Mountain View Voice

Opinion - January 24, 2014

Council confronting huge challenge

Members of the City Council have embarked on a critically important and daunting mission to find room for 3.4 million square feet of new office space in the North Bayshore over the next 15 years.

While most cities would welcome the desire of local companies to develop such an influx of commercial space and the approximately 17,000 jobs that will come with it, Mountain View is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The Shoreline area is hemmed in by Highway101 and city leaders have vowed to protect the environmentally fragile habitat that is home to a colony of egrets and burrowing owls, even though they are in close proximity to Google's main campus on Charleston Road. Without adequate safeguards, some officials fear the huge development projects could threaten these protected species of birds.

In an earlier debate on the precise plan the council for a second time voted 4-2 to turn down a request by Google to build a private bridge over Stevens Creek to serve pedestrians, bicyclists and shuttle buses and provide access to a 1.1 million-square-foot campus that is planned for a Moffett Field site. Dissenting council members failed to convince the majority to allow an environmental impact report to assess if the bridge would be harmful to local wildlife.

But even without the Moffett building, the council faces the huge task of fitting a mix of tall buildings into the Shoreline property without compromising the environmental integrity of the area, much of which was built over a capped landfill.

Perhaps reflecting the sentiments of his colleagues, council member Mike Kasperzak said: "This is so visual. I'm trying to visualize what this could look like over 15 years. It's really hard to imagine all of this and we're all struggling with that."

Addressing the urgency of the task, he said: "I know everybody wants to get it done," referring to the landowners, developers and companies like Google with plans for rapid expansion. "But we're talking about a 15-year plan here."

The council's decision will have to take into account multiple layers of complexity. For example:

• With only 6,000 or so housing units planned during the 15-year window, how will the city deal with the resultant need to house the workers who were left out?

• Will the council or city leaders ever relent in their opposition to building housing in North Bayshore? Dorm-style housing is not acceptable to council members, who do not want to turn the area into a college campus.

•Will the current plan to require major employers to join a new transit management agency — which will administer various alternatives to solo car driving — even make a dent in the traffic that would result after 3.4 million square feet of office space is occupied?

• If, after a council election in November, enough votes are available to approve an environmental impact report on a bridge over Stevens Creek, will it be possible to use it without severely damaging the habitat for egrets, burrowing owls and other fragile wildlife resources in the area?

The limit of 3.4 million square feet of new development in North Bayshore came from an economic forecast developed during the general plan process, according to Planning Director Randy Tsuda. It's not a number set in stone, and council members have the power to place sensible limits on office growth that are more restrictive.

Council member Ronit Bryant said she wants the North Bayshore to look like Stanford, where "there is actually a lot of development though it doesn't feel that way."

"The idea of tall towers in wide open spaces has been tried and has failed because people don't like living like that," she said. "...I don't want to be looking across (Shoreline) lake and see eight-story buildings there," Bryant said.

Whatever decision is made, it will have a lasting impact on the city for many years to come. We urge the council to look for ways to pare down the formulaic development calculation produced by the new general plan. Members should not saddle future residents with an unworkable city that has thousands of jobs and no quality of life.

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