Housing advocates, zoning critics clash in Maybell debate | August 23, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 23, 2013

Housing advocates, zoning critics clash in Maybell debate

Both sides submit arguments for the Palo Alto Nov. 5 referendum

by Gennady Sheyner

Depending on whom you ask, the bitter debate over a proposed housing development on Palo Alto's Maybell Avenue is about affordable housing for low-income seniors or a city zoning process gone awry.

Both arguments are presented in the official ballot arguments submitted Aug. 16 by supporters and opponents of 567 Maybell Ave., a development that includes a 60-unit apartment complex for seniors and 12 single-family homes. The former maintain in their argument that affordable housing is a much needed amenity in Palo Alto; the latter frame the issue in terms of zoning and argue that the Maybell project is merely the latest attempt by the City Council to encourage dense developments despite residents' wishes.

The project is being developed by the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing Corporation and received the council's approval of a zone change in June to enable its construction. The "planned community" zone would allow the Housing Corporation to exceed density limits in exchange for negotiated "public benefits" — the senior housing.

Residents reacted by circulating a petition that received more than enough votes to bring the council's decision to a referendum on Nov. 5 as Measure D.

Measure proponents, in their official argument, focus on the product rather than the process. They note that nearly 20 percent of Palo Alto seniors are living near or below the poverty line, according to the Council on Aging of Silicon Valley.

"Palo Alto's seniors deserve a high quality, safe and affordable place to live," the argument in favor of the project states. "But over the last 10 years, housing costs have doubled, making it increasingly difficult for Palo Alto residents on fixed incomes to remain in our community and live close to their children and grandchildren after they retire."

The argument in favor of Measure D also states that the development would have "minimal impact on the surrounding neighborhood, traffic and schools."

The pro-Measure D argument is signed by Mary Alice Thornton, president of the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto; Ray Bacchetti, a trustee at the Channing House Senior Residence; Lynnie Melena, past president of the Barron Park Association; Robert Neff, chair of the Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee; and Councilwoman Liz Kniss, the only council member to sign either argument.

For opponents, however, the referendum is about protecting residential neighborhoods from the types of high-density projects that have been popping up throughout the city in recent years. The argument cites as examples Alma Village (formerly Alma Plaza); the new Lytton Gateway on Lytton Avenue and Alma Street; the Arbor Real townhouse development on El Camino Real; and the hotel currently being built on the Palo Alto Bowl site. The referendum, from their point of view, is a message to the council that this trend has to stop.

"City Council has approved development after development with inadequate regard for the impact on existing infrastructure and residents — even after hearing residents concerns," the anti-Measure D argument states. "Palo Altans want the city to stop approving high density developments throughout Palo Alto that irreversibly change our quality of life."

The argument emphasizes that opponents of the council's decision do support affordable senior housing on the Maybell parcel but only "within current zoning." The planned-community zone, they note, would allow 12 single-family homes, five of which would be three-story homes that opponents argue would be "completely out of scale with nearby residences."

"We oppose planned-community zoning that removes site regulations protecting residential neighborhoods — resulting in projects with inadequate parking, reduced safety, excessive height, loss of setbacks, and increased traffic congestion throughout town," the argument states.

The argument against Measure D is signed by former Councilwoman Emily Renzel; Tim Gray, former candidate for the council who chairs the newly formed nonprofit Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning; Cheryl Lilienstein, a Green Acres resident who helped spearhead the signature drive; Downtown North resident Neilson Buchanan; and former planning Commissioner Joseph Hirsch.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.


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