Mountain View City Council members are paving the way for a boom in office development, but they have been oddly silent on the relative scarcity of housing development in the city's future.
As the city's precise plan for the future of the North Bayshore area winds its way toward approval, the addition of several million square feet of office space is highlighting the increasing strain on Mountain View's housing supply and rapidly escalating rents.
Council member Jac Siegel didn't get support from his colleagues for putting such a discussion on the agenda for the March 4 meeting.
"The fact is that in North Bayshore we are proposing 3.4 million square feet of office in the same city a lot of working people are being displaced in large numbers, rapidly," Siegel said to his colleagues. "I'd like some discussion with council about what this is doing to the housing market in our city."
In phone interviews with the Voice, council members had plenty of opinions on the issue. Several expressed the feeling of being in a bind.
"There is an imbalance, there has been one, and it's fascinating to me, frankly," said council member Margaret Abe-Koga. "I try to listen to the community. What's been interesting to me is I hear the community saying that job growth is good. But with job growth comes the pressure to build more housing. Yet the public doesn't want us to be higher density so I don't know how to reconcile that."
"I'm trying to understand better what people really want," she said.
Resident Lenny Siegel (no relation to Jac Siegel) says there is growing interest in his campaign calling for housing in a new planned community in North Bayshore, mixed in with those 3.4 million square feet of offices. And despite significant community support for zoning for 1,100 North Bayshore homes in 2012, Abe-Koga and three other council members successfully opposed it. She said she still opposes the idea, as does fellow members Ronit Bryant and Jac Siegel, despite his stated concern about adequate housing.
They have various alternatives: Councilman Siegel wants to limit office growth and Bryant and Abe-Koga suggested they may support that as well. Bryant says solving the city's housing problem "depends to a great degree" on efforts to subsidize below-market-rate homes; the city has approved fewer than 150 in recent years.
Nearly every council member who spoke to the Voice suggested that other cities need to build more housing for all of Mountain View's jobs. Calls for a "regional" solution were common, though the council cried foul when it was given an F grade years ago for failing to meet a housing quota set by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), while cities without so many jobs got higher marks. ABAG is the regional body that looks at big-picture planning issues such as housing and transportation, among other things.
"We don't have even close to having enough for everyone who works here," Siegel said. "It's certainly a good thing to do, but I don't know how you do it." He recalled being told that 10,000 homes were needed to solve the city's housing problem. "You wouldn't want to live here if we did that," Siegel said.
Bryant made controversial comments in 2012 comparing the proposed North Bayshore housing to Chinese factory dorms where workers "do not live happily ever after." She said in an email that part of the reason she opposed 1,100 units of North Bayshore housing was that it wasn't enough to support a community there, causing many more car trips into the city's center.
"It is generally accepted that a neighborhood must have about 5,000 people to make a local grocery store viable," Bryant said. "In other words, the limited number of units proposed would not create a neighborhood capable of supporting retail, a grocery store, a school, the kind of services that our residents expect."
Despite acknowledging that North Bayshore has 580 acres, not including streets, when it comes to finding a place for housing there, Bryant said in an email, North Bayshore "is actually quite small."
Lenny Siegel, who has launched a "campaign for a balanced Mountain View," has said exactly the opposite.
No housing for North Bayshore
In 2012 council members chose against an "increased housing alternative" for the city's general plan that would have allowed its housing stock to grow to 50,870 units by 2030, including an unspecified number of new homes in North Bayshore. Instead, the council-approved plan allows Mountain View's housing stock to grow to 41,129 homes, said planning director Randy Tsuda. The number now sits just above 34,000, while the city's current job count is estimated to be near 70,000, said city planner Martin Alkire.
The environmental impact report for the general plan expiring in 2030 "concluded that the increased housing alternative was an environmentally superior alternative," Tsuda said.
Jac Siegel seemed to disagree with the EIR, citing impacts on traffic within city limits and on wildlife such as the rare burrowing owl at Shoreline Park, potentially hunted by house cats.
"People have pets, like cats, which get out," Siegel said. As a landlord himself, Siegel said making rules against having pets "doesn't work, in my opinion."
Siegel says that homes generate seven car trips a day on average to and from stores, dropping kids off at school and so forth, while office jobs create only two. Tsuda said the traffic issue was more complex than that, because those seven trips could be short if homes were built in North Bayshore, especially if residents are near their jobs and other services. Presumably, they could walk or bike.
Council member John McAlister, who was elected after the council's housing vote, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. Council member Mike Kasperzak was unable to comment for this story, but has supported building housing in North Bayshore in the past.
Mayor Chris Clark supported North Bayshore housing as an environmental planning commissioner in 2012 and says he still supports it.
"My colleagues on council have said no and I have to respect that unless one of them changes their mind," Clark said Monday.
Clark says housing development could only alleviate rent hikes.
"Even if all the new housing is high-end, that means people who can afford to pay really high prices" won't be displacing lower-income residents. In the current state of things, higher-paid workers "are willing to move into some of this lower-quality housing and pay vast sums of money, which drives up rents for everyone."
Clark is a 30-year-old tech executive who says he's watched his friends grow older and grow tired of commuting from San Francisco to their jobs in Mountain View. It has its appeal for a while, but eventually, commuting five days a week seems less appealing than just visiting San Francisco for fun on the weekends, he said.
"It's going to make it much worse, no question about it," Jac Siegel said of the proposed North Bayshore office growth. "When the 3.4 million square feet was picked, it was based on what was estimated the market would require for new office space. Housing wasn't looked at, traffic wasn't looked at, none of that. It's absolutely a significant thing we the council should be having a discussion on."