Mountain View Voice

Opinion - June 6, 2014

As city planners maxed out, housing stalls too

The acknowledgment last week that the city's 13 planners are maxed out and cannot fit any more projects into their pipeline left seven office proposals and a small residential project waiting in line, probably until the end of the year.

This is an unexpected respite in what has seemed like an unending torrent of office development proposals from developers hoping to cash in on what is one of the hottest commercial property markets in Silicon Valley. And there could be much more to come when the spigot is turned on again. In answer to a query from the council about how much of the 3.4 million square feet in the pending precise plan for the North Bayshore has been proposed or approved, a zoning official answered 1.7 million, exactly half of the maximum allowed.

Using a conservative estimate of one employee per 200 square feet, the 1.4 million square feet already proposed and the 300,000 square feet already approved would bring in 8,500 new employees, and if the entire 3.4 million square feet were in place, 17,000 new employees would make their way to the North Bayshore every work day, joining over 13,000 drivers and thousands more shuttle riders who already make the daily commute to this high tech mecca.

A prime example of how quickly and fluid this market has become was evident when the council learned that after it scaled back a 1 million-square-foot commercial project at 700 E. Middlefield to 750,000 square feet, Google reportedly bought the 24-acre property for $250 million, an unprecedented amount for the area. Council members wanted to know if the purchase meant the project could drop off the Planning Department's docket, freeing up space for projects waiting in the pipeline.

But even amid the huge office project proposals, the council could not muster the votes to approve what in contrast was a tiny request to renovate an older housing complex at 777 W. Middlefield Road, replacing eight units with 46 new apartments. The project had failed in a vote last year, and failed again when some council members said it was outside "change areas" in the new general plan — areas where new zoning would encourage redevelopment.

Council member Mike Kasperzak made an unsuccessful plea for the doomed housing project, saying, "We've been bombarded with (talk of the) jobs-housing imbalance. Everything we've been talking about is thousands of square feet of office space, and maybe 38 (housing) units."

But his idea to let the project to slip through did not gain enough support, with Mayor Chris Clark saying, "I'm conflicted there. If Rreefs (the developer whose 1 million square-foot office project was turned down) drops off (due to the site's sale to Google) and that really does free up staff resources, I'm not sure it has more merit than some others."

One small upgrade and the net addition of 38 housing units will hardly impact the huge jobs housing imbalance in Mountain View, but it would indicate to developers that there might be a sympathetic ear on the council if good housing projects are brought forward.

Council member Ronit Bryant appeared sympathetic to seeing more housing in the mix, saying the city should find ways to "help these older (apartment) complexes, like the one at 777 Middlefield Road."

"Had the council agreed to let it go through Gatekeeper, we might have found ways to preserve its affordability," she said.

But Bryant's arguments, that preserving older complexes would be better than "losing all the complexes and the open spaces and trees that go with that," failed to gain traction. Other members seemed convinced that renovating older buildings would mean higher rents, which could drive more lower- and middle-income tenants from the city.

Given the council's current make-up, it does not appear likely that the city will revise the 2012 general plan to create zoning for adequate housing any time soon. Which is all the more reason for Mountain View residents to pay close attention to the upcoming race for three open City Council seats in November. If at least one housing advocate is elected, the current no-holds-barred office development might be tempered by badly needed housing. Unfortunately, even if new housing is approved, there is no way for the council to control rent levels, which already are forcing many longtime city residents out of the community.

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