City Council members found themselves considering a change in course Tuesday after a group of residents called attention to a proposed "precise plan" that they say would exacerbate the city's housing shortage in the San Antonio shopping center area, driving up rents and increasing commute traffic.
"This is a place everyone in town seems to think is a great place for housing, but we're going to have three times as many jobs as we have housing," said Lenny Siegel, who spoke at length on behalf of members of the Campaign for a Balanced Mountain View during the study session on the San Antonio precise plan.
The plan is a blueprint for future development in the San Antonio shopping center and surrounding area.
"We can't build our way out of the (housing shortage) if we are building all of this office space all over town," Siegel said, referring to plans for Google, LinkedIn and others to build office space for tens of thousands of new workers, on top of already explosive job growth.
At the end of a contentious three-hour meeting that ran until midnight, council members appeared to be deadlocked 3-3 on the jobs-housing issue and decided to continue the discussion in a different, more "collegial" venue, as City Manager Dan Rich called it. They set a new meeting for July 8, delaying the council's annual summer recess. With member John Inks excusing himself because he owns property nearby, council members voted 6-0 to have city staff come back with a report on "the implications of increased housing" and decreased office space in the San Antonio precise plan.
As proposed Tuesday, the San Antonio precise plan would allow 879,000 square feet of office space in the San Antonio shopping center and surrounding blocks, which could accommodate 4,395 to 5,860 jobs, calculated at 150 to 200 square feet per employee. Meanwhile, the plan would allow the construction of 1,575 homes. This is especially concerning to housing advocates because, according to 2012 general plan documents, most new housing in the city built by 2030 is expected to go in the San Antonio area or on El Camino Real.
Siegel's group has called attention to the city's plans to add office space all over town for tens of thousands of jobs, but has zoned city-wide for fewer than 8,000 homes by 2030.
"There aren't that many other places in town where we'll get a substantial amounts of housing, even if I get my way, and the people I work with get their way, and we get housing in North Bayshore, that's not going to be enough," Siegel said of the group's call for more than 5,000 homes north of Highway 101. Council members voted against a proposal for 1,100 homes there in 2012.
Council members were unusually derisive of residents' comments Tuesday, with Vice Mayor John McAlister saying the growing awareness about the city's jobs housing ratio was simply the "hot topic" of the month.
Council members noted previous opposition to housing proposed for the California Street Safeway site, and before the recession, to a large 450-unit housing project nearby at the former Mayfield Mall, now leased by Google for office space.
"Now all of a sudden they want housing," said Council Member Chris Clark. "We can't let changing preferences (stop us). We have to move forward."
"I question if we would have this much angst, if it were not for the gun that has been put to our heads," said council member Mike Kasperzak, referring to the "elephant in the room" -- the referendum promised by the Campaign for a Balanced Mountain View. Its focus is against Merlone Geier's phase two redevelopment of San Antonio shopping center, which includes nearly 400,000 square feet of office space and a hotel but no housing on a large site now home to Ross, BevMo and several smaller buildings. The group says it will gather the signatures to put the project up for a city-wide vote if the council approves it July 1, before the precise plan is done in December.
Council members noted that no one could have predicted the city's explosive job growth within existing office buildings, and added that working on three major precise plans, one for El Camino Real and another for North Bayshore, was a lot of work.
"I haven't seen us have this much self-doubt," Kasperzak said.
Council member Ronit Bryant led the council in the new direction. She had opposed making housing a priority during a February study session. Council members Kasperzak and Clark joined her in expressing interest in more housing for the San Antonio area.
"I said I didn't want to have lot of housing because it's a regional shopping center," Bryant said of the February meeting. "The question is, could we encourage people to build homes in some kind of direction towards affordability?" She said that the public benefits to be required of developers who want to build big in the area, as proposed, would give priority to transportation improvements, not subsidizing affordable housing.
"I'm not sure that's the right way to do it," she said.
"We want a priority for housing because that's what the community needs," Lenny Siegel said, adding that the group wanted to "put the housing proposals at the front of the line."
Bryant said she wants to see an economic study of whether housing would be compatible with shopping center development. Santana Row has often been cited as model for the San Antonio area, but council member Margaret Abe-Koga expressed concern that there really weren't many places to shop there, while former mayor Matt Pear said a pair of big box stores would bring $2 million in annual sales tax revenue to the city. Resident Patrick Moore said retail type shouldn't stop housing --stores like Target exist in some places with housing above them.
Several residents spoke of themselves and others being displaced by rising rents, including a college professor who said she is planning to move somewhere more affordable as soon as her son is finished with school. Another spoke through a translator, saying it was having an effect on many children in the community, including her own.
One resident expressed concern that his Saint Francis High School-educated kids and their friends will all have to move away from their parents to the East Bay or the Central Valley.
"This is the biggest problem we have in the Bay Area," he said. "This is your biggest responsibility -- to figure out how to keep housing affordable for people who live here. Every decision you make, take that into account."
New school is needed
Council members have so far resisted requests to find a place for an elementary school in the San Antonio area, which is part of the Los Altos School District.
Lenny Siegel stressed that the area be a "family-friendly" neighborhood for the 600 children he says are expected to live there.
"A school is the core of a family friendly neighborhood," Siegel said. "We're concerned that we'll build out the area and there won't be room for a school."
One resident, a software engineer, noted that younger tech workers will soon want to have kids and will want places to live near their jobs.
Siegel called on the city to study the impact on commute length for various office-heavy development scenarios, or "vehicle miles traveled." Council members say office development brings fewer car trips than housing, but Siegel says that misses the point, when a lack of housing pushes people to live in far off places like Manteca, causing more freeway traffic.
"Any LEED gold, LEED platinum building has minuscule savings in greenhouse gases compared to the enormous amounts released by commuting throughout the Bay Area," Siegel said.
After the meeting, Siegel said he wanted the council to not rush to make major decisions on the precise plan before three members term out at the end of the year.
"The November election may elect new council members who wish to more aggressively address the jobs-housing imbalance, and it would be a mistake for the lame duck council to make fundamental, lasting decisions in the face of the election results," Siegel said in an email.