Mountain View Voice

News - February 5, 2010

New zoning could redraw the map

City officials agree to double population densities allowed on El Camino, N. Bayshore

by Daniel DeBolt

It appears that dramatic increases in the size of buildings allowed in North Bayshore and on El Camino Real — and a corresponding increase in population densities there — are in the cards for Mountain View following a breakthrough General Plan discussion at Tuesday night's council meeting.

The growth of the city has been stagnant during the recession, but officials said changes in zoning could spur new development.

"The possibility of development on El Camino Real has been there and nothing has happened," said council member Ronit Bryant. "Maybe permitting five-story mixed-use buildings will provide an incentive."

During Tuesday's meeting, held for the second week in a row at the Senior Center, the council and Planning Commission jointly discussed building densities and land uses for three of nine "focus areas" where new development would be concentrated: El Camino Real, North Bayshore and the San Antonio shopping center.

The city has dubbed the process the "2030 General Plan Update," resulting in a document intended to guide Mountain View's development over the next 20 years. Although decisions made Tuesday weren't binding, they indicated the direction the city almost certainly is headed.

To prepare for Tuesday's meeting, the city spent a year gathering input from residents and other stakeholders who wanted to focus development on particular areas while maintaining the city's character. After four hours of discussion Tuesday, the council and commission — 14 members in total — had supported four- and five-story buildings along El Camino Real and significantly increasing the size of buildings allowed at San Antonio shopping center and throughout North Bayshore.

Council members noted that just increasing a property's allowed building density does not guarantee projects will be approved at that density by the city. Instead, they said, it would allow the city some "flexibility" for future development. Nevertheless, council members Laura Macias and Jac Siegel opposed higher density options (known as "Option B") for El Camino Real.

If the higher density options for each focus area are selected, the city will be on track to increase its population to 98,900 residents by 2030, consultants said. Lower density "Option A" would lead to an estimated 87,900 residents by 2030. If the city were to make no change to its 1992 General Plan, the city would have 80,300 residents in 2030. The current population is 73,000.

Consultants said that by encouraging growth, the city would see increased sales and property tax revenue. They estimated a 2030 General Fund balance of $29.9 million under Option B, $24.3 million under Option A, and $16.6 million under the 1992 General Plan. The numbers were for purposes of comparison only, consultants said.

The city currently faces a $5 million general fund deficit, which the city finance director says will continue to worsen indefinitely without new revenues or major budget cuts.

The city officials supported tripling the building density allowed for most businesses in North Bayshore, which include Google, by increasing allowed floor area ratios from 0.3 and 0.5 to 1.0.

An option to allow new homes in North Bayshore as part of mixed-use development along Shoreline Boulevard — an attempt to reduce car trips into the area and meet requests from Google — found little support. Council member Tom Means said new residents would block future development in the area, while Macias said pharmaceutical and biotech companies would be wary of locating near residents.

Siegel and Commissioner John McAllister said increased development, especially on El Camino Real, would lead to gridlock traffic. But others said it would be possible to mitigate traffic through creative restrictions and an increased need for public transit, which has a "symbiotic relationship with development," said council member Mike Kasperzak. "It's not all doom and gloom. Great transportations systems in the word exist because there are people there to use them."

Held up as a model for traffic reduction was Stanford University, which has capped car trips at 1989 levels despite expansive growth. Stanford uses shuttles and actually pays those who do not drive, which is cheaper than building parking structures.

For San Antonio shopping center the group supported a higher density option allowing commercial buildings with a 0.75 floor area ratio and housing at 60 units per acre. But the group said a closer look will be given to surrounding areas slated for three-story mixed use.

All half dozen public speakers supported "Option B," though environmentalists Bruce Karney and Bruce England said it did not allow enough housing to match the number of jobs in the city. Karney said the city should strive to be "independent" in that regard, the same way people talk about "energy independence."

Council member Macias said she supported the two to three story buildings allowed for El Camino Real in the 1992 General Plan, with some exceptions. She said the city would "pay" for the increased zoning when the Association of Bay Area Governments uses it to calculate the region's housing needs that should be met by Mountain View. But failing to meet ABAG's housing requirements in prior years has not led to any real consequences.

Bryant disagreed with Macias, saying five stories might even be too limited on El Camino.

"I feel strange saying in 2030 we're going to have five story buildings," Bryant said. "I don't want to tell people in 2030 what to do."

A concern for some was how to make sure that those who work in Mountain View are also able to live here in the future, when higher gas prices make commuting costly. Some pointed out the significantly higher number of car trips into Mountain View every morning compared to those leaving. Several residents said the city had already lost much of its diversity in recent years and that the city "job profile" needed to be matched by its "housing profile" though more housing production.

Without decreasing housing prices by increasing supply, "at some point we'll be like Los Altos: If you have enough income, you can live here," said Means, an economics professor at San Jose State University.

Focus areas to be discussed at a future meeting include Old Middlefield Way (two- to three-story mixed-use proposed on key intersections), the Whisman area (higher density office is proposed) and Moffett Boulevard, where four story housing with retail on the ground floor is proposed between Central Expressway and Middlefield Road.

More information can be found at www.mountainview2030.com.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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