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City needs more housing, says 'balanced' growth campaign leader

It's a City Council election year, but one of the more active political campaigns might not be run by a council candidate. Longtime resident and veteran organizer Lenny Siegel is organizing residents in a campaign that would at least highlight the connection between explosive job growth and housing prices.

In recent years there have been numerous protests of housing developments around the city by neighbors concerned with towering buildings, parking and traffic congestion. Meanwhile, the City Council has added to the pressure for such housing development by approving a slew of new office projects and zoning for more than 15,000 office jobs in North Bayshore. Siegel said he aims to highlight "the linkage between the (North Bayshore) plan and the things residents have been complaining about" when it comes to housing development.

A key issue for the campaign is the council's opposition to housing in North Bayshore while approving so many new offices, which Siegel says puts additional pressure to develop housing in existing neighborhoods.

On March 5 Siegel began circulating an email titled "Please join me in launching the campaign for a balanced Mountain View." It calls for "mid-rise, medium density" development in North Bayshore that would provide "a good balance of jobs, housing and local services, including cafes, shops, and educational facilities, and at least one supermarket, to serve local needs." Siegel also calls for a transit link to downtown and a variety of housing sizes, including housing for Googlers who want to have children and not be too far from their schools during the workday.

"Allowing such a huge number of jobs with no housing is going to be a social, environmental and economic disaster," Siegel said of the council's favored plan for North Bayshore, which adds 3.4 million square feet of office in buildings as high as six and eight stories.

"By social disaster I mean it's going to aggravate the housing shortage and further drive up the cost of housing in the Bay Area," he said. "By environmental disaster I mean it's going to force more people to commute a greater distance, wasting fuel and causing greater emissions. And it's an economic disaster because it makes it difficult for companies to attract people to work in Mountain View and surrounding communities because there's no place for them to live."

Siegel is known for his work to save Hangar One at Moffett Field and his day job as director for the Center for Public Environmental Oversight in Mountain View, where he has spent decades advocating for the clean up of the city's toxic sites.

"I've spent the last nine years focusing on Hangar One and avoiding issues that were more divisive locally," Siegel said. "Now that that appears to be resolved, I feel like I can take this on."

Siegel believes that balancing job growth with housing will create less demand for the city's existing homes, keeping rents lower and causing fewer longtime residents to be displaced.

"I'm surprised how inadequate the plan has been in addressing the needs of people in the city," Siegel said of the city's long-range planning efforts in recent years. "It's hard for me to understand how the city went so far down this path."

An environmental impact report for the 2012 general plan predicted it would allow 21,770 new jobs and 8,970 new homes by 2030. It appears that council members have already planned to go beyond 21,770 new jobs with all of the new office development approved for downtown, San Antonio shopping center and the Whisman area.

Siegel is no stranger to the issue of balanced growth: he was involved in a campaign for rent control in 1970s Mountain View and noted even then that the city had an overwhelming number of jobs compared with the number of homes, thanks to the growth of companies such as Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, which had manufacturing plants in Mountain View.

In 2009, the city had 60,460 jobs and 33,270 homes, according to city documents, but city planners estimate that there are now closer to 70,000 jobs in Mountain View, just a few years later.

The issue has become of increasing interest lately as Google's shuttle-riding employees become the target of protests against escalating rents in San Francisco. Mountain View residents also see the rising rents: average rents for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment skyrocketed from $2,250 to $2,981 during 2012 and 2013, according to data firm Realfacts. County-wide, it went from $2,061 to $2,479.

Siegel said he received 49 emails in less than a week from residents wanting to join his effort.

"I'm expecting it won't be hard to mobilize people," Siegel said. "A large number of people in Mountain View are totally unhappy with the North Bayshore plan as it stands."

In 2012 the City Council voted 4-3 against zoning for 1,100 new homes in North Bayshore, despite considerable support from the community: Google, the Chamber of Commerce, numerous residents and the city's own Environmental Planning Commission were among the supporters of North Bayshore housing.

In their opposition to North Bayshore housing, council members made comparisons to dormitory living and Chinese factory housing, where workers "do not live happily ever after." Also of concern were the effects of housing on Shoreline Park wildlife, especially on the increasingly rare ground-dwelling burrowing owl at Shoreline Park, which is susceptible to predators like the common house cat.

"I know some people are concerned that cats could make it out to Shoreline Park, but I think the risk is overblown," Siegel said. "You can deal with that problem but you don't create an even bigger problem, which is the North Bayshore commute problem." He added that the owls "are not an indicator species of the health of the Shoreline area and its wetland."

At the end of this year, terms limits will force out three of the four council members who voted against North Bayshore housing. With Mayor Chris Clark, who took office last year, declaring that he he is in favor of North Bayshore housing, it's possible that the city's residents only need to elect one more council member in favor of North Bayshore housing to change the city's course.

Siegel said the group may endorse council candidates. Some residents have asked him to run, but he says it's so far not been part of his life plan.

For information about his campaign, Siegel can be reached via email at lsiegel@cpeo.org.

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