In a drama-filled meeting Tuesday night, the City Council voted unanimously to allow the Day Worker Center of Mountain View to take up residence at 113 Escuela Ave.
The center will now renovate and occupy the property it purchased for $304,000 last year: an abandoned cinderblock building by the railroad tracks which used to be a dry cleaner. The city also is allowing the center to use a small city-owned lot next door as rent-free parking for the next 20 years.
The council chambers was packed with Day Worker Center supporters and about a dozen angry neighbors, some of whom warned that, should the conditional use permit be approved, a Washington, D.C.-based group called Judicial Watch would file a lawsuit against Mountain View for using taxpayer funds to help illegal immigrants. Such a suit would aggravate the city's budget problems, they said.
Meanwhile, neighborhood opposition leader Brad Kellar was fuming over an e-mail exchange with the Day Worker Center's leaders. He said neighbors had connected with the center in a meeting on Friday, which both sides thought went well. But Kellar said he then received an e-mail from Day Worker Center board president Robin Iwai which indicated that none of the neighbors' suggestions would be agreed to before the council meeting. The e-mail apparently had a note on it from someone calling Iwai's comments "excellent."
"We get nothing and that's 'excellent'?" Kellar said. "We extended an olive branch and it was trampled. We were scorned."
Day Worker Center leaders said they had not rejected the neighbors' suggestions, but were simply waiting to have a discussion with the rest of the board before moving forward with any kind of "memorandum of understanding" with neighbors. They added that some of the suggestions were unreasonable, including a request that day workers wear uniforms. Some went as far as saying the meeting was a "set-up" to make the center look bad in front of the council.
Iwai, in an e-mail about the meeting with neighbors, said, "I thought it was the first of several conversations and that the DWC is looking forward to finding common ground and ways to contribute to the neighborhood. Well I still do."
Council member Jac Siegel, who volunteers as a mediator, was disappointed that the outreach had not happened earlier. As part of its approval, the council required that the center meet quarterly with neighbors.
"Talking is a good thing; sometimes e-mail isn't," said council member Mike Kasperzak, who is himself a professional mediator.
Many neighbors signed a petition against the Day Worker Center, including everyone on the 100 block of Escuela. The neighbors continued to voice concerns about traffic, property values, crime and parking. They said parking is already impossible in the evenings next to the site, which will have two parking spots for staff and five for employers. One neighbor was concerned about more traffic after seeing several accidents near the site, but a traffic study found that traffic increases on Escuela and Crisanto streets would not be significant if 40 employers used the center every day. City staff added that the streets and sidewalks could handle the pedestrian traffic from the 100 workers who would use the center.
Police said there has been no evidence of increased crime at either of the center's previous locations in Mountain View, while numerous residents and officials testified that the appearance of those sites improved during the workers' stay. The center currently is located at Trinity United Methodist church at Hope and Mercy streets downtown.
"There's no evidence whatsoever that there is going to be an increase in crime," said Siegel.
Crime, traffic and parking are the "standard issues" that neighbors have of most projects, noted council member Tom Means. Along the same lines, Kasperzak said these things "are never as bad as people think," adding that the same sort of issues were brought up over the Stevens Creek Trail, which no one criticizes now. Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga joked that the controversy was due to media hype, and laughingly singled out a Voice reporter.
Several council members admitted that the site wasn't the best location for a center, due to its lack of visibility and the cost to renovate the building, which could push its total cost to $1 million. But they still felt it was necessary to move forward.
City staffers recommended that the conditional use permit be approved despite allegations from neighbors that the center was a commercial use that did not fit the zoning. They argued that the center was more of a "community use" than a commercial use because the center offers English classes, medical services and free lunch.
Center supporters were not happy with the nonprofit center being labeled a commercial business.
"When I hear the Day Worker Center is a business, that strikes me, because it is a family," said founder and lawyer John Rinaldi.
Among the dozens of Day Worker Center supporters who spoke at the meeting were former Mayor and state Assembly member Sally Lieber, who said the center "has always been unwanted, wherever they've been." Monica Smith of Assembly member Paul Fong's office said she has used the center herself, and addressed comments calling the center a business by saying that she paid the workers, not the center.
Council members reassured neighbors that the city has a history of enforcing permits like the one the center was given on Tuesday. One year from now, zoning administrator Peter Gilli will review the Worker Center's uses and, if significant problems are found, the permit can be revoked.