Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 27, 2013

Palo Alto takes aim at construction 'blight'

City Council gets behind effort to deter stalled building projects

by Gennady Sheyner

The chain-link fence around the "mystery project" went up next to Gail Wooley's house on Mariposa Avenue nearly seven years ago and has remained there since.

The house behind the fence on the 1600 block of Mariposa had been demolished in January 2008. Today, the site remains fenced off, turning a section of the former mayor's block in the Southgate neighborhood into a perpetual construction site, much to the chagrin of nearby residents.

It's not just the unsightliness that irks the neighbors, though that certainly is an issue. It's also a safety issue. Wooley said she had seen people store and sell drugs on the site. In one case, a person on a bicycle was having a beer while waiting to make what appeared to be an illegal transaction, she said.

The Mariposa project isn't the only one with an unwelcome air of mystery. At Monday night's City Council meeting, the council voted unanimously to set time limits for building permits and explore penalties for delinquent projects. During the discussion, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd said neighbors have resorted to patrolling with their dogs and turning on their outdoor lights to "shoo off whoever was out there."

"This is what spoke to me about the type of quality of life that has really been disturbed and disrupted for the immediate neighbors around some of these projects," Shepherd said.

She was one of four co-authors, along with council members Karen Holman, Marc Berman and Gail Price, of a colleagues memo urging the council to clamp down on delinquent residential construction projects, which the memo states "can cause periodic traffic, parking, noise and visual impacts for community residents and businesses."

"There may be a wide variety of reasons for the delay ranging from funding issues, to bad design or contracting, to neglectful property owners," the memo states. "No matter the reason, the resulting incomplete construction project can become an eye-sore, attractive nuisance and a problem for the residents and neighborhood. These incomplete projects detract from neighborhood quality of life and residents deserve an ordinance that they can rely on to ensure that housing projects start and finish in a reasonable amount of time."

Mayor Greg Scharff and Price said such projects exist all throughout the city. Price commended Wooley and other residents for seeking action from the council.

"The sense of concern and urgency has become very clear by very articulate community members who have simply had enough of this kind of condition," Price said.

Holman and Councilwoman Liz Kniss both acknowledged that this action should have been taken long ago and stressed the need for near-term action. The new law, which will be hashed out in the coming months by the council's Policy and Services Committee, should consider requiring the offending property owner to pay for street repairs relating to this project, Kniss said. Holman argued that the ordinance should include strong code-enforcement provisions.

Under existing law, building projects have no city-imposed deadlines. A building permit can be extended indefinitely, as long as the applicant completes enough work within six months to progress to the next level of inspection, according to the memo. If it expires, there is no requirement that the project be completed.

The memo doesn't proscribe the penalties for delinquent construction, but it states that penalties "should increase the longer a project is delinquent." It also specifies that the proposed ordinance would not apply to existing projects (unless a new permit is issued).

Councilman Larry Klein joined the rest of the council in supporting the gist of the memo, though he argued that the city should go further and look for ways to target ongoing projects like the one on Mariposa. He asked staff to "explore any other tolls that might be appropriate" with respect to existing construction sites that are not under permit.

Councilman Pat Burt added another provision — that staff also consider "improved fencing" at stalled construction yards. After a brief discussion, the council unanimously voted to pursue the law changes.

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