Editorial: A bittersweet outcome | July 1, 2016 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 1, 2016

Editorial: A bittersweet outcome

With the City Council and neighborhood in agreement, Maybell parcel is finally settled

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.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jul 1, 2016 at 8:28 am

This Editorial is exactly the kind of thoughtful journalism that the community needs.

Thank you.

Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 1, 2016 at 10:00 am

Thank you for the thoutghtful editorial. Three major corrections, though:

1) PAHC was not going to be the developer for the homes. The profit from those homes were never slated to support the project. The profit from the built homes was only going to benefit the for-profit developer.

In fact, that was one bone of contention - neighbors asked why the nonprofit developer did not just also complete the homes themselves and use the profit to support a reduction in the number of those for-profit homes. It could have been a gamechanger in the conflict. Mark Berman asked Director Gonzales that question in Council public meetings. Gonzales gave a strange answer, that they were not in business to be for-profit developers, and Council never followed up on the odd inconsistency of that stance.

The original plan was only to make profit from the sale of the upzoned land to the developer. Basically, a for-profit was buying the nonprofit's political ability to get the rezoning through, literally using affordable housing to spot zone a residential neighborhood. It would not have been the first time nationally. PAHC claimed was never willing to compromise on this (profiting from the sale of the built homes rather than the sale of just the upzoned land).

This mistake is a factual error in the editorial that the Weekly can fact check and should correct.

2) Neighbors were not reactionary or "embittered", they were dealing with a political machine they had little power to stop, and eventually took the only steps they could see were available. But that was only after significant efforts to try to come to a compromise and be heard, many the public doesn't know about. Neighbors did make significant efforts to talk to the City and politicians well before the referendum, well before the City meetings, to try to work out a collaboration, etc. - what was called a "working group" during a similar conflict when a developer was going to turn Terman school into apartments. Joe Hirsch even reminded the Vouncil of this in public meetings, but it was long after community members had tried for this. They were ignored and rebuffed. The initial citizen meetings wrestled with how to create a community group to find a way to do the affordable housing while honoring the best land use at that location, just as had been done at Terman. Neighbors saw the potential for saving the orchard, but didn't want it to be at the expense of proposed affordable housing. There was a great deal of effort well before the referendum even came up, to try to put the energy into a positive collaboration.

I myself was part of a large group of neighbors who divided up and spoke with Councilmembers individually, trying to sell them on our ability to accomplish something better, well before any conflict at City Hall. The former planning commissioner put it bluntly, though, as early as January or February (in a conversation I am reporting first hand): this is GOING to go forward. There was never any doubt until it happened that neighbors had no real power to stop things, so no one took the need to work with neighbors seriously.

The neighborhood opposition was also much more measured and patient than people realize. People organized to be at City Hall to ask to be more equal partners, the crowds didn't just show up. By the time the City meetings happened, though, the residents had already felt it necessary to plan for a referendum. The showing at City Hall was an effort to avoid it. Residents did not just start planning when the vote came down. Everyone knew their efforts to avoid a referendum were probably going to fail but they had to try. City Council did not think residents could win a land use referendum, and never appreciated the competence of the popolace to accomplish what needed to be done (positive or negative). I heard personally from several former City officials that they did not think citizens could win a land use referendum - so they did not think they had to worry about it hapoening.. This is indeed something that should be studied for a book - it was a great example of why we should be teaching kids to be power literate.

The papers never delved into this - and I'm sorry to say, fomented sone of the conflict. My own attempts to tell the truth in this regard during the conflict were censored on TS. The angry name-calling was allowed to remain, but the truth - that could have been verified (with some actual joutnalistic effort) was deleted so aggressively, I personally gave up even trying to talk about it then. One Councilmember even asked publicly why neighbors had said nothing earlier, yet we have phone records from months earlier with that same person, email records of neighbors meeting with that person, etc. That history was completely ignored, even by the media, which contributed to distorting the conflict.

3) People on both sides are not interested in continuing to argue this, Neighbors like me would really like to put an end to the conflict, which us why we support the proposed low-impact development even though we think it's a crying shame on so many levels that the property was not retained by the City and put to better use. But the attacks of proponents of the erstwhile plan continue, so I will continue to correct the record when attacked. We understood the attacks were for a political purpose back then, but they took on a life of their own, to malign Palo Alto, malign neighbors, malign good people. Continuing to portray people in the neighborhood as against affordable housing is insensitive in the very least to the many residents of affordable housing already in the same neighbirhood, who are made by supposed supporters to feel isolated and unwelcome with this constant drumbeat about how people who opposed that plan are against them and their housing. Continuing the bile during the election served a political purpose. Continuing it now only hurts everyone. So I will and others will continue to counter with the truth to counter the attacks.

Posted by winners write the history books
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 1, 2016 at 10:56 am

Wow, the winners really do write the history books! What revisionist nonsense to now claim that no one ever had a problem with the senior citizens component of the project, and that they only ever hated the 12 market-rate homes. [Portion removed.] If that were the case, then why is the neighborhood now unanimously in support of 16 family homes? Oh right, because that's actually the only part they ever remotely considered allowing. If the neighborhood is so sad about about losing the senior citizen housing, why aren't they instead pushing the city to allow say 75 units, 60 of which would be below market rate, to make it happen? Oh yes, because once again, height and density are actually way more important than giving very poor people a place to sleep at night.

Posted by Timothy Gray
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 1, 2016 at 11:42 am

After the referendum, the City owned the option to step in and purchase the property for the amount PAHC had paid.

This contractual option was worth more than $5 million, as the price of the land had appreciated. The City, instead of exercising this option and getting a better-sized and more supportable affordable housing project without all the three story homes on 3,000 foot lots (the real cause of opposition).

Instead, the City inured to the private benefit of PACH the $5 miilion that contractually belonged to the City, and PACH has just banked that money and not yet offered it back to the mission of affordable housing. As a gesture of sincerity, they could have offered it up to help Beuna Vista, and accomplished much more affordable housing than even the small affordable project that they offered as a carrot to push through the zoning-violating high density luxury development that was being forced on the neighborhood.

Just check the PACH IRS Form 990 to verify this information.

Summary: Stop crying over spilled milk and take the money that the City Inured to PACH and combine that with the in lieu of fees from the Maybell development and build something meaningful for seniors!

This is the type of activity that will get the City Council in the middle of yet another Grand Jury embarrassment -- especially when the council underhandedly gifted the five million profit and declined an opportunity to design a balanced affordable housing project that would have gained the neighborhood support.

Let's move forward and apply the resources identified to create affordable housing that is integrated into the community.

Posted by Robert Smith
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 1, 2016 at 12:13 pm

At one point, the neighbors offered a compromise: 8 homes. That sounded reasonable to me.

So I asked the mayor at a meeting why the compromise had not been accepted. He answered rather condescendingly that I did not understand why the homes were being built. "Each of those homes will generate $1M of profit, and the housing group cannot afford to build without the money."

Of course I understood what was going on very well. The housing group didn't have the funds and the city was trying to force the neighbors to generate money for them, in effect.

At that point, however, the city and the housing group could have made some adjustments and things would have worked out.

I also blame the housing group for this. They clearly didn't have the money. Instead of doing their job and assembling private and public funds (including the city and counties served by the project), the housing group took the easy way out.

We should also note that the underlying catalyst behind this whole thing was our PC ordinance. This allowed the city to believe they could raise the money more or less by magic and without having to do any of the hard work of figuring out where the money would come from. Just override zoning and build a bunch of big houses that would generate $1M each.

Posted by Seniors Line Up to Get Housing
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 1, 2016 at 12:45 pm

Seniors Line Up to Get Housing is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Posted by Evan
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 1, 2016 at 1:09 pm

Palo Alto, look yourselves in the eyes. You're an absolutely embarassment. To California, the Bay Area, to your children and parents, and, most important, to yourselves. I hope those who fought this are proud of the seniors they've stopped from living, affordably, in Palo Alto in coming years.

My hometown continues down a horrid, self-entitled path.

Posted by That's cute
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 1, 2016 at 1:18 pm

That's cute that [portion removed] the Palo Alto Weekly want to pass blame for their role in this saga on to the city. The Weekly, in all of their naivety, thought that if the original project was defeated, the city could just chip in a few million more dollars to reduce the number of single family homes further, creating a compromise that would be acceptable to the neighbors. That's what they said when they came out against the senior affordable housing project.

There's only one problem with this: the leaders of the effort to overturn the project NEVER expressed a willingness to compromise. Their mantra was clear and simple: any project must meet existing zoning. So a project with 60 units of senior affordable housing and eight homes would not be sufficient. They would oppose that too.

In addition, the PAHC said they would sell the land if the project was overturned at the ballot. They were honest all along. And who could blame them, after their reputation and ethics were questioned [portion removed.] Who can blame them for selling the property and investing in communities that are eager to have their projects. They just got approval to build 60+ units on half an acre in Mountain View. Is Palo Alto willing to embrace a similar project?

Posted by Thank you, neighbors
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 1, 2016 at 1:52 pm

Thank you, Greenacres, Tim Gray, etc!
I live in a different neighborhood of Palo Alto, but I was very happy to support your efforts to force our city government to abide by its own zoning regulations. Your Herculean efforts were (and continue to be) a great service to residents throughout the city.

Posted by Senior
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 1, 2016 at 2:20 pm

The opponents of the original plan were opposed to high density housing in their area, including high density low income senior housing. Only state legislation that pre-empts local zoning can insure much-needed higher density zoning.

Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 1, 2016 at 3:21 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

I like the editorial. So, time for a reset.

With the reset we start with a huge victory by PASZ in bringing about a new high-end 16-home mini-neighborhood that doesn't add appreciably to traffic congestion on Arastradero or Maybell. Not only that, they got the council to back down on the one small requirement, a pedestrian-only path, that didn't meet approval by PASZ or Golden Gate Homes.

Welcome to election season 2016.

Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 1, 2016 at 3:23 pm

Meanwhile, there were 20 senior below market-rate homes in a senior development that had gone empty for years. Because of the Maybell debates, the City finally changed the rules so that up to 40 seniors could move in. The spots were then filled.

Just because you can build something in a certain location, doesn't mean you should, and doesn't mean that's the only location. We can talk about the need in the abstract, and everyone agrees, but just building things does not necessarily provide for that need. Those empty senior units went empty even as the need was so great. The people who conceived of the original Maybell plan saw an opportunity to basically sell the neighborhood zoning. You can't blame them for trying, but it does not mean that location should be pursued for density. There are fundamental reasons that location is a bad one for density, that's why the neighbors fought ao hard.

But there are several empty lots and dilapidated properties on El Camino that would be great redeveloped as senior housing, even in that same neighborhood that the same neighbors would have been glad to foster for senior housing (ala the Terman development debates), no law change required. They were denied the chance to do that [Portion removed.]

You are the most powerful if you can get people to work with you. That's why the neighborhood put so much effort into trying that angle first. And asking not to be forced into an adversarial path. That's why the proponents lost - they got used to thinking the adversarial path was where their power lay. They lost, and continue the losing strategy. [Portion removed.]

Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 1, 2016 at 3:36 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 1, 2016 at 3:46 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 1, 2016 at 5:03 pm

@Timothy Gray,
The money from the sale of the Maybell property did got to affordable housing - it makes up the build of the money the City and County have dedicated to trying to preserve Buena Vista. In fact, the City and County were co-buyers, paying the bulk of the funds to purchase Maybell from affordable housing pots. Even if the City had exercised its right to purchase the property, those funds would have been returned to those pots, they are earmarked. So low-income people did benefit from the referendum, too.

@ down Terman school and put apartments there (which were deemed every bit as necessary then). The result of the citizens' working group was to save Terman school from development - it became the JCC for a time - and the 92-unit affordable Terman apartments was built. It was a winner outcome except for the private development interests. Neighbors who had no connection to Joe Hirsch tried to individually ask or such a collaboration before Joe's public request. The survival of the orchard and ~100 established trees did not have to be pitted against the interests off low-income residents, in fact providing a community space would have been a welcome benefit to the existing low-income residents next door at APAC apartments.

If the proposal had been all for-profit at the high density, neighbors would have fought it just as hard, probably harder - and they'd have had a better opportunity to try to save the ~100 living trees still there (some oaks 200 years old), because the Council would not have been pitting seniors against the TREES and community space for stressed-out kids who have none nearby. If the proposal had been 16 low-income homes for disabled veterans or tech workers with disabled children, the project would probably be there now.

How can you possibly fault neighbors for supporting a 16-home plan, when proponents of D, Council, City staff, all aggressively warned that if they didn't go along with the proposed development, that no one would ever want to build less than 45 units there? And after the referendum, the City Council, with very little public debate, decided not to exercise its right to retain the Maybell property for the benefit of the City - possibly for other affordable housing or to save the historic orchard (which is what Mtn Vw did in virtually identical circumstances), or for a much needed community space families/children in this area could reach by walking - and ensured the property was sold to an all-for-profit developer they had just warned would create such dangerous conditions?

Neighbors, including me, expressed support for the 16-home development because of our ongoing concern to mitigate development pressure and danger at that location. Accusing people of being nimbys only made it that much harder for them to help support affordable housing in the area. If those who care about affordable housing cared enough, they would have long ago taken the side of the environment over the overdevelopment that created those overdevelopment pressures in the first place, and again, things might be different today. Even though I am not a fan of that site being developed at all and to save it would have worked very hard to ensure the affordable housing got built some other way (preferably even better, ala Terman), I acknowledge the compromise the 16-homes represents. Council seems to have wanted the trees gone and the site developed. They got their wish - the crowd that gave them so much trouble over the chopped trees at California Avenue said not a peep about a historic orchard with established trees and a nesting hawk getting bulldozed (except to cheer it or take out their saws). The trees are still there, and not a peep of protest still. Developers are taking notes.

Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 1, 2016 at 5:06 pm

Very sorry - I composed something on a very small screen and much of it evaporated in transporting -

Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2016 at 5:31 pm

The bitter part of this "bittersweet" outcome, was the pill Council was forced to swallow when they unanimously passed the resident crafted Maybell solution. The bitter taste of this vote clearly showed on the face of one young council-member.

In a failed attempt to hang on to a shred of dignity, Mayor Burt launched into a long lecture highlighting the areas in which the resident's solution did not comply with the city's "process", but unwittingly his statements only served to raise more questions about the City's "process", than the residents solution.

The subsequent discussion of the Stanford Land Management's 15 acre Mayfield Project (next to College Terrace) only reinforced concerns with the City's "process" when Mayor Burt and Council-member Holman both raised questions about the project that had been raised earlier (before it was approved) by residents, and dismissed by the council.

The City's "process" is clearly broken when a group of passionate residents of limited means, is able to craft a better solution that the City with all of its resources and vaunted "process".

"Process" is the new "Vibrancy".

Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 1, 2016 at 5:40 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

Just for the record, the council vote was not unanimous. Cory Wolbach voted no, making it an 8-1 decision.

Posted by cm
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 2, 2016 at 12:08 am

Less growth is always better. We are overcrowded and it is time to take a stand and say no more growth! We need to live in a sustainable way and stop polluting and destroying this area. We need to fight the city, county and state and insist that they stop supporting developers that want to turn the bay area into Manhattan and bury us with development. It is OK to be a suburb and enjoy a nice quality of life with nice schools and parks and open blue skies. Send all business development to high rise building in San Jose or SF or better yet if there isn't enough housing here they can go to another state where there is housing. Further why does Palo Alto have to house seniors from all the other surrounding cities. Most on the list for housing are not from Palo Alto. They just opened up the list again and people came from all around to get on the list. If it was limited to just Palo Alto seniors there would hardly be a problem. Also don't you think the real housing issue that no one wants to discuss is housing workers for the city and school district that work for us and can't live here. I would rather that the city council work on acquiring housing for mid-income city workers so that productive citizens who are working for the city have a chance to live here. Perhaps it could be part of their compensation and save the tax payers some on the unfunded pension liabilities. Stanford helps to house some of their employees why can't Palo Alto work out a plan to do the same?

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jul 2, 2016 at 7:13 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Perhaps the Weekly would publish a comprehensive, well documented history of the Maybell project that would provide the community with some lessons that could be applied to the BV issue and the forthcoming Fry's issue.

Posted by Voter
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 2, 2016 at 9:56 am

Another lesson that was learned from this debacle:

The city, PAHC, and the development community learned that the strategy of "divide and conquer" will not fly in Palo Alto. If not made deliberately, the calculation was certainly reached that the voters of North PA and other neighborhoods far from the congestion generated by the proposed project would not support the referendum brought by the neighbors. They were clearly wrong. I don't recall the ratio but I believe PAHC outspent the neighbors 10:1 or so, bringing outside political consultants into the mix and taking a good amount of developer cash.

On a separate front, if Cory Wolbach has such a dedication to increasing density, why did he run as a "center" candidate who would bridge the two sides? (AKA "lets give everyone a teddy bear") Was the weekly's endorsement of him based on his stated positions or the knowledge that he'd be the most pro-development member of the council?

Posted by Timothy Gray
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 2, 2016 at 10:34 am

Please allow a technical note on how the Maybell development impacted affordable housing.

The Affordable housing fees paid by the 16-home development will be about $5 million, depending on the final sales prices of the homes. That will definitely pay for housing for more than two families in some other project or if applied to saving Buena Vist Mobile Park.

The $5 million in-lieu fees is separate from the $5 million dollars the City own as part of its option to buy the property.

To spell it out, the City owned an a $5 million asset called a purchase option that it gave away to a private party vs. collecting it for the benefit of the Low Income Housing Fund. That kind of gift is called Inurement and is specifically prohibited by law.

If that option that We as citizens of Palo Alto owned, had been exercised, there would have been a total of $10 million plus available to build a substitute low income housing project at a more suitable location without all the school safety and zoning violation issues.

True, we do have $5 million for low-income housing from the fees, but our City representatives gave away the $5 million plus land appreciation that the City owned as a reward for providing the original financing. This is all a matter of public record. The Council at the time, had to spend $600,000 on a special election to have the voters tell them that they were not acting according to the wishes of the resident, and now we see that this "little" $5 million dollar "gift" to a private party was conveniently swept under the rug. Direct observation shows that calls for transparency were met with opposite actions. That's two empirical events where our Council followed the direction of special interests vs. the will of the people.

Time to hold those leaders accountable.


Tim Gray

Posted by Influence from developers
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 2, 2016 at 11:24 am

Like the point made by Voter.

Developers, working w/ organizations like PAHC, will use all kinds of 'feel-good' arguments to push their projects, and our local politicians will go along because of the support they get from them. Just think of all the massive mailings you get from politicians supported by real estate developers around election time.

Just glad that most Palo Altans aren't naive enough to fall for this, and the referendum succeeded. It's not easy for neighbors to fight against such powerful forces, but this goes to prove how wrong it was to impose the housing project on the Maybell neighborhood.

Never understood why the Weekly would write biased editorials like this one, but just learned of their support for the PAHC, and even a politically naive person like me can now see how things work in this town.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 3, 2016 at 7:39 am

@ Evan of Crescent Park. So you wouldn't mind if they built a 55 foot building, that is under parked next to your house? So easy to throw shade on others when the impact of an over-sized facility would not have any effect on your own neighborhood.

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