Guest Opinion: A neighborhood perspective of Maybell Avenue development | July 15, 2016 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 15, 2016

Guest Opinion: A neighborhood perspective of Maybell Avenue development

by Joseph Hirsch

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.

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Georgia Avenue resident Joe Hirsch is a steering committee member of Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ).


Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jul 15, 2016 at 7:56 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Thanks for a well written and thoughtful commentary on this experience.

Posted by M. Blue
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 15, 2016 at 8:11 am

"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"

I think the people of Palo Alto know full well what happened at Maybell and why. Self serving articles written by the victors justifying their crimes does not change the facts.

16 luxury homes.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jul 15, 2016 at 8:17 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

M. Blue - Perhaps you would be so kind as to write your version of the Maybell experience so that the community can have the benefit of multiple perspectives.

If what happened and did not happened is not well recorded then the opportunities for learning from the experience will be greatly diminished.

Posted by M. Blue
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 15, 2016 at 8:34 am

I voted for the development (for Measure D).
I failed to rally sufficient support in the community.
We lost (44% vs. 56%)
Now we have 16 luxury homes.
It's my fault that this happened.
I should have tried harder.

Per the article above you all certainly did everything you could. You should feel good about your efforts and this article clearly removes all blame and responsibility from you shoulders. The article makes clear what I need to understand and what I may still not understand. It is a fine contribution my understanding of the events.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 16, 2016 at 8:28 am

The vote on measure D was citywide - not just the sentiments of the immediate neighborhood.

A lesson for the future.

Posted by M. Blue
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 16, 2016 at 8:53 am

The vote on Measure D was spun heavily as a residentalist pushback against a heavy-handed City Council that was up zoning and giving PC exemptions in favor of developers. Many if the people of Palo Alto voted against measure D as a protest against up-zoning and PC exemptions - not on the merits of the proposed development which needed and was worthy of those exemptions

I believe that if you could have placed the two development plans in front of the people of Palo Alto before the measure D vote
- One plan being the senior housing development requiring the upzoning, and
- One plan being the plan we have today of 16 luxury homes with no BMR, no Senior housing, and at half the current allowed zoning density of 15 units per acre.
That Measure D would have passed and we'd have the senior housing originally proposed for the site under development today.

This vote was the result of the political climate of the times and spin.
The outcome we see today for the land use is just sad.
No more Maybells!

Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 16, 2016 at 9:43 am

That was what the referendum was about. There was never an opportunity to negotiate a position in between. Therefore that is a mute issue.

Posted by M. Blue
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 16, 2016 at 1:50 pm

@Resident: "That was what the referendum was about"

The referendum said this:
"Shall the Palo Alto Municipal Code be amended to rezone the property located at 567-595 Maybell Avenue from R-2 Low Density Residential and RM-15 Multiple Family Residential to Planned Community Overlay Zone to include 12 single family units and 60 units of affordable senior housing?"

what I believe most people in Palo Alto thought they voted was this:
"Shall the Palo Alto Municipal Code be amended to rezone property in Palo Alto if it benefits a development ?"

So, your statement "That was what the referendum was about" seems like it deserves a response of: "does anybody really know what that referendum was actually about <to the individual voters> ?"

My admittedly moot point (but of course this whole thread is about a topic that is by definition "moot") is that the results of measure D were unique to that time and political mood in Palo Alto. I believe that the results would be completely different if that same measure were put up for a vote today.

Posted by Jim Colton
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 16, 2016 at 2:12 pm

Many of the comments complained that there is no BMR housing associated with the 16-home plan on Maybell. It was not practical to build BMR housing at that location but in lieu of building BMR housing, the developer is paying over $4M to the City to build BMR housing at another location. Virtually everyone I have talked to in the neighborhood would be happy to have the BMR housing built in the neighborhood. BMR housing is not the issue with the Maybell site. The issue is maintaining the character of the neighborhood and minimizing traffic on school routes that are already too busy.

Posted by VotedforD
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 16, 2016 at 5:10 pm

Re: "completely ignoring the concerns" of the residents: Not so -- I could see that the council, at least, was paying close attention to those concerns. In the end, in their judgment, the original proposal was a good one. That they disagreed with you does not mean they ignored you.

Re: the meeting with the "not-so-neutral mediator", Mayor Scharff: granted, he was in favor of the project. But the result of that meeting was to significantly further reduce the size of the project. The opponents were not satisfied. But it was a legitimate compromise attempt.

Re: "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)." The parenthetical kind of says it all. Yes, the spokespersons for the opposition said that they weren't opposed to senior housing -- of course they had to say that to maintain credibility. But the hidden agenda unquestionably had a substantial component of opposition to senior or low income housing. Anyone reading the comments in this and other blogs could see that.

Finally, the commenter above who observed that the reason the proposition was defeated was as a general protest against city-wide development issues was spot on.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jul 16, 2016 at 5:19 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

" The issue is maintaining the character of the neighborhood .."

Is this not just an excuse for maintaining whatever economic (and hence ethnic) segregation that exists in any community?

How do we go from our currently highly economically segregated communities to ones that have a much more diverse socio-economic profile if we must maintain the character of our neighborhoods???

Posted by There from the start
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 16, 2016 at 7:57 pm

Thank you to Joe, for trying to hard to form a working group - and for your efforts in the past with the Terman Working Group.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Terman Working Group, Terman Middle School at the time was closed, and a developer wanted to put housing there. Residents worked out something to save the school for the future, while also working out the 92-unit low-income Terman Apartments. Those apartments are in the same neighborhood as the neighbors who led the referendum, as are other major affordable housing developments. Joe Hirsch was involved in the Terman Working Group, to my understanding, as was Bob Moss. Their efforts resulted in saving the school AND a 92-unit affordable housing complex just a stone's throw from the Maybell site, in Joe's own neighborhood.

All this animus and name calling belies the facts. The residents who opposed the Maybell development were not against affordable housing, and have worked to create affordable housing in the neighborhood. There is so much more affordable housing development already in the neighborhood compared to most neighborhoods in Palo Alto, adding another development runs the risk of concentrating and segregating low-income units in a way HUD discouraged, they say it's unhealthy for the residents.

I was involved long before Joe and Cheryl, long before there even was a referendum planned. I can attest that behind the scenes, there was never anything but support for affordable housing, a strong desire initially to find a way to ensure the housing got built while also honoring the wishes of the neighborhood, and pain at being put in the position of having no choice to work out something better as the Terman Working Group did. The majority of neighbors would have worked to save the orchard AND find a way to make the affordable housing work - very much like some of the same neighbors did to save Terman Middle School and create the low-income Terman Apartments. I was gifted the old neighborhood documents for that debate, and it's striking how similar it was.

There were months of attempts by neighbors to reach out to the City Council, PAHC -one neighborhood resident who ultimately penned the referendum even went over to PAHC to try to negotiate down the size of both the for-profit side and the low-income apartment building. This was long before Joe and Cheryl and many others were involved. As Joe wrote, there was never any indication that anyone in the City or PAHC was willing to work with neighbors.

I spoke with the head of planning as early as January or February that year. He was always very polite, and even gave me a rough idea of the process. But he also told me pretty forcefully that the development was going to go through - even there, there was no room for negotiation. I have notes from conversations with City Councilmembers back then, who later claimed they had never heard any opposition. They said there was a new process, so it wasn't time to contact them, first everything had to go through PTC.

Based on recommendations from past mayors, we planned for several community members to meet with each City Councilmember. We tried to sell them on residents' past accomplishments - to demonstrate that our offer to figure out something better that met all the goals was real (the affordable housing done as well or better, but perhaps in another location nearby, plus perhaps saving the orchard, etc, very similar to what happened with the Terman Working Group.)

Many neighbors had made substantial civic contributions, for example, the reason Juana Briones School has that nice library and heavy involvement improving safety on Maybell. I never had any doubts that we could have accomplished something much greater if we had been taken seriously, including that those of us involved early on would have felt honor bound to do whatever it took to ensure the affordable housing was built, even if not at that exact location. We asked again and again (many neighbors did in the City meetings) to be allowed to put our energy toward a positive path forward, not be forced to just oppose a level of development and its impacts that were unacceptable in that location. Please note; that location in the neighborhood, the neighbors were not even opposed to finding something nearby in the same neighborhood, but without the negatives - I think we could have done it. Given past accomplishments of many neighbors, including Joe, I think there is every reason to believe we could have.

The nastiness of the Yes side made sense in the context of them trying to steamroll through what they wanted and win a political battle. It's a pretty tried and true strategy. The trouble is that it cost all opportunity to create the positive path such as happened with the Terman Working Group, and created bitter divides between neighbors that continue to this day because some of the Yes side just refuse to let go of their animus. They are fighting the referendum even on this thread, as if it worked so well the first time. I think they want to keep blaming others instead of facing what was lost because of their part. Conjuring nimbys that don't exist continues to hurt the very cause they claim they support, unfortunately. But they left no room for legitimate disagreement - anyone who didn't roll over for anything with some affordable housing was automaticallyl tagged and treated as an enemy.

Posted by History Buff
a resident of another community
on Jul 17, 2016 at 4:04 pm

Having been involved from the petition-signing (to get D on the ballot) to the celebration when D was defeated, I can tell you that I never heard anyone on the NO side say they opposed senior housing or affordable housing. And, as Resident said, the vote was city-wide.

City council member Greg Scharff and Jean McCown (board member of PA Housing Corp.) were totally dismissive of the NO group at the City Hall debate. Someone brought up the issue of a lack of services (e.g., grocery stores) in the area for seniors. Ms. McCown said, "Walgreen's sells groceries." How's that for care and concern?

(BTW, Scharff was the mayor who said the office building itself is a public benefit, referring to the "Gateway" building on Lytton.)

Councilman Marc Berman was seated behind me during the debate. When the NO team was speaking, he was making snide, disrespectful comments to people seated nearby -- loud enough for me to hear. So unprofessional. And he's running for county supervisor.

Posted by Joe Hirsch
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 17, 2016 at 4:45 pm

I agree with what History Buff said above, but have to correct him/her on one point. Berman is running for California Assembly District 24 against Vicki Veenker (not for county supervisor). Because of his dismissive attitude toward the No on Measure D people (see, for example, History Buff's comments above) and his pro-development attitude at a time when too much development is eroding the quality of life in Palo Alto and throughout the mid-Peninsula in general, I will not be supporting him in the November election, but instead will support a quite able candidate, Vicki Veenker.

Posted by Marlene Prendergast
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 18, 2016 at 11:45 am

Marlene Prendergast is a registered user.

It is nice to be retired from being the Executive Director of the Palo Alto Housing Corporation. These kinds of fights leave such long and sad feelings in the community. Both sides and the city lose.

Posted by Another correction
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 18, 2016 at 11:55 am

[Post removed.]

Posted by A neighbor
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 18, 2016 at 12:55 pm

I attended all of the PAHC community meetings for their Maybell development. When we asked them to reduce the number of the market rate houses they were not willing to give an inch. They said their financing of the project required all those 15 market rate houses on Maybell and Clemo. Shortly before approving the project and after being pressured by the mayor they dropped it down to 12 but that was still way too many houses that had to get packed like sardines on Maybell. Many other significant problems were pointed out including lack of enough parking for the senior bldg but they were ignored. For 60 senior units they allocated 30+ parking spaces. When we objected they said most seniors don't drive. They said seniors will walk to the bus stop on El Camino or walk to Walgreens and buy their groceries. They ignored the objections of the many seniors in the audience.

The City Council ignored our objections as well. Some of us suggested that the city request PAHC to reduce the number of market rate houses and instead give them city funds so they can build the senior housing. There could have been more parking spots and green space as a result. But the CC completely ignored that, too.

I am all for low income senior housing but it needs to get funded by every Palo Altan, through a bond or parcel tax, etc. PAHC was in effect trying to squeeze a lot of money out of one neighborhood in order to finance the 60 units. That is totally unfair and undemocratic.

To all those concerned about low income senior housing: Let's work together and pass a parcel tax or bond that will be dedicated to low income housing for seniors who live in Palo Alto.

Posted by maggie
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 18, 2016 at 2:19 pm

maggie is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Posted by Wasn't There from the start
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 18, 2016 at 2:21 pm

Agree with many posts here, such as by There from the start.
I do believe, as Marlene pointed out, that both sides and the city lost. The BMR seniors lost. Why? Because of the dumb and arrogant bullying posture of the city council.

'My way or highway' attitude was the reason I voted against measure D. I did not want to be spoken to like that. The council put it very bluntly: either you accept it our way or the site will be sold to the private developer - exactly what happened, I believe - and you will have it even worse.

What kind of people were on that council? That is not the way to talk to the community. [Portion removed.]

Posted by No to censorship
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 18, 2016 at 2:59 pm

They delete negative comments about Marc Berman here. Hmmm. Where are we?

Posted by Watchdog
a resident of another community
on Jul 18, 2016 at 3:03 pm

The folks who own this site set the rules " All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff."

Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 20, 2016 at 9:04 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

Just for the record: Mr. Hirsch's commentary suggests that PAHC leadership was never willing to talk with his group. This is not the case. PAHC leadership had tried to engage Mr. Hirsch's group in a mediated discussion. A mediator's services had been arranged, a time and place were set, but no one appeared from the opposition. It's my understanding that a pre-condition to having such a meeting was a commitment by PAHC to reduce the density, which PAHC maintained it couldn't do and still be able to finance the project.

Posted by Joe Hirsch
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 20, 2016 at 9:47 pm

Hi Jerry,

The only mediated meeting that I am personally aware of was the one conducted over a weekend in June (I was out of the country at the time) where the mediator was Mayor Scharf. I've already commented on that in my Guest Opinion. If you are aware of another mediation (proposed or otherwise), please be more specific so I or "my group" can respond. You say "It's my understanding that a pre-condition to having such a meeting was a commitment by PAHC to reduce the density, which PAHC maintained it couldn't do and still be able to finance the project." If so, there was no reason to meet. In essence, as I said, they stonewalled it and "paid the price", which by the way was a GAIN of $6.4million on the sale of the property to Golden Gate Homes.


Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 21, 2016 at 11:05 am

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.


I called PAHC to make sure my memory was correct (It's been a long time. Lots of water under the bridge since then.) It was.

On Thursday, July 11, 2013, PAHC's board of directors sent an email to leaders of the group gathering signatures for the petition calling for a referendum on the Maybell project. You may have been out of the country at the time.

The letter invited the addressees to a mediated conversation July 15, 7 pm at the Cubberley Center that would be led by a facilitator from Palo Alto Mediation. RSVP requested. No one showed.


Posted by Cheryl Lilienstein
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 21, 2016 at 5:45 pm

Let's remember the sequence, and see if we agree.

Prior to and at council meetings, MANY members of the public showed up and tried to get PAHC and the council to listen to our concerns. PAHC refused, repeatedly, strongly, and convincingly saying that there was NO FLEXIBILITY in the financing. They did nothing substantive to respond to the neighborhood's major concerns, as they stated they could not. The city council --including Liz Kniss (once again running for city council) --unanimously voted in support of their plan.

The Measure D referendum ensued, which required a very intense period of gathering signatures to get it on the ballot.
The city council could, of course, have placed the referendum on the ballot themselves, but instead they voted unanimously NOT to place it on the ballot, and forced the No on D folks to go into signature gathering mode...

So here's the important part about the timing as I recall it:
WHILE the signature gathering was happening, in a critical period that was very limited, PAHC requested to meet with the Vote NO on D residents.

This did not seem like a genuine request for compromise. How would you read a "request for a meeting with a mediator" at that moment? Had financial flexibility suddenly become available just at the moment a referendum was being pursued?

Even during the campaign PAHC insisted that the plan could not be altered. In taking this stand, how likely would it be that a "mediated" discussion would have led to any change?

Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 21, 2016 at 10:39 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.


We are in agreement about the timing. The letter was sent in mid-July, while signature gathering was taking place.

Joe Hirsch mentions a meeting with Weekly publisher Bill Johnson in August, 2013 during which he asked you to reach out to PAHC to see if some compromise was possible. The invitation to a conversation from PAHC stated, in part, "We would like to make it clear that a conversation after the referendum is qualified, in August, will not be useful. The measure cannot be taken off the ballot and we will have no choice but to oppose it."

Regarding the proposed July 15 meeting, you asked, "This did not seem like a genuine request for compromise. How would you read a "request for a meeting with a mediator" at that moment?"

A request to exchange points of view with a mediator present to guide the discussion in this situation sounds like a last ditch attempt to make their case that they had modified the plan to comply with most of Bob Moss's February suggestions at the PTC hearing but could not reduce the number of market rate units below 12 (reduced from 15) and still do a project at the site.

My post was to set the record straight that PAHC had tried to arrange a professionally moderated discussion with your group before the referendum process got to the point that it couldn't be called back. Thank you for acknowledging their attempt.

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