Mountain View Voice

News - March 26, 2010

Dramatic final hearing for Minton's project

Residents sharply divided over proposed apartment buildings during five-hour City Council meeting

by Daniel DeBolt

It was a house divided in a packed City Council chambers Tuesday night, as supporters and opponents clashed over a proposed 203-unit development project on the site of Minton's Lumber and Supply.

The discussion began around 7 p.m., and by 11 Mayor Ronit Bryant was still looking at a long line of people at the public speaker's podium. "I turn into a pumpkin at midnight and I'd rather do that in private," she said, trying to speed up the comments. The council will make a final decision on the project on April 7.

Prometheus Real Estate Group proposes to build 203 one and two bedroom rental apartments where Minton's now stands on 3.5 acres at 455 West Evelyn Ave. Two apartment buildings, ranging from two stories on Villa Street to four stories on Evelyn Avenue, would be built atop a one-story underground garage.

On Tuesday, supporters and opponents continued their disagreement over whether the project would cause parking and traffic problems, and whether the buildings are too big for the neighborhood.

Resident Mary Helvey presented a slide that showed her small Villa Street home, built around 1900, in proportion to the proposed buildings, which appeared to dwarf it. Supporters said the density worked because the buildings were designed well, and downtown resident Aaron Grossman, who spoke for many supporters, called concerns about size "not a big deal."

Support and opposition for the project was evenly divided among the meeting's attendees — about half raised their hand when asked if project supporter Grossman spoke for them. The other half raised their hand to show they agreed with opposition leader Laura Lewis.

Opponents added a new criticism of the project to their list, which was a claim that it would keep $26 million in property taxes from local schools over 60 years because the land would be leased from the longtime owners, thus preventing it from being reassessed at its full value.

Supporters said this was a rare chance to build homes near the city's major transit hub downtown. There would be demand for the new apartments from people who wanted to use a car as little as possible, they said, which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it would show that the city was serious about housing Google and Microsoft employees.

"If you don't build it here, we ask then, where?" said developer John Moss.

Lewis said Mountain View was already the third-densest city in the county and that, at over 50 percent, its percentage of rental homes is far higher than the rest of the county, which averages 33 percent. The result of so many rentals is a more "transient population," she said, as well as lower property taxes because rental properties are sold and reassessed in value less often.

Lewis and other opponents called on the council to reject the project, which they imagined would force the Eaton family, which owns Minton's, to sell the property instead of lease it. The result, they said, would probably be a much less dense condo or town home project similar to what Classic Communities is planning next door.

The other side of the debate had unusually wide support from local organizations and environmental leaders, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Central Business Association, city sustainability coordinator Steve Attinger, the Mountain View Coalition for Sustainable Planning and the city's own Planning Department.

"We believe this is the right project on this site," said planning director Randy Tsuda.

Moss said the result of Prometheus' controversial signature gathering campaign for the project was over 1,000 signatures in support of a "high density" and "pedestrian friendly" development.

Council position

While the council had only made time to ask questions of the project, some members made their positions apparent anyway.

"Isn't it orders of magnitude bigger than any of the buildings around it?" asked council member Jac Siegel. In response to assertions from city staff that studies showed traffic and parking impacts would be minimal, he said, "It almost sounds like we can add an infinite amount of buildings and there's no impact."

At the request of council member Laura Macias, commissioner Lisa Matichak spoke for the Environmental Planning Commission, which opposed the project under the belief that it should "do no harm" to the neighborhood. She said the commission felt the project's buildings were too big, and sympathized with the neighborhood over traffic and parking issues.

To appease neighbors, Prometheus has agreed to study parking issues after the project is 95 percent occupied. If parking is inadequate, Prometheus has promised to add 22 additional parking spaces to the garage through the use of car lifts.

BMR units removed

Many expressed surprise that the developer removed about 20 "below market rate" affordable rental units from the project because of a recent state court decision which prevents cities across the state from imposing affordable housing requirements on new developments.

"The city of Mountain View is no longer able to enforce its BMR ordinance," said city attorney Jannie Quinn.

Council member Mike Kasperzak said the city could still impose requirements that the developer pay for affordable housing elsewhere by using a "nexus study" to prove that there was a need, as required by the court decision. Quinn said such a study could take three to four months. That sounded promising to the League of Woman Voters and the Advocates for Affordable Housing, both of which removed their support for the project over the issue.

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

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