The council's approval of the "planned community" zone allows the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing Corporation to build a 60-unit apartment building for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes, three fewer than the developer had initially proposed for the Barron Park neighborhood site. Seven of these homes would be along Maybell and five would be on Clemo Avenue.
The council's unanimous vote, which included a list of conditions and design changes, belied the deeply divisive nature of the proposal. Over the past month, as the controversial project had made its way through public hearings of the council and the Planning and Transportation Commission and had galvanized area residents, prompting the formation of two grassroots groups, threats of lawsuits over the project's environmental analysis and plans for a citizen referendum should the project pass.
Seeking to cool the temperature, the council on June 13 scheduled a weekend summit facilitated by Mayor Greg Scharff and including representatives from both the Barron Park and nearby Green Acres neighborhoods and from the Housing Corporation.
The closed-door retreat was a stark departure for a city where council members like to talk about transparency and where the planning process is often criticized for being too thorough and inclusive. Scharff, who spent 10 hours on Friday and Saturday working with the parties, got high marks from both sides. Mike Lowy, who attended the meeting on behalf of the residents' group, called him an "honest broker," echoing comments of others. Elaine Heal, another neighborhood attendee, said she "left this weekend much more optimistic than when I went in."
But while the weekend meetings succeeded in educating residents about zoning issues and the complexities of developing affordable housing, they did not bring about the resolution the council was hoping for. The residents at the meeting wanted to reduce the number of houses to eight. The Housing Corporation, which is using the single-family homes to finance the affordable housing, argued that this would not be economically feasible.
On Monday, the council received a memo recapping the meetings from Scharff, the Housing Corporation and the residents who attended the meeting. All parties agreed that while the meetings were educational, agreement was not achieved.
Some residents on Monday continued to express their frustration with the process. Art Liberman, a Barron Park resident who attended the weekend meetings, said he remains unconvinced by the developer's assertions that the amount of housing cannot be reduced. He asked the council to make sure the new project is consistent with the character of the neighborhood, which is composed primarily of single-family homes.
Opponents of the rezoning also continued to argue that the project would be too dense for their neighborhood, which includes a busy school corridor and suffers from heavy traffic congestion during morning and afternoon commute hours.
Project proponents stressed the need for building affordable housing in a city with a graying population and sky-high real estate values.
Former Councilman John Barton was in the latter camp.
"Clearly, the shotgun wedding didn't achieve a progeny, didn't develop a wonderful solution and that's unfortunate," Barton said, before he encouraged the council to vote and approve what he called the Housing Corporation's "compromise position."
Residents disputed that building 12 houses rather than 15 is a "compromise."
The list of conditions attached to the council's approval aimed to improve the design of the development. These requirements include varying the distance of homes from the property lines, with a minimum of 20 feet, and making sure the Maybell project shares services and staff with the nearby Arastradero Park Apartments facility, which is also managed by the Housing Corporation.
Council members agreed with residents that they have a traffic problem during the morning commute hour, though they reiterated that the new development would have very little impact on this situation. A traffic study commissioned by the city and widely disputed by neighborhood opponents of the project stated that the development would bring 16 and 20 new car trips to the neighborhood during the morning and afternoon peak hours, respectively.
Councilman Greg Schmid said the city's method for measuring traffic impacts is inadequate because it measures the incremental impact of each new project without considering the cumulative impacts of several developments. He called for the city to re-examine its policies for measuring traffic impacts.
Immediately after the vote on 567 Maybell, the council unanimously accepted Councilman Pat Burt's suggestion that staff work with the school district to evaluate possible traffic-calming and pedestrian-safety measures on Maybell.
Council members also stressed on Monday that the Maybell site is unlikely to remain undeveloped for long, regardless of the council's decision. Existing zoning on the orchard site would allow construction of 34 homes, which staff and council members argued would bring in more traffic than the senior apartments.
"If we reject this proposal, Palo Alto Housing Corp. could turn around and sell it to private developer," Councilman Marc Berman said. "No private developer who pays $16 million or more for a plot of land wouldn't maximize the profit from this development. This end result is as good as it can get."
Councilman Larry Klein also argued that the difference between the residents' position and the Housing Corporation's isn't all that big. It's a matter of 12 homes versus eight homes, he said.
"It seems to me it is an issue that's hardly large enough to cause lawsuits, referendums and things of that nature," Klein said. "I don't think that's where our community ought to be."