A grassroots campaign in Palo Alto to overturn an approved housing development on Maybell Avenue scored a sweeping Election Day victory Tuesday night, winning by more than 1,000 votes.
Opponents of the rezoning decision maintained throughout the bitter campaign that the development at 567 Maybell Ave. would be out of scale with the surrounding Barron Park neighborhood and circulated a referendum petition that drew about 4,000 signatures, more than enough to put the measure on the ballot.
Proponents of Measure D, which includes the entire City Council and the nonprofit developer Palo Alto Housing Corporation, argued that the project is a much needed addition for a city with a drastic shortage of affordable housing. The Housing Corporation has consistently maintained that the increased density and the addition of 12 single-family homes was necessary to make the project financially feasible.
On Tuesday night, it was the former camp that prevailed. Dozens of opponents of the Maybell rezoning decision gathered at a bar on El Camino Real in Barron Park to celebrate the results as they trickled in throughout the evening.
They didn't have to wait long to get excited.
At about 8 p.m., early results from Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters showed Measure D losing by more than 1,000 votes, prompting boisterous cheers from the crowd. Bob Moss, a land-use watchdog who was one of the leaders of the campaign, called the numbers "very encouraging." Joe Hirsch, a former planning commissioner who also opposes the zoning decision, called them "wonderful."
"It's a good start and hopefully we'll have a better finish," said Hirsch, minutes after the initial results from four precincts showed his side with a lead of more than 1,000 votes.
His wish came true as the spread only widened as the evening progressed and more ballots were counted. By the time all 32 precincts were counted, the lead was 1,401 votes.
Jennifer Fryhling, a leading opponent of Measure D, characterized her group's Election Day success as a win for democracy.
"It restores faith in democracy that ordinary citizens in Palo Alto can make a difference," Fryhling said.
Cheryl Lilienstein, a Barron Park resident and spokesperson for the "No on D" campaign, agreed and said the issues raised by the campaign go well beyond the Maybell site.
"We want the council to take the residents' concerns seriously and to listen to our concerns about traffic, density, ugly architecture and parking issues," Lilienstein told the Weekly. "Those are all serious concerns for those of us who live here and whose quality of life is effected by the high-density rezoning that is taking place throughout the city."
The mood was far less buoyant at Arastradero Park Apartments, where about 50 supporters of Measure D watched the results on the television. Councilwoman Liz Kniss, a political veteran who briefly attended the "Yes on D" party, acknowledged after the first results were released that it would be tough for the measure's supporters to prevail.
Winter Dellenbach, a Barron Park resident who supported the measure, agreed.
"The fact is that special elections, with their smaller turnout, usually do favor the rebels," Dellenbach said.
The council, much like project supporters, went to great pains throughout the campaign to distance the Maybell project from the city's other "planned community" proposals, which offer public benefits in exchange for zoning exemptions. Unlike the other applications on the table, which are mostly dense office buildings, the Maybell development would have served low-income seniors.
Trina Lovercheck, a Barron Park resident who supported Measure D, said she was disappointed with the vote. Councilwoman Karen Holman, who attended the "Yes on D" party said she was surprised by the wide lead Measure D opponents were enjoying. Holman said she viewed the results as a show of concern from the community over new developments.
In this case, these concerns appear to trump the residents' desire to bolster the city's stock of affordable housing, Holman said. She called the Maybell project the "tipping point" for people worried about developments.
"It's very instructive," Holman said. "It shows that people are very upset about development in Palo Alto and the quality of it."
The nexus of the rebellion against the council's decision was Barron Park, where residents have consistently characterized the Maybell development as the latest zone-busting project to win the council's favor in recent years. In their ballot arguments and during heated meetings and debates, Measure D opponents have consistently lumped the Maybell project with controversial "planned community" projects, such as the approved Lytton Gateway and Jay Paul's proposal for 395 Page Mill Road.
Measure D opponents had also criticized the council for the way in which it approved the Maybell project. They blasted the council's decision to loan $5.8 million to the Palo Alto Housing Corporation to buy the Maybell land and to include the housing units in the city's planning documents even before the project received the green light.
Supporters of Measure D countered that the 60 units of senior housing are badly needed in a city with sky-high property values and a growing senior population. They also argued that existing zoning at the site would enable a project with an even greater density and more traffic impacts than what the Housing Corporation has proposed.
Candice Gonzalez, executive director of the Housing Corporation, said Tuesday night that her focus on Election Night would be to thank the volunteers who supported the "Yes on D" campaign. The defeat, she said, likely means that the organization will end up selling the site for which it paid more than $15 million last year.
"I'll meet with the board of directors to discuss it, but we'll likely sell the land," Gonzalez told the Weekly.
She said it will be sad to lose the site, but said her nonprofit will remain committed to increasing affordable housing in Palo Alto.
"We're going to continue moving forward, when and where we can," Gonzalez said.
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