Palo Alto Weekly
Spectrum - May 17, 2013
A backwards process
"Not a done deal" defense rings hollow for proposed senior-housing development
Imagine making a substantial family investment in something before determining its value, how other family members felt about it and deciding if it was the best way to meet your family goals?
That's exactly what has happened with the city of Palo Alto's botched handling of a development proposed by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation (PAHC), and neighbors of the Maybell Avenue project site in Barron Park have every reason to feel the fix is in.
The problem began last November when the council agreed to loan PAHC $3.2 million to acquire the land for the project at 567 Maybell Ave., a street with no sidewalks one block north of Arastradero Road that has been severely impacted by drivers and bicyclists trying to avoid the congestion on Arastradero due to the lane reductions.
The council added another $2.6 million loan in March, even though the project itself had not received approvals from the Planning and Transportation Commission or the City Council and environmental review and public hearings hadn't been completed.
PAHC's laudable mission is to increase the amount of affordable housing in Palo Alto with the goal of maintaining a diverse community. It had the opportunity to buy two large parcels totaling 2.5 acres but needed loans from the city to close the deal, and ultimately will need the city to approve a special planned community (PC) zone in order to build a four-story 60-unit apartment building and 15 single-family homes. The homes would be sold at market rate and the profits from those sales would enable the city to eventually be repaid.
Neighborhood residents, who were caught unaware during the early consideration of the loan request, now have a wide range of legitimate complaints, especially the impact of traffic which they say the city's consultant downplayed, and what they feel is the tone-deaf way the city bureaucracy went about slipping the project into the city's required Housing Element, set to be approved by the City Council Monday night.
If approved, it will be another action supporting the project taken prior to the council holding public hearings and considering the PAHC application for a PC zone. It is not credible, as some council members have stated, that their minds are completely open on whether to approve the project and that prior actions won't have any influence as they consider the development in future weeks.
Maybell-area residents have to feel like the deck is stacked against them, when before the project is even approved, it has received more than $5 million in loans from the City Council and is included in the city's much ballyhooed Housing Element.
At last week's meeting of the council's Regional Housing Mandate Committee the vote was 3-0 (Scharff, Schmid, Berman, with Holman absent) to approve the Housing Element with the yet-to-be approved Maybell housing development included.
When the Association of Bay Area Governments told Palo Alto it must plan and zone for 2,860 new housing units in the current planning period it sent officials scrambling to meet the quota. Planning Director Curtis Williams said last week that including Maybell is an important part of helping the city comply with ABAG. Without it he said, "We'd have to go back to the drawing board ..."
Despite their 3-0 vote to approve including Maybell, members of the Housing Mandate committee tried to reassure residents that their minds were not made up. There is plenty of leeway for the council to reject the Maybell housing and then revise the Housing Element if necessary, they say.
"I have not made up my mind on Maybell and this is not a done deal," Mayor Greg Scharff told the largely hostile audience at the meeting last Thursday, saying he voted to approve it because he said it is required by law but could be revised later.
New development and particularly the development of low-income housing that exceeds the allowable zoning is always going to create controversy in Palo Alto. That means city officials need to bend over backwards to ensure early and transparent engagement with neighbors and a process that progresses in an ethically and legally acceptable fashion.
This hasn't happened with this development proposal, and the City Council now needs to do the right thing and remove the proposed Maybell project from the official housing plan. That gesture won't repair the damage that has been done, but it will at least signal that the council now understands the neighborhood's outrage and accepts responsibility for the poor process.
Posted by Grass Roots,
a resident of Green Acres
on May 18, 2013 at 11:03 am
Someone has already taken video and has been putting together something for the website. Still, the worst situation is when it rains. Then a larger percentage of the kids get to school in cars and it's a nightmare. Even if you go see the mess we have while school is in, it doesn't begin to approach what will happen in an emergency or a wetter year -- or when construction vehicles start blocking off Maybell or Arastradero to build.
@worse off with existing zoning,
You're not really from the neighborhood, are you? This is a small, close-knit neighborhood, and neighbors have been going door-to-door -- and the Weekly has your IP address even though you are anonymous. Weekly, if I have gotten it wrong, and somehow this person is from Greenacres, then I'm fine with deleting this charge. If not, please leave it, people shouldn't represent they are from the most affected neighborhood if they aren't.
"Data from existing comparable senior affordable housing projects" - Which affordable senior housing project do you mean that has no nearby services at all, not even medical or grocery?
The existing zoning is R-2 and Rm-15, low density residential and low density multifamily. RM-15 allows 8-15 units per acre. If we follow the zoning guide in the city's Comprehensive Plan Land Use guides, it says, "Density should be on the lower end of the scale next to single
family residential areas."
The area in question, the Tan/Arastradero/Maybell block is surrounded by R-1. Tan/Arastradero were built under county rules and grandfathered in. The Maybell zoning is clearly a transition zone from them to the R-1 neighborhood that wraps around and surrounds them. So if we were to do something as quaint as follow the Comprehensive Plan (instead of developer desires), the RM-15 would be built to the lower end of the scale, 8-10 units per acres, i.e., the whole property would be 20-24 units under existing zoning.
Compare 20-24 units under existing zoning to 75 units, including 15 of them market rate, packed in a narrow, tall strip with little setback on mostly Maybell (where currently 4 houses sit). You're the one who is being misleading and uninformed if you think that's going to mean less traffic.
Secondly, under current conditions, it's possible even building under current conditions would create hazardous conditions at that location. The point is, the City hasn't done due diligence in studying the situation, and they are required to given that the only outlets/inlets for the project are on congested "safe routes to school", one of them not even a full-wide street. Since people moving into the high-density development would not be from the neighborhood, they wouldn't know the hazards, increasing the likelihood of serious injury or death to a child.
Senior drivers are also the most likely to hit pedestrians/bicyclists of any demographic, most likely (except teens) to have a collision at an intersection, and most likely to be hit themselves as pedestrians. Has the city looked at how the actual risk to the children on bikes and pedestrians would increase because of the demographic, where there are NO nearby services? Remember, PAHC only decided to make it seniors for political reasons, not because it was a good place to put seniors. A lower number of trips with a higher risk per trip needs to be viewed differently, particularly since none of the data are comparable to sticking seniors way out where they have no accessible services or grocery.
Lastly, more evidence you are not from around here is your last paragraph. 40% of kids going to Gunn HS and Terman already bike. In the next few years, Gunn will house hundreds more students, meaning hundreds more bikes and cars. They come from a very large swath of Palo Alto, and the routes are definitely not all "safe". Even when Maybell isn't crowded, it's often effectively a one-lane street. I find myself driving on the opposite side of the road to share it with bicyclists, parked cars, etc at least once a day. The bicyclists themselves can be a hazard for pedestrians, and that's another issue that hasn't been examined. We have made many attempts in the last few years to get packs of bikes to stop at signs, to no real effect. I've seen large packs of bikes swarm elementary kids crossing in the middle of the street, rather than waiting for them to cross. A collision between a small child and a bike could be serious or fatal to the child. As Maybell becomes more dangerous, more older kids use the elementary school as part of their "safe route", another safety issue that has not even been considered in the plan.
Thank you to the Weekly for taking a look at the facts, rather than just being an arm of the Planning Commission, where they seem to know as little about what is going on in this neighborhood as "worse off".
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