting dwelling in vehicles or turning a blind eye to what is happening at the Cubberley Community Center.

As Council member Gail Price courageously concluded when she shifted positions and voted for a ban on car dwelling in committee, we are not helping the homeless by our current hands-off approach, and we are allowing a bad situation at Cubberley in particular to get worse with the passage of time. What is needed, she said, was intensive help and referral to support services.

The council chambers will undoubtedly be filled Monday night with impassioned advocates for delaying any action so other options can again be explored. But it is long past time for an ordinance, and we hope the council is finally ready to be decisive.

The City Council also returns to a pair of messy issues pertaining to Palo Alto's west side. It's June approval of a Palo Alto Housing Corporation-sponsored development on Maybell Ave. near Briones Park appears to be coming right back to center stage in the form of a referendum that appears likely to qualify for a city-wide vote. And the proposed redevelopment of the Buena Vista Trailer Park is facing vigorous resistance by those wanting to help the park's low-income residents and prevent the conversion of the land into high-priced housing.

These are more than debates over zoning and traffic. Wrapped up in them are questions about our values, where Palo Alto is headed, and how important economic diversity is to the community. The Maybell and Buena Vista proposals bring into sharp focus the delicate issue of how much we wish to invest in preserving or creating low-income housing, and how much should come at the expense of higher density and other impacts on individual neighborhoods.

This is an important conversation to have, and has been all but ignored in the quiet work being done to update the city's comprehensive plan. Without being deliberately addressed, these issues will continue to surface only in the context of specific development proposals, which is the worst place to formulate policy.

With commercial development proposals coming at the city at an unprecedented pace, the City Council is also facing a growing public discontent over the city's approach to parking, traffic, zoning and design.

A massive proposal for a 300,000 square-foot building next to the AOL building at Park Blvd. and Page Mill Rd. on a site that is already built out to the maximum allowed under the zoning is barely on the radar of most community members, yet it is already in the pipeline for formal analyses and rezoning.

Meanwhile a series of community meetings will attempt to gather input on how 27 University Ave., site of John Arrillaga's proposed office towers and theater, should be developed.

And studies of both the future of the California Ave. business district and downtown are in process, with a focus on how much development should be planned for and how parking and traffic should be managed.

Downtown parking problems are another hot potato issue for the City Council, and the council's decision last November to lump a possible residential parking permit system with the downtown development study has only served to increase frustration among virtually everyone who lives between the creek and Embarcadero Rd. This week's release by some neighborhood activists of an open source online tool for projecting future parking deficits downtown is a welcome grass-roots initiative, but also one that reflects resentment over the process.

Public agitation over new development is clearly and justifiably on the rise, and the council would be wise to develop a more coordinated and proactive approach to engaging the community on them. Referenda should be acts of last resort for citizens. They reflect a failure in the normal processes of government and a wake-up call that there is significant discontent. While the economic rebound driving these development pressures is good news, the City Council needs to hear that message and make sure its decisions are aligned with evolving community views.


Posted by resident, a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 2, 2013 at 10:53 pm

Putting a low-income housing development at Maybell doesn't increase diversity, it concentrates low-income housing in one neighborhood that already has more low-income housing developments than any residental area except downtown (where density is more appropriate).

Posted by Resident, a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 2, 2013 at 10:57 pm

I am not directly involved, but I'm pretty sure the Maybell neighbors will not stop there and will hold councilmembers accountable. What councilmembers came back to was their own doing, and will be in future.

Posted by Eric, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 3, 2013 at 7:57 am

The Editorial's impressive comment is spot on:

Referenda should be acts of last resort for citizens. They reflect a failure in the normal processes of government and a wake-up call that there is significant discontent.

Let's hope the city council members pay attention to this wake-up call now.

Posted by resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 4, 2013 at 8:42 am

This is a good editorial although it doesn't quite convey the crisis
stage we have reached. Most of the damage is unmanageable, irreversible, permanent and massive, considering also what is already in the pipeline.It represents government failure at a
shocking level over many years to reach this stage. We have lost
control here and it is very late, the problems are built in.
The bar has been moved in a sense. But still concerted action is
needed and can help mitigate further serious damage, and stop the current trend, if the attitudes, perspective, and perceptions in City Hall can be rectified even without real structural change to take away the PC ordinance abuse for example.

Posted by confused, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 5, 2013 at 11:25 am

" than any residental area except downtown (where density is more appropriate)."
How is it more appropriate in Downtown?

Posted by pavoter, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 5, 2013 at 12:56 pm

@confused -- Denser housing projects are more appropriate downtown because it is already zoned for higher density. What is so egregious about Maybell is that the city changed the zoning to higher than what it was in order to accommodate the project. The higher density zoning was not vetted properly. If the city would keep it at the current zoning, opposition goes away.

And, the senior housing project would not be convenient for seniors. Downtown would be more convenient, seniors could walk to many places to shop. Less traffic would be generated. Maybell Street is already a narrower street than the standard. To increase the traffic load on Maybell which is used by many school children is a disaster waiting to happen. Maybell was made worse by the lane reduction on Arastradero.

Neighbors do not oppose senior housing there if it is built to the current zoning. There are already many low income units in this neighborhood, so the NIMBY argument is a red herring.

What is also very problematic is there are four R-1 homes on Maybell that are slated to be replaced by seven townhouses. This sets a new precedent for Palo Alto: change R-1 neighborhoods into higher density zones. That's the "new urbanism."

The city staff and council members should be ashamed of this kind of back door dealing.

Posted by confused, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 5, 2013 at 1:14 pm

So you want to push all future housing into Downtown? Downtown also has a number of low-income (and senior) housing units.
NIMBY is definitely at play here. Downtown is already built-out and you're worried by a low-density (in comparison) set of units in your neighborhood. Take a look the Channing House extension.
You're not doing your argument any favors. You're expecting everyone in the city to support you in a vote and your "solution" is to place low-income and senior-housing in a different neighborhood.

Posted by Kate, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 5, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Much of the anger about the Maybell development is actually a signal to the city council that the citizens of PA are extremely unhappy with the total mishandling of development in PA. It's time for Palo Altans to hold the present city council reponsible for its recent failures in development. The ARB needs to held accountable, too. I would like to have the referendum folks name the people in city government most responsible for approving the hideous, massive, oversized development in the past couple of years. Pressure needs to be put on these folks to be fired, voted out of office, recalled, etc.
There is massive anger brewing amongst the citizenry about the unfortunate direction this town is taking. The folks are going to have to take control of what is happening. Our city council isn't protecting us and/or doing their job.

Posted by Jill , a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 5, 2013 at 2:10 pm

By allowing these oversized commercial developments in Palo Alto,
the city council is insuring that the developers' families (i.e. Boyd Smith, Chop Keenan and others), will be incredibly wealthy for generations to come, because of the rents these massive buildings will generate. Why are the developers given permits to overbuild on these sites? Shame on this city council for destroying this town.

Posted by pavoter, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 5, 2013 at 3:27 pm

@confused -- or should I say supposedly confused? You seem to have an agenda. You attempt to paint this as a neighborhood against neighborhood issue. Nice try, but not so, and I don't think many residents will fall for that argument!

First, the senior housing project is welcome at the proposed site, just not at the higher density that the city upzoned behind closed doors. So, no I am not saying it shouldn't be built at Maybell.

Second, senior housing located downtown does make more sense where there are stores within easy walking distance. That's just common sense. Maybell doesn't have that. That doesn't mean it should be very high density downtown either. If you are reading the rest of the comments, you will see that residents are fed up with all the high density going up all over Palo Alto.

And you've must not have checked out all the apartment buildings all along the Arastradero corridor which do have low income housing here where the Maybell project is to be built. So, NIMBY accusations are red herrings.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 5, 2013 at 3:34 pm

" senior housing located downtown does make more sense where there are stores within easy walking distance."

Well, except for the most basic necessity: affordable groceries. Whole Foods is the only comprehensive grocery store downtown, and there's a very good reason it's called Whole Paychecks.

The nearest alternatives are Trader Joe's in Town and Country--which is also expensive and not really within walking distance for most seniors--and Safeway in Menlo Park.

Posted by resident, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 5, 2013 at 4:13 pm

OK, I drove today on Maybell just to see what all this upset is all about. And it is.. about nothing really. Except the bunch of owners of the big expensive homes not wanting anything "subsidised".

Posted by confused, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 5, 2013 at 4:26 pm

"Denser housing projects are more appropriate downtown because it is already zoned for higher density."
You state this and then claim this isn't Neighborhood vs. Neighborhood. Downtown wasn't always zoned "as is", it keeps getting re-zoned. I didn't hear any "up in arms" moments during the Lytton development, you were quite happy to let that pass. In fact, you're getting the benefit of the "public benefit" from it instead of downtown.
If you want to pitch this as "a signal to the city council that the citizens of PA are extremely unhappy with the total mishandling of development in PA" then you might have some traction. This would be a call for action to ban *any* re-zoning *anywhere* within Palo Alto without voter approval. Anything less IS NIMBYism. As it is, you just don't want it in your backyard but are quite happy for even more dense housing in Downtown.
Bottom line: If they have to build it somewhere, Palo Alto's west side is the right location. Pushing it into an already overcrowded downtown isn't going to work.

Posted by Teacher, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 5, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Dear Editor,
Wish you'd spend time editing your writers as well as writing your articles. Today's Grab Bag contains a number of stupid errors. this is not the first time either. Please spell check minimally!

Posted by resident, a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 5, 2013 at 5:26 pm

@ resident of College Terrace,

1) School is not in session right now. Come over here when school is in session, especially when it rains (which is most of the winter, usually).

Maybell is of substandard width. There is no room for even one full-width bike path or sidewalk. Yet this is a designated safe route to school and heavily traveled school commute route.

The neighborhood behind (as well as the development) has only one other route out and in, and that is the Arastradero corridor, also a heavily traveled school commute route.

There a several developments in the pipeline, such as the VMware campus, which are slated to increase business traffic along that same corridor. The traffic study commissioned never looked at the safety to the well over 1,000 children on bike and foot on this substandard street, or those future developments already in the pipeline, among other serious errors and omissions.

Posted by resident, a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 5, 2013 at 5:49 pm

@confused, Or should I say, very confused?

I agree with pavoter, you seem to have an agenda to stir up neighborhood against neighborhood.

First, my point was that this immediate neighborhood has more affordable housing developments than any other residential neighborhood in Palo Alto. Apparently College Terrace resident missed those when he drove through, because none of them are as overwhelming as the development proposed for Maybell. (When we bring up all the developments in this neighborhood, people inevitable bring up downtown, but this is not a downtown district, this is a residential neighborhood with none of the services or investments of downtown, either. The point is, there are no other RESIDENTIAL neighborhoods with as much affordable housing development as this area of Greenacres/BP has already.)

Neighbors are not even trying to put the units elsewhere, they're trying to get existing zoning respected, with density, height, setback, parking and daylight plane limits respected. They're trying to get the due safety evaluations for the existing infrastructure and school commute routes.

Nobody is talking about pushing anything anywhere, as you have misstated. We are talking about putting in the units in a way that fits with the character of residential neighborhoods. if we are able to defend zoning here, then when PAHC and the City try to put more affordable developments in other neighborhoods, as they will, you will at least be able to ensure the character of your neighborhood is respected.

As it is, most neighborhoods in Palo Alto, unlike Greenacres/BP which already has so many affordable housing developments, have no defense against the NIMBY accusation-steamroller. And with this scheme they developed for the first time on Maybell, where they buy a piece of property, strip off a portion of it to upzone for a private developer's benefit, to put in denser market-rate housing than could otherwise go there, in order to help finance a high-density development next to it (and no respect for residential low-density zoning), the more expensive neighborhoods may find themselves prime targets as they have no affordable developments and their lot sizes tend to be larger.

You seem to have a problem with the densification of downtown -- so your answer is that the rest of the neighborhoods should be densified like downtown?

Downtown IS a place of denser building than any of the neighborhoods. It's DOWNTOWN. If you have issues with it being made TOO dense, then you can, as Maybell neighbors are doing, fight City Hall. You will have allies over here! But I suspect as pavoter does, that you have a dog in this fight.

Councilman Schmid proposed that the in lieu fee situation be fixed so that when those units are NOT build in one location (as here, they were not built downtown), the actual costs of putting them elsewhere are covered, and the developments don't place undue burdens on neighborhoods.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 5, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Pavoter@Barron Park - you are reinforcing the "Nimby" label that PAHC is tagging opponents with, by saying "Downtown" is a place to place high density housing. Look at a zoning, map, Professorville, Downtown North, Cresent Park are all residential neighborhoods! And they are all built out, and are suffering from the underparking from the high density variances given to office buildings downtown.

And have you been to downtown lately? It's all restraurants, save the Walgreens (which you have on Maybell), the Apple Store, and the toy store (not a fit for seniors).

Posted by resident, a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 5, 2013 at 6:00 pm

@curmudgeon from Downtown North,

Downtown is a much more appropriate locale for seniors, as it has many important amenities within easy walking distance: Avenidas for seniors, where they can get free meals and community, medical (PAMF is just steps away, as well as Stanford), enrichments (at Avenidas, Stanford, and Palo Alto adult school, among many others), and most importantly, downtown is a transportation hub. People can get on a train or a bus that goes anywhere, just steps away. They can take a bus to grocery.

By contrast, there are NO amenities within walking distance at Maybell. Certainly not grocery! Maybell isn't itself very walkable. There is no equivalent as there is downtown to the kind of transit, just steps away. When neighbors pointed out that there were no walkable grocery stores, you know what PAHC said? The Whole Foods (in Los Altos) is a mile away on El Camino! And that low-income people are much more used to taking transit. At least downtown, they can get meals at Avenidas, and transit for other needs.

But you bring up a really important point about how poorly this whole thing is being thought out -- life in Palo Alto isn't cheap, and the urban planning should be done in the context of the whole Bay Area, not as if there is one city, Palo Alto, with nothing but wasteland around it.

Posted by resident, a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 5, 2013 at 6:12 pm

@common sense,
What exactly are you trying to stir up?

The City told ABAG it couldn't put high-density in the middle of residential neighborhoods to meet its allotments, yet here it is, densifying a residential neighborhood.

If the City and PAHC get away with densifying the middle of a residential area like Maybell, the City will have no excuse against ABAG anymore, especially in areas like Professorville and Old Palo Alto, which border some busy streets (anything within 1/3mile would be fair game) and have those attractively large lot sizes on which you could place some fairly big structures amid the existing big (home) structures. Especially if they get away with the financing scheme at Maybell, where they are allowed the excuse of financing the project by dividing the property, selling off the edge of it after upzoning it for the benefit of a market-rate developer to be able to sell denser homes in the middle of the residential area, and using the profit to help finance the denser project next to it? Those neighborhoods wouldn't have any defense against NIMBY charges, as Maybell/BP already have several large affordable housing developments, and Professorville and Old Palo Alto, among many other Palo Alto neighborhoods, have none.

We aren't even rejecting the units, we're rejecting the overwhelming size and scale, lack of adherence to zoning, and lack of safety scrutiny.

Posted by pavoter, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 5, 2013 at 6:51 pm

@Confused and Common Sense: for the record, no one is saying to take the Maybell project and put it downtown. It sure looks like you are trying to stir up resentment between neighborhoods.

It won't work because Palo Alto residents are fed up with the high density housing projects all over Palo Alto.

The city should adhere to the Comprehensive Plan, and not try back door deals loaning money for a project before it has been publicly examined. The city should not be able to rezone without due process.

Again, for the record, a senior housing project CAN go in at Maybell if the city follows the original zoning.

And calling us NIMBY makes no sense -- check out the many apartment buildings on Arastradero which have low income housing.

Posted by confused, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 5, 2013 at 7:21 pm

Thanks! You've helped me make up my mind which way to vote. Sheesh, more high-density housing in downtown. Great idea!

Posted by resident, a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 5, 2013 at 8:38 pm

I'm glad you finally understand that no one was suggesting more high-density housing downtown! The City needs to charge enough in lieu fees to make it possible to build the units in a way that fits the area, not overdevelop and essentially place the cost on the neighborhood (whether Maybell or downtown). The City needs to not get away with this new financing scheme at Maybell, or you will see it repeated all over Palo Alto. That was clear from the discussions at City Hall - this is "practice"!

Do you understand now that this is about stopping the City Council from such overdevelopment? Whether it's high-density high-rises in residential neighborhoods, such as Maybell, or high-rises in downtown while counting on neighborhoods to take the parking, the City Council has been approving overdevelopment willy nilly without considering the infrastructure and character of the neighborhoods. We would appreciate the support of our neighbors across town.

If you want to start an initiative to curb high-density developments around town, you will find now is an opportune time...

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 5, 2013 at 10:09 pm

Pavoter@Barron Park - Several posters, including yourself, throw in that higher density is more appropriate in downtown. What you haven't been following is that the city council has been approving higher density commercial development WITHOUT the supporting infrastructure (parking), which is causing massive problems for the residential neighborhoods surrounding downtown.

Currently downtown is short about 900 - 1000 parking spaces. Guess where those cars go - into the residential neighborhoods, with the accompanying traffic. And many of those residential neighborhoods are similar to the Barron Park neighborhood in "density".

So my suggestion to you and others is to stop suggesting more high density for downtown, or you will start losing support. If you can't comprehend this then instead of coalescing widespread support, you will fracture your support.

Posted by sad stance for the Weekly, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 6, 2013 at 12:35 am

The ban on being homeless in Palo Alto is shameful. The Weekly should be ashamed for endorsing this cruel ordinance -- particularly under the figleaf of "we should give them comprehensive services." Really? Because there are such services to offer them in California? Because the state and the federal government have made such a big investment in homeless resources? Shall we build some low-income housing for the now-banned car-dwellers in Palo Alto? Why don't you read your own comments (above) from Nimbyville? Shall we build it in Barron Park? Where will all these "services" that we will refer people to be located? What a bill of goods.

You know better. You're outsmarting yourself again, in the belief you can have it both ways -- be compassionate toward the homeless and also pander to homeowners who just want to be rid of the homeless by any means possible. This is unjust and cruel. It's unworthy of the Weekly.

Lots of needles around here, but no camels getting through.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 6, 2013 at 4:14 am

@common sense,
We're all talking past each other. No one above from Greenacres of Barron Park wants MORE high density downtown or anywhere else in Palo Alto!!

Every time anyone mentions that Greenacres/BP already has more affordable developments than any residential neighborhood in Palo Alto, someone inevitably brings up downtown - which is the only place that has as much affordable developments. But downtown is not a residential neighborhood, and density - NOT higher density than they have, just denser than residential - is more appropriate downtown. I know full well the horrible parking situation in neighborhoods around downtown, and we are 100% with people there that the City is approving developments oblivious of the fact that we don't have the infrastructure to support them.

Speaking of parking, did you know the main development has only 47 parking spots for 60 units, employees, and visitors? And they claim there will be no impact on the park (without doing the environmental impact review). Most people don't even realize that the staff report about the rezoning says there are no guarantees that the project will remain a senior complex either!

@sad stance,
The proposed development would not be available to the homeless or even to one single person living below the poverty limit, as PAHC has advertised needing it to serve seniors living below the poverty limit while also setting income floors for potential residents that far exceed the poverty line. The neighborhood already has more affordable housing developments than any other residential neighborhoods in Palo Alto. Studies show affordable housing is more successful when it's spread out, not concentrated as City Council is trying to do here.

Posted by @sad stance for the Weekly, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 6, 2013 at 11:54 am


I am not arguing that affordable housing should be built in Barron Park. I am arguing that it is a non-credible cop out for the Weekly to approve the ban on vehicle dwelling in Palo Alto on the basis that "we are not helping the homeless by our current hands-off approach" and what we need to do is to "decisively" pass the ban and then give the homeless "intensive help and referral to support services."

This is an intellectually dishonest cop-out because there are no intensive services available to which to refer people and the Weekly's publisher surely knows that or if he doesn't he should bother to educate himself about it before endorsing this cruel, overreaching ordinance. One-fifth of the nation's homeless population, over 130,000 people, live in the state of California, which has resources and beds for only a few percent of those who need it. See: Web Link

"Shelters across the state from San Diego to Siskiyou are filled to capacity, and the number of homeless people without any shelter has increased 4 percent in the last two years, prompting churches in many communities to open their doors. In Sacramento alone, 25 congregations trade off nights to take in 120 people from the streets. For the estimated 21,000 homeless people in Orange County, only three shelters with 400 beds are available.

"The lack of shelters can result in deadly consequences. Last month three middle-aged homeless men in Orange County were stabbed to death while sleeping on the streets by an alleged serial killer. "If there had been enough shelters, they wouldn't be dead," said Dwight Smith, who runs Isaiah House, the Catholic Worker shelter in the county. The number of available emergency shelter beds is "woefully inadequate compared to Orange County's need," according to the county's 10-year plan to end homelessness."

If the Weekly wants to simply join the ranks of other conservative papers and call for the extirpation of the homeless from our elite midst, fine. But don't insult our intelligence by telling us how it is really "helping" the homeless because now they will get referred to nonexistent shelter beds and resources. Shame, shame, shame.

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