A former orchard on Maybell Avenue that three years ago was at the center of a citizen revolt in Palo Alto will soon be the site of 16 single-family homes under a development proposal that the City Council approved Monday night.
The project from Golden Gate Homes won over the council 8-to-1, with Councilman Cory Wolbach dissenting. It will be located at 567 Maybell Ave.,a 2.47-acre site near Clemo Avenue that was targeted for a housing development in 2013. The project, which back then included 60 apartments for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes, was approved by the council, only to have that approval revoked by the voter referendum that fall.
Now, the same people who successfully fought the proposal from the Palo Alto Housing Corporation in 2013 have rallied behind the new plan from Golden Gate Homes, a developer that over the course of extensive negotiations with the neighbors agreed to reduce the number of homes from 30 to 16.
In approving the project, the council agreed to allow two of the 16 lots to be smaller than the 6,000-square-foot standard in the zoning code (one lot is 5,000 square feet; the other is 5,682 square feet) and to exempt the two lots from compliance with required lot dimensions.
The council also agreed to not to require a pedestrian walkway that planning staff had recommended and that the developer had opposed. And it allowed Golden Gate Homes not to build two below-market-rate homes, as required by the zoning code, allowing it to instead pay fees designated for affordable housing.
Local law allows the council to allow developers to substitute in-lieu fees (which are based on 7.5 percent of the home's sale price, according to the current policy, which is now being revised) if building units on-site presents a hardship. In this case, Golden Gate Homes maintained that the hardship would be financial.
Despite some reservations about the project and its zoning exceptions, most council members agreed that it merited approval. What may have influenced the council's decision were a giant stack of emails from supporters; an online petition with more than 200 signatures; and a Council Chambers full of supporters of the project.
Yet the council also acknowledged the irony inherent in the neighborhood's support. In 2013, one of the main criticisms of the Housing Corporation proposal was its failure to fit into the parcel's existing zoning (it required a "planned-community" zone to achieve a density increase). In the years after the Maybell election, the council pivoted toward slow-growth policies and a stricter interpretation of the zoning code, prompting Councilman Greg Scharff to observe a year ago that the council had become "fundamentalist."
On Monday, Scharff characterized his colleagues' support for the new project as a welcome philosophical shift.
"I'm really glad we're actually starting to show some flexibility as a council, when a project is made better (with exceptions)," he said. "We don't need to be so fundamentalist about, 'Does it meet code? Does it need zoning exceptions?' and all of that."
Though Scharff is usually more receptive toward new developments than most of his colleagues, he noted some irony with this project's process. The council allowed Golden Gate Homes to claim a financial hardship and not build below-market-rate housing without requiring any kind of proof (such as a pro forma), in stark contrast with the council's usual policies.
"We're only granting the exception because we like the project," Scharff said.
It was the council's most fervent opponents of zoning exceptions who spoke most glowingly of the new project. Councilmen Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth, who were members of the slow-growth citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (which spearheaded the Maybell referendum in 2013) before joining the council, both happily supported the new Maybell project. DuBois made the motion to approve the project, which Filseth seconded.
"I think it's extremely rare that we have a developer and a petition from citizens and a bunch of citizens showing up to say they support a development," DuBois said. "I don't think we should underestimate that."
DuBois and Filseth each praised the neighborhood collaboration with Golden Gate Homes.
"You guys have set the gold standard for neighborhood outreach," Filseth said.
Councilwoman Karen Holman shared their view and urged going along with the neighborhood's wishes.
"Nobody knows how a neighborhood lives better than the people who live in the neighborhood," Holman said.
Though normally one of the council's most fervent sticklers for zoning rules and design guidelines, Holman made an exception for the Maybell project.
"There are exceptions and there are exceptions, and these are the ones that the neighbors are supporting," Holman said. "Most exceptions that we see at the dais are ones that cause the public to react negatively and, from my personal perspective, don't usually make the project better."
While the slow-growth council members praised the development, Wolbach, who is usually the council's most vocal housing advocate, opposed it. He said he believes the city is "rushing" and took issue with the fact that affordable housing is not being provided on-site and that the pedestrian path is no longer in the plan.
Mayor Pat Burt shared Scharff's unease about the council's -- and community's -- philosophical inconsistency about the zoning exceptions. The newly popular Maybell project is not compliant with the city's zoning code or, in some ways, the Comprehensive Plan, Burt noted, but its supporters are the very same people who often berate the council for not complying with the letter of the law.
Observing that the final design of the project was driven largely by homeowners in the neighborhood, Burt stressed the need to include in future projects a broader cross-section of the community, including renters, affordable-housing developers and service providers.
"We need to re-examine how we deal with projects, especially new projects," Burt said. "Even if a new project allows for higher density, if it's different from what has been in the neighborhood, we have to acknowledge that it will have real concerns unless design and compatibility are good and unless there is really participation at the outset of various stakeholders."