The project at 567 and 595 Maybell Ave. was proposed last year by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit that manages the city's stock of affordable housing. Last fall, the City Council had loaned the corporation $3.2 million to buy the land, which under the current plan would include a 60-unit development for low-income seniors and 15 single-family homes. But before an application gets approved, it has to undergo a "planned community" zone change that would enable the greater density. The Planning and Transportation Commission is scheduled to consider approving the zone change on May 22 (it had voted in February to "initiate" the zone change) and the council is slated to debate it in June.
But even though approval is still far from certain, the city has already included the project in its Housing Element, a state-mandated document that includes a list of city sites that could accommodate more housing. The document, which is the only portion of the Comprehensive Plan (the city's land-use bible) that is required by state law, has been in the works for more than five years, but it wasn't until last fall that staff decided to include the 60 units of the Maybell project in the document.
Now, dozens of residents are accusing the city of short-circuiting the process and predetermining the outcome for a development that they claim will exacerbate the neighborhood's traffic problems.
The criticisms hit a fever pitch at the May 9 meeting of the council's Regional Housing Mandate Committee, which voted 3-0 with Karen Holman absent to approve the proposed Housing Element with the Maybell site included. The full council is scheduled to approve the document Monday night.
Residents from the Green Acres II and Barron Park neighborhoods packed into the City Hall's cramped Council Conference Room to lay out their concerns. More than a dozen speakers publicly urged the council committee to reconsider the Maybell project at an emotional meeting that was frequently interrupted by jeers and applause.
Many pointed to the large number of schools in the area (including Gunn High School, Terman Middle School and Briones Elementary School) and the recent lane reduction at the Charleston and Arastradero corridor, which intended to make the streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. With all the changes, the residents argued, the neighborhoods can not absorb any more housing or traffic.
"The safety of our children and the impact on our schools and all of the services that will be required if you add anything to Maybell — which is already substandard in its width — is going to be just outrageous," said Rosemarie Dufresne, a resident of Thain Way, near Maybell. "I can't believe there isn't another place where you can put this project that wouldn't be more safe for all of us."
Georgia Avenue resident Kevin Hauk criticized the preliminary traffic analysis, which focused exclusively on cars and did not consider the thousands of children who bike and walk in the Maybell area. He accused staff and the developer of being involved in an "exercise of creative messaging and statistical manipulation."
The neighborhood opposition and the renewed concerns about the traffic impacts of the Maybell project are putting the council in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, the council and the planning commission agree that the city desperately needs more housing, particularly for seniors and low-income residents.
The Association of Bay Area Governments, a regional agency that assigns housing quotas to Bay Area cities, mandated that the city plan for 2,860 housing units in the current planning period, a number that city planners have been struggling to meet given the generally built-out nature of the city. Planning Director Curtis Williams said at the May 9 meeting that including the Maybell project helps the city reach the quota and gain state approval for the Housing Element.
"It does help us meet our numbers and we're close enough that if we didn't have that site in there, it would be difficult to meet those," Williams said. "We'd have to go back to the drawing board and find that. Nevertheless, we could work on that some more."
At the same time, planners and city officials find much to like about the Maybell project. Council members often talk about the need to build more affordable housing and the Planning and Transportation Commission voiced a similar sentiment when it voted 4-2 in February to formally initiate the rezoning process for 567 Maybell Ave. At that meeting, Jessica de Witt, manager at the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, told the commission that all of the corporation's properties have long waiting lists and said that increasing the city's affordable-housing stock is "very critical and important."
Commissioners generally agreed that affordable units constitute an important "public benefit" (a requirement of "planned community" projects), with Commissioner Arthur Keller calling the project "intrinsically worthwhile."
But Greg Tanaka, one of the two dissenters, marveled at the February meeting about the lack of opposition to the Maybell development.
"I think if the people in the (neighborhood) really knew what was being built across the street, there would be more of an outcry there," Tanaka said.
The fact that the Maybell project is now also listed in the Housing Element has also prompted allegations from critics that the game is rigged and that the project now has more momentum.
Anne Lawer, a neighborhood resident, marveled at the fact that a project whose impacts haven't even been vetted yet is now part of the city's housing vision. She vowed that critics will continue to attend meetings to make their case about the project's impacts.
Councilman Greg Schmid asked that staff include an explicit statement in its report to the Planning and Transportation Commission stating that the project's listing in the Housing Element should in no way influence the approval. He and his colleagues also directed staff to come up with a "backup plan" and consider other sites that could be included on the housing inventory should the Maybell project get denied.
"I don't want to give the Planning and Transportation Commission or anyone else or the public the notion that we had made the decision," Schmid said.