Palo Alto Weekly
News - July 19, 2013
Referendum petition submitted in Palo Alto
Citizens seek to overturn City Council's approval of housing development on Maybell Avenue
The signatures are in, and Palo Alto may be heading for a November election.
If the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters confirms the petition signatures collected by Palo Alto citizens, voters will have a chance this fall to overturn a June 17 decision by the City Council to revise the city's Comprehensive Plan to accommodate a housing development on Maybell and Clemo avenues.
The controversial development, proposed by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, includes a 60-unit housing complex for seniors and 12 single-family homes (see story, at left).
To reverse the council's approval, residents have been working to qualify two referendums for the November ballot: one that would specifically overturn the council's approval of the project and another one that would reverse the change to the Comprehensive Plan.
Citizens had to get 2,298 signatures for each petition to qualify it for the ballot. The one for the Comprehensive Plan was due Wednesday, and petitioners submitted the signatures to the Office of the City Clerk at about 5 p.m., according to Assistant City Clerk Beth Minor.
Though the signatures are yet to be verified by the county registrar, the number well exceeds the required amount. City Clerk Donna Grider accepted the sheets of signatures and returned a receipt showing 3,431 signatures had been collected. Bob Moss, a Barron Park resident who is part of the campaign, said the effort has received support from all parts of Palo Alto, with people "concerned about the scale of developments going in and the traffic impacts on city services."
"We were delighted and impressed with how many people are angry about overdevelopment in Palo Alto," Moss said.
The registrar's office has 15 days to verify the signatures.
Because the council formally approved the specific Maybell project plan on June 28 (after what's known as a "second reading") and residents have 30 days to gather signatures for a referendum, the petition for that decision isn't due until later this month.
The city's last referendum took place in 2003, when voters unsuccessfully challenged a development at 800 High St.
— Gennady Sheyner
Posted by R Evans,
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 18, 2013 at 6:10 pm
This is not a NIMBY referendum. Palo Altans, don't be misled by those flyers which argue that this is all about neighborhoods against senior housing. Clearly the motivations of those supporting any referendum will vary, as will the motivations of those opposing it. While the referendum means different things to different supporters, it is, at its core, a reaction to and a rejection of, the current trajectory of Palo Alto's staff and leadership in its encouragement of high density development in residential areas and in its disregard for existing zoning.
It is also a referendum against the idea that the City should use its power to change zoning to help its friends (or anyone else) finance desired projects regardless of the merits of such projects. This sets a precedent which will inevitably accelerate the transition of Palo Alto from a suburban city to an Urban one. It is also a clear conflict of interest for city staff and the City Council.
By lending PAHC money to buy low density land with the promise inherent in the development plan that the funds to repay the loan would require rezoning of the land to high density to profit from the increased selling prices of parcels of the land made possible by the rezoning. The City attorney says that this is not a conflict of interest. Many citizens of Palo Alto disagree. It is either a direct conflict of interest or at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Many of the Palo Altans who signed the referendum petition believe that there should be much greater separation between those that profit from development and those with the legislative authority to rezone land, especially when such rezoning so materially leads to the profits and such rezoning is required for the City's loan to be paid back.
Whether or not the actions of the City in this instance constitute an illegal conflict under California law, I think any fair minded Palo Altan will concede that the "partnership" between PAHC and the City evidenced by the loan of $5 million to purchase the land which is to be repaid out of rezoning profits does not pass the smell test. I also think it is a bad precedent for the City as it will inevitably lead to more and more rezonings to high density and more and more high density, market rate development all over town to pay for other projects which the City favors.
As may other readers' comments above indicate, this is also a referendum about the process by which the City approves high density projects, as well as changes to its comprehensive plan and changes to its zoning to support such project approvals. Those who look with dismay at the changing skyline of Palo Alto, the unsightliness of many projects approved and built in Palo Alto in recent years, and the rapid pace at which Palo Alto is being urbanized, have also signed the referendum petitions.
I believe that many in the City no longer trust our decision makers, in their zeal to increase City development fees and other revenues or to meet questionable requirements from outside agencies such as ABAG, to protect the interest of present citizens of Palo Alto and protect the safety and character of our city. In the past Palo Altans may have given the City's planners the benefit of the doubt in making decisions regarding proposed developments, believing that the planners had our best interests at heart. Things have changed, however. Palo Altans now live every day with the impacts generated by existing City projects wondering why they were ever approved. With this recent history Palo Altans no longer trust the City and its planning professionals and boards as a reliable guardians of the City's livability, character and ambiance.
Many Palo Altans are concerned about the current council's acquiescence in the so-called expertise of its planners when it comes to the practical and visual impact of huge, high density developments and other City projects. There is a concern that the City is perhaps overly fond of, or dependent on, development-based revenues. It seems like the City's current process is not adequately considering, addressing, and mitigating the impacts of such developments and projects.
So, for those of us living on either side of the Traffic-Calmed Arastradero corridor and for those who just have to attempt to drive through it own their way to school and to work; and for those of us who are dismayed by the negative impacts, both tangible and aesthetic, of the Arbor Real development, the Mickeys development, and other buildings recently finished our currently under construction , this is also a referendum against the "track record" of the City's planning authorities based on their approval and support of such projects.
The City has its work cut out for it to regain the trust of its citizenry. I hope the City leadership will not wait until these referenda are passed this November before it changes its perspective on what the residents of the city value had pays more attention to those who elect the council and whose taxes pay their salaries and less to developers, special interests (yes PAHC is a special interest), and ABAG.
There needs to be a new dialog between the City's professionals and its citizens. The Comprehensive Plan should be changed, if change is justified, through work with the greater community, not at the behest of a developer. We are clearly not in the same page with city administration in this area. Instead of its enthusiastic support of practically every high density development that is presented to it, Palo Alto's leaders should have a much more conservative approach.
There will be those who say we have to pack in Palo Altans like sardines to meet the City's commitments to ABAG. If this is the case, I say we should be working with other elected representatives of Peninsula and Silicon Valley communities to change ABAG laws, regulations, commitments, guidelines, or standards which have been interpreted to force communities to accept high density developments regardless of their impact on the surrounding neighborhoods to make them more conducive to maintaining the quality of life of Palo Altans. This may be as simple as replacing the ABAG decision makers with those focused on community instead of density. It may be as simple as showing the ABAG's plans do not meet its goals and there are better ways to achieve the goals which are less harmful to communities.
Come on City Council, let's get on with this work!
Posted by A neighbor,
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 18, 2013 at 7:42 pm
PAHC didn't exactly plan this as well as you seem to think. They only decided to make the Maybell site a senior project because they figured (and acknowledged publicly) it would be easier politically than any other demographic, not because they had an analysis of how to best meet the need. PAHC has a history of building first and asking questions later, figuring whatever they build will best meet the need. In the past, that has resulted in vacancies, including most recently 20 out of 24 senior BMR units at Moldaw going unfilled for 3 years. Because of this controversy, some of those have finally been filled, and supposedly the City is finally renegotiating the terms to make them actually affordable to the clientele PAHC serves, but last I heard, they still hadn't filled half of them.
If the need is so great, you would think PAHC would first work to solve the problems with existing unfilled stock to understand the need better (and to give good homes right now to up to 40 seniors who need them). They have pitched the Maybell project need by saying 20% of seniors in Palo Alto live below the poverty limit, yet they acknowledge the residents of the proposed project will be those making 30% - 60% if the median area income, i.e., serving ZERO seniors with incomes below the poverty limit.
While I believe PAHC will find it easy to fill such a development, they will likely not be doing so by meeting the need they claim/everyone thinks they will. Plus, the staff report on the rezoning basically said there was no legally binding provision for the development to be designated for seniors. In other words, they may intend to build it for seniors, but if it doesn't work out, they can put whomever they wish in there. And it seems to me, they didn't exactly do due diligence on how to best meet the need.
The issue of how to serve seniors in Palo Alto also deserves some attention. The classic choice of EVERY senior in every expensive city across the nation is whether to retire somewhere less expensive or closer to relatives. This is a choice their clientele will face, too, and $1,000/month for a 600 sq ft unit in an area where everything else costs so much -- and in a development where nothing can be reached easily by foot -- may end up a less attractive choice than people assume. Many seniors with limited incomes living in Palo Alto are living in their own homes the equity of which would disqualify them from living in PAHC housing, even while their incomes are limited. Most of them choose to stay in their houses anyway. Apparently, from the Moldaw experience, many of them choose not to reinvest their equity that way to stay in Palo Alto. I think many will find the monthly expense of the planned units at Maybell a hardship for what they are getting as well. The location doesn't compare to, say, Stevenson House, which is practically across the street from a grocery store, Betty Wright center, and a community center/library.
Someone in one of the PAHC developments asked me why Palo Alto is spending so much money to keep seniors in Palo Alto anyway, when they could get three or four times the units, by setting up developments in less expensive communities in the Bay Area that can reach Palo Alto by transit. I'm not talking about shuttling seniors away, I'm talking about nicer retirement communities than could be had here, for the same money, and easily reachable. After all, the argument PAHC has made to justify the lack of adjacency of services at that property has been that no one will ever need to drive much, they'll just sit in their all day and never go anywhere. With only 47 parking spots for 60 units plus employees, yet promising no impact on the local parking at the park and neighborhoods, they also apparently think no one ever visits their clientele.
In his comments before the vote, Councilman Schmid pointed out that a downtown developer paid money to avoid putting those units in a downtown development -- downtown being a much better location for seniors, with Avenidas right there, steps from PAMF and Stanford, bus and train lines, etc -- but not enough money to pay the actual cost of the units at Maybell. Instead, the City is essentially placing the burden of those costs on the Maybell neighborhood through the financing scheme and overdevelopment inherent in the rezoning.
The neighbors haven't rejected the housing, nor the seniors, they have simply asked that the development go in under existing zoning. If Palo Alto fixed the in lieu fee situation, there would be enough money to fund it that way. If they can, as they claim, put in 45 units under existing zoning, what's the problem? They make up the difference in the 60 units by putting the vacant Moldaw BMR units online.
Palo Alto should, as Councilman Schmid suggested, fix the in lieu fee situation so PAHC could afford to honor the existing zoning in their development.