If their support for a new residential neighborhood north of Highway 101 is any indication, Mountain View's City Council candidates appear to represent a shift in public opinion toward allowing more housing development in Mountain View, balancing the explosive job growth at LinkedIn, Google and other Mountain View tech companies.
The filing period for council candidates ended last week, and there is now a field of nine candidates running for three open seats in the November election: environmental oversight executive Lenny Siegel, civil engineer Pat Showalter, family financial planner Ken Rosenberg, tech executive Lisa Matichak, planning commissioner Margaret Capriles, government policy aide Ellen Kamei, systems administrator Jim Neal, family practice attorney Mercedes Salem and retired electrical engineer and lieutenant colonel Greg Unangst.
Helen Wolter, who had declared her intention to run, pulled out of the race.
In December the City Council is set to approve a precise plan, a blueprint for allowable development in North Bayshore affecting Google, LinkedIn and others. It would allow 3.4 million-square-feet of new offices, possibly bringing as many as 20,000 new jobs, but no housing to the 500-plus acre North Bayshore area which stretches north from Highway 101 to the city limits.
Given the positions each candidate revealed this week, the odds are that there will be a City Council majority in support of North Bayshore housing in January. Lisa Matichak and Margaret Capriles are the only candidates who clearly oppose new residential zoning in North Bayshore, while Unangst, Neal, Siegel and Showalter expressed the clearest support. Rosenberg, a self-proclaimed housing advocate, said North Bayshore housing seems like the right thing but wants to see an environmental study to make an informed decision. Kamei expressed the most concern, saying she would only support housing there with adequate transportation infrastructure and accessible amenities, like a school and grocery store.
"Yes, we want to see housing out there it is simply the right thing to do," said candidate Showalter in a email, adding that it had to be bird-friendly. There are rare burrowing owls and a colony of egrets living at Shoreline Park and along Stevens Creek) and city officials must consider the flood risks caused by rising sea levels in the nearby bay, she said.
Salem is the only candidate who did not respond to requests for comments about North Bayshore housing, though she says the thrust of her campaign is to help middle class families who are struggling to find affordable housing in the area.
In 2012, council members voted 4-3 against a plan for 1,100 homes in North Bayshore, with outgoing members Margaret-Abe-Koga, Jac Siegel and Ronit Bryant opposed to North Bayshore housing. It may only take one new council member to create a 4-3 majority in support of North Bayshore housing.
The positions of the candidates in this year's election already represent a shift in public opinion about housing needs in the city. Silicon Valley's housing shortage is often blamed on a "not-in my backyard" political culture where residents often oppose housing development in their neighborhoods. Lisa Matichak, who voted against North Bayshore housing as a planning commissioner in 2012, is the only candidate with track record of opposing a housing development. Wolter, who pulled out of the race, was part of the opposition that kept as many as 450 homes from being built at 100 Mayfield Avenue a fight that helped elicit support for Bryant, Siegel and Abe-Koga during the 2006 election. Eight years later, the public discussion on housing issues has changed, with growing concern that a lack of housing is driving up rents and home prices.
Many have said that more local housing development would mean less commuter traffic if people can live near their jobs, but Capriles and Kamei raised the concern that North Bayshore housing development might add to the area's traffic problems. Council members who oppose North Bayshore residential development have also said North Bayshore residents would be making more car trips than commuters in order to take kids to school and shop for groceries, among other things. Candidate Lenny Siegel said he doesn't see it as such a problem.
"Residential construction, even if we assume half the new residents will walk or bike to work in North Bayshore, will still add vehicle trips, " Siegel said in an email. "But there are three differences. A smaller share of trips will be during rush hour. Residents will drive shorter distances (to markets, for example) than commuters, many of whom already drive 90 minutes or more each way. Residents will be driving out of the area when commuters are driving in, taking advantage of unused road capacity."
Candidate Jim Neal had a similar take on the situation, saying in an email, "I would rather see housing in the North Bayshore than additional offices. I believe that allowing more offices there will aggravate an already severe jobs/housing imbalance, as well as increasing the traffic problems. Building housing there would help to at least partially alleviate traffic issues."
Capriles, who sits on the city planning commission, is not jumping on any bandwagon that says housing is the necessary fix to traffic jams.
"Transportation is the main issue for this area and it's important for the community to get clarity on how either commercial or housing will add to this already complex problem," Capriles said.
Capriles added another concern, that housing will cause "a direct negative impact on the special environment we have in the Shoreline Regional Park. Even though the change area does not include the park area, it will not prevent encroachment into that area. Shoreline Regional Park is a jewel in our city and one that we want to protect."
So far, the city's plan creates buffer zones near wildlife habitat and focuses development away from Shoreline Park and Stevens Creek. Perhaps the strongest environmental concern expressed by opponents is that house cats and dogs could wipe out the small population of ground-dwelling burrowing owls at Shoreline Park, which is declining in numbers but not an endangered species.
Siegel said that, as someone who has been involved in wetland restoration for years, he sees added commuter traffic and tailpipe emissions from restricting housing growth as a bigger environmental problem than any feared impacts to wildlife.
Planning director Randy Tsuda said that the 2012 proposal to add 1,100 homes to North Bayshore -- which was supported by Google and the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce -- was made with the idea "that we didn't want to design such large area for housing in that we'd have residential projects scattered around North Bayshore." Instead, the approach was "clustering them around Shoreline Boulevard to create more of a neighborhood feel."
Siegel has been advocating for much more North Bayshore residential development, 5,000 homes or more, in order to support a grocery store, a school and other services in North Bayshore. On the other hand, Showalter noted that Costco is just a short trip from North Bayshore via the less trafficked San Antonio Road (also, the Bailey Park Safeway is less than a mile away from North Bayshore via Shoreline Boulevard, which is often gridlocked with commuter traffic.)
Kamei expressed concern that adding housing to North Bayshore plans would delay development there for years, but Tsuda told the Voice that that wasn't necessarily the case. If the council goes with the 2012 plan for 1,100 homes, much of the work has already been done. The first step would be to amend the city's general plan to provide the necessary zoning, which Tsuda said could be done quickly because the council has already certified an Environmental Impact Report that studied housing in North Bayshore.
Next, the council would have to update the North Bayshore precise plan and do a new environmental study. How much time this would take depends on what the council wants, but "a simple amendment would take nine to 12 months, mainly due to California Environmental Quality Act requirements," Tsuda said.
Such changes do not necessarily mean that development would have to stop in North Bayshore, he said. "Potentially, projects could proceed in the development review process while the Precise Plan is being amended," Tsuda said.
If the council asks for more than 1,100 homes? "I couldn't even hazard a guess" as to how long it could take, Tsuda said.
Rosenberg said the council's goal of approving a North Bayshore precise plan without housing in December is "premature," given community interest in housing.
"I would vote for a thorough environmental review on the viability of a large enough housing community to support itself," Rosenberg said in an email. "At that point, I'd then have information and data as to inform my opinion. Right now, it's a conceptual guess. Housing feels like the thing to do, but is it more environmentally sound to implement the draft precise plan as it is (or with some modification)? There is value to having people live close to where they work, indeed, but I need to see that it's a better alternative than just re-imagining and growing the (North Bayshore) business park."