Measure D is about both a housing project and Palo Alto’s land-use practices.
First, land use. Palo Alto’s City’s zoning and development process has come to rely heavily on “Planned Community” and other rezoning mechanisms. Each over-code project does indeed have something of value in it, whether it’s below-market-rate housing, half of a police building, or even just a sculpture. Proponents pitch the “gift” in isolation; if you’re a stage company, wouldn’t you like a new theater? But any project’s value must be understood in light of its costs, and the system can only be measured by its projects. In Palo Alto the system fails to measure up, and is in dire need of reform.
The way Palo Alto’s system works today is that the City has many things it would like to do – affordable housing, residential broadband, infrastructure repairs, parking garages, city management pay and benefit raises, and others – and never enough revenue to fund them all at once. But the Staff and Council have another way of raising money: they can essentially sell off pieces of the city.
The exact mechanism is a developer buys land zoned for one density, and then the city basically sells the developer a higher-density rezoning. The sale price is the return “gift.” The crucial problem is not the value of the “gift,” but the cost of the rezoning, and who bears it. Invariably the cost is the cost of density: neighborhood quality of life, traffic, congestion, parking, pollution, safety, and the impact on city infrastructure, including collateral impacts such as school crowding. These costs are real, borne by the residents, and hard to quantify. The City Staff and Council would not say they consider these costs to be zero, but in action that’s how they value them, and therefore every project is a winner. To the Staff, Council and development community, the system is a free-money game. It’s going to the ATM with somebody else’s card.
It’s taken awhile, but residents in Barron Park and all across the rest of Palo Alto have figured out this game, and are justifiably furious. (Actually a few have known it all along, but have been ignored.)
Second, Maybell. What’s happened specifically with Maybell is that the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, nominally a nonprofit, has figured out this game too, and wants in on it. The sale price of the rezoning in this case is the difference between the 41 senior units allowed under existing zoning and the 60 they’ve negotiated with the developer, plus construction expenses. The cost is the – 50% larger – piece of land rezoned to allow multimillion-dollar for-profit houses, and the associated burden to Barron Park residents. The argument in favor of Measure D relies fundamentally on three assumptions, all bad.
The first assumption involves the dismissal of the cost to residents. The fact is that under Measure D, the parcel of land involved will go from 4 residences to 72. The proponents try, but in truth no one can credibly argue there will not be negative consequences in terms of traffic, congestion, and public safety.
The second assumption is that no senior housing at all could be financed without the developer deal. This argument enwraps an ugly idea. What it really means is that the City and PAHC are unwilling to pay for the project with their own ATM card, but happy to pay for it with residents’ ATM card. In other words, the city government would force local residents to pay for something it considers not valuable enough to buy on its own. This is simply vile. How can the City be surprised that so many residents view it as untrustworthy?
The third assumption is really the apologist’s view: that while City zoning abuse is indeed rampant, this particular project deserves to proceed; while some other project should be the one to trigger reform. This is wrong on both counts. The value of the difference in units is not enough to justify the cost to residents and the giveaway of the larger parcel. Nor is it enough to justify continuing to feed the bad system that exists; after all, every project will have some argument or other why it’s not the right one either. It is certainly not enough to justify both of these things at once. This argument is kind of like the alcoholic who argues he’ll quit, just after another drink.
There are other reasons to dislike Measure D: the questionable ethics of the City’s multimillion-dollar investment in it before its approval, or the fact that PAHC’s subsidized-housing waitlist draws from all of Santa Clara County and not just from Palo Alto (why not from Los Angeles, too? Why not Milwaukee?). No doubt there are people for whom any amount of senior housing can justify any amount of cost. But for most reasonable voters, the costs of this rezoning outweigh its benefits, both in terms of the project itself and of the execrable system that produced it.