If things go as planned, Palo Alto will soon see two large new facilities go up on San Antonio Road, east of U.S. Highway 101: a housing complex for some of the city's poorest residents and a plant that will purify wastewater.
The former project is a "transitional housing" complex of 88 dwellings that is being spearheaded by the nonprofit LifeMoves and funded largely through the state's Project Homekey program. The latter is being undertaken by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, also known as Valley Water, as part of an agreement that the district signed with the city in 2019.
Both projects are now hitting key decision points. On Monday, June 12, the City Council revised the city's Comprehensive Plan to enable the construction of the water purification plan. And next week, council members plan to sign a nine-year lease with LifeMoves and commit $7 million over the next seven years for the facility's operations.
If the two projects advance, they will both occupy 1237 San Antonio Road, a site next to the Baylands that today is largely undeveloped but that the city's waste hauler, GreenWaste, uses for storage.
But for one member of the City Council, the odd juxtaposition is bringing up an uncomfortable question: Do these projects really belong together?
The issue was raised by City Council member Julie Lythcott-Haims during Monday's discussion of the proposed water purification plant, which would import treated wastewater from the Regional Water Quality Control Plant on Embarcadero Road through a new pipeline that would run along East Bayshore Road. Valley Water would then further treat the water, bringing it up to drinking-water standards, and send it south to the various communities in its jurisdiction.
Council members reaffirmed their support for the $1.2-billion plant during the June 5 discussion when they indicated that they'd be willing to change the land use designation on a portion of the Baylands site from "public conservation land" (CL) to "major institution/special facilities" (MISP). Even so, they had some concerns.
For Lythcott-Haims, the proximity of the new plant next to the homeless shelter topped the list. Lythcott-Haims noted that the city would never consider putting a wastewater-treatment plant next to a single-family neighborhood or an apartment complex.
"It just makes me wonder how high on a totem pole a set of humans have to be so as not to have a facility built next to their Palo Alto home," she said. "Even if it is a transitional home, it feels as if we've chosen to warehouse humans instead of to provide what we would consider a suitable home environment."
Vice Mayor Greer Stone suggested including "aesthetic fencing" near the Homekey project and questioned staff about the purification plant's "negative externalities." Current Planning Manager Jodie Gerhardt said the city and Valley Water have already taken some precautions. They have agreed, for example, to move the hazardous materials associated with the plant away from the housing site. A similar approach could be taken when it comes to noise-making equipment.
"Looking at other housing projects and sites within the city, I want to make sure they'd be treated equally and not say, ‘Because these are low-income housing it's OK to put some of the other projects that might be noisy and toxic nearby," Stone said. "That needs to be an important consideration moving forward."
Council members were assured by Valley Water staff, however, that the two facilities should be able to coexist with little disturbance to the residents in the LifeMoves project. Because the wastewater would be treated at the wastewater treatment plant Embarcadero before flowing down to San Antonio, there would be no foul odors at the purification plant, according to Kirsten Struve, assistant officer for the water supply division at Valley Water.
Struve noted that the water district would add whatever mitigations would be required by a forthcoming environmental analysis for the plant, which may include putting up screening to address noise. She also noted that an existing water-purification plant on Zanker Road in San Jose is able to operate without much emanating sound.
"It is pretty quiet, and most of the noise there actually comes from other properties around it," Struve said. "So we don't expect impacts during operations."
City Council member Pat Burt concurred and said that the sound would be minimal if the pipes are installed in the interior of the plant. The new plant, he said, would be a fairly "low-profile industrial facility."
Burt acknowledged, however, that this site, like any other, would entail tradeoffs.
"It's not adjacent to transit and other purposes, but it is adjacent to a huge amount of beautiful natural habitat: the Baylands," Burt said. "A lot of people would pay to have housing that close to the Baylands. There are pros and cons to it -- but it's not all cons."
How much water stays here?
For Burt, the chief concern about the city's agreement with Valley Water pertained to water rights rather than plant construction or operations. The 2019 deal notably moves most of the treated wastewater out of Palo Alto and to other communities, though it does give the city the option of reclaiming some of that water.
Burt suggested that the deal be revisited so that the council could consider modifications that would expand the city's access to the purified wastewater.
The topic of water rights will resurface in August, when the council considers another wastewater-treatment project: a salt-removal facility that Valley Water is helping the city build at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant on Embarcadero.
The 2019 deal obligated Valley Water to contribute $16 million toward the project, which now has an estimated price tag of about $56 million, according to Karin North, assistant director of the city's Public Works Department.
Unlike the San Antonio Road project, the new Embarcadero Road plant would not create potable water. It would, however, lower the salinity level in the treated wastewater and make it more useful for irrigation and landscaping in Mountain View and Palo Alto.
Despite some questions and concerns about the details of the 2019 arrangement, council members generally agreed that the city should take the necessary actions to enable Valley Water to build the water purification plant on the San Antonio site.
"I think the site is absolutely essential," Council member Ed Lauing said. "There's no other site in Palo Alto to do it. I wouldn't even think about turning around on that one right now."
Council member Vicki Veenker joined her staff in urging Valley Water staff to pay attention to the impacts of the plant on the residents who would live near it. That said, she said she supports the proposed zone change and noted that the land currently doesn't feel like it's fulfilling its stated purpose of promoting conservation.
"In some ways, this new use would be – because it might help us clean up the contamination and conserve one of our most precious natural resources, which is water," Veenker said.