Hoping to keep residential growth in Mountain View moving at a brisk pace, the City Council gave initial approval for proposals to build more than 1,600 new housing units, despite city staff's concerns about being overwhelmed by development projects.
The approvals came on Tuesday night as part of a review of eight projects needing so-called gatekeeper approval. Gatekeeper projects are development proposals that require exemptions to the city's general plan or zoning rules, such as an apartment complex being built on industrial-zoned land.
Staff members warned elected leaders they couldn't handle processing all of the projects due to a shortage of seasoned planners and other key personnel. The lack of staff is particularly pronounced in the city's Community Development Department, which is down by six positions, or about 20 percent, including crucial ones such as the zoning administrator, chief building official and two senior planners.
Presenting his report to council, Deputy Development Director Terry Blount recommended that the council members reject five of the eight gatekeeper projects due to a lack of staff needed for planning reviews.
"Our ability to take on more work at this time is quite constrained," Blount said. "As we've mentioned numerous times, staff has to be selective on which projects we move forward."
Out of the eight projects seeking gatekeeper approval, only two had the blessing of staff members. That included a relatively minor seven-home project being proposed for teacher housing at the Mountain View Academy, a private high school. The other project, from the United States Army, is much more ambitious.
Staff indicated they could eventually handle a unique project being proposed by the Army to transform a cluster of military townhouses at 500 Moffett Blvd. from military housing into a much denser apartment community with as many as 1,143 units open to the public. That project is being proposed for a unincorporated parcel not within the city's boundaries that would need to be eventually annexed.
"I want to reiterate the Army is 100 percent committed here," said Paul Cramer, department assistant secretary of the U.S. Army. "We have a budget and we think there's great value for the city and the Army in this project."
Blount said his team wouldn't be able to start reviewing the Army's project until next summer.
He recommended the city defer other projects, which totaled more than 500 homes as well as some office expansion. The projects included: a 224-unit apartment complex at 1700 Villa St. proposed by Prometheus; a 261-unit apartment project at 1001 N. Shoreline Rd. from Calvano Development; and a 429,000-square-foot office expansion and parking garage requested by the Symantec Corporation. Just before the meeting, Mountain View planning officials learned one project had been rescinded. Fortbay LLC of Los Gatos had originally pitched a 563-unit apartment complex for 777 West Middlefield Road, but decided not to pursue that plan. An earlier version of that project with fewer homes had already been approved by city officials, and staff said that earlier iteration would be processed.
Council members made it clear they wanted to find some way to get more projects in the pipeline. As the council asked about the expected workload for the coming year, Blount and Community Development Director Randy Tsuda said they may be able to start "one or two" projects in September, assuming they filled all the vacant positions. That gave the council an opening to add to the workload.
Councilman Mike Kasperzak proposed adding two more, for a total of four: the Prometheus Villa Street and Calvano's North Shoreline projects, putting them at the end of a queue that staff could tackle when they had more capacity.
The four projects were approved in a unanimous vote at the Dec. 8 meeting.
"I do have concerns about future council meetings where the (queue) is a mile long," Kasperzak said. "But I don't like people having to come back for gatekeepers -- it wastes time to have them coming back."
Council members had considered cramming all seven projects into the queue, but City Manager Dan Rich cautioned them to limit themselves to four.
"We're a long ways away and a lot can happen here," Rich said. "I don't want to give false hopes to anybody."
As part of the gatekeeper approval, council members also signaled they wanted a higher ratio of affordable units to be added to new housing developments, especially in cases where existing homes needed to be demolished to make way for new construction.