Had both groups, along with the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, been willing to take the time to focus on repairing past mistakes, building trust, and compromising a bit more, we could have avoided what will now be a confusing, divisive and expensive election debate this fall.
Thursday night's unanimous decision by the City Council to let voters decide on the housing project is but the sad, final result of a process that should never have gotten to this point. It should not have been so difficult to see the points of view of both sides of this issue, but neither the Council, the Housing Corporation, nor the objecting neighbors seemed truly interested in doing that.
While the City Council responded back in June with some helpful reductions in the size of the development, they did not do what was needed to repair relations with the neighbors. They had an opportunity last week to show they at least understood the neighbors' continuing objections.
Instead, exasperation was the tone of the evening. Several Council members went out of their way to express their frustration with opponents and the passion with which they waged the referendum petition drive, and in doing so came across as defensive and insensitive to how emotional the debate had become.
And for their part, instead of focusing on the substance of the issue, neighbors used the meeting to hurl new charges against both the city staff and Housing Corporation for not accurately communicating with state authorities regarding the status of the zoning change. That was a foolhardy strategy.
It is true that the city and Housing Corporation moved ahead to secure grant funding from the Tax Credit Allocation Committee prior to a July 3 deadline by asserting the PC zoning had been approved. It was premature, given that the council hadn't had its official second reading of the zoning ordinance, and a referendum against it was likely to qualify. (The referendum has now suspended that zoning.)
But to describe these and other actions as "fraud," as if they could have had any effect on the zoning or the rights of opponents to qualify a referendum, is unnecessarily inflammatory and unproductive.
We were disappointed that not a single Council member addressed the option of rescinding the June zoning decision that led to the referendum petition, which would have provided an opportunity for negotiation and compromise.
Instead, perhaps reflecting their frustration with the demeanor of the opponents, there was no real discussion at all. Each Council member made statements in support of affordable senior housing, the Housing Corporation and expressing their hope that both sides of the debate temper their emotions and engage in a respectful campaign. And they each explained that they favored putting the referendum on a special election ballot this November, at a cost of over $600,000, instead of next year because it would be unfair to the Housing Corporation and merely prolong debate.
One problem with this outcome is that it pits a known development proposal against an unknown alternative development, potentially of greater density and impact. If the referendum is successful and the special planned community zoning adopted by the Council is defeated, then it is possible that the Housing Corporation would sell off the land to a developer who would build large, single family homes that would bring far more traffic than the currently proposed development. It is highly unlikely that voters will want to risk this, nor is it really in the neighborhood's best interest.
A far better move, in our opinion, would have been to allow for a cooling-off period by not being pressured to act by Friday's deadline for placing the referendum on a November ballot. Just as it was rushed to take action on the zoning change in June in order for the Housing Corporation to apply for the now-moot grant money, the Council rushed again to meet the deadline for the November election. If emotions were allowed to subside, we think with the help of a mediator both the neighbors and the Housing Corporation could have worked out a rational compromise. With neither side benefiting from delay and there being risks to both sides of an up or down vote on a referendum, there would have been a strong incentive for a resolution.
Opponents have had some good reasons to feel betrayed by the city and a have a good case for further modifications to the development. But ironically, it is impossible to see how any good can come to the neighborhood or the broader community by being successful with a referendum.
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