Laying out a road map for the future of North Bayshore, the Mountain View City Council on Tuesday dove into the nitty-gritty details to add as many as 10,250 new homes just a short walk from the local tech behemoths. In the end, the council largely gave a thumbs-up to plans to rapidly transform the area, signaling to stakeholders -- namely Google -- that the city is eager to speedily create a dense new neighborhood unlike any other in the region.
The meeting was the council's first look at revamping the North Bayshore precise plan, a crucial document that lays out the city's overall strategy for reviewing planning and land-use for the area. While technical and abstract, the precise plan amounts to a game-changer for the intense, tech-driven office development being proposed for the area. Like an oil tanker attempting a U-turn, the city's plan calls for gradually transforming a corporate office park into a mixed-use residential neighborhood.
Mountain View city officials had already finished an update of the North Bayshore precise plan in 2014, but that version focused on keeping the area as a job center, not a livable neighborhood. Yet a popular desire to build housing ultimately won the day. Three council members elected in late 2014 promised to make it a top priority to bring housing to the area. By early 2015, city staff were directed to bring the plan back to the drawing board with a new emphasis on residential growth.
Through the discussion on Tuesday, the council seemed to desire a bit of everything. New housing shouldn't be just for the well-heeled, council members said -- the apartments should be priced for the average-earners as well as those with low incomes. While Google and other developers are expected to primarily focus on smaller, dormitory-size apartments for young workers, the council members said they also want larger units suitable for families.
Future residents should be encouraged to walk or take mass transit, but council members didn't want to eliminate on-street parking where residents could leave an extra vehicle overnight. Thinking ahead, Councilman Lenny Siegel urged the city to set aside land for a future school, police substation and a mass-transit line.
"This is an innovative plan with a lot of moving parts, and it has to be done right," he said.
Affordable housing incentives
If fully built out, the North Bayshore area has the potential to be the largest bastion of affordable and below-market-rate housing in the city, according to the plan endorsed by the City Council. Normally in Mountain View, new housing projects must devote about 8 percent of their total housing to subsidized units, or pay an equivalent in-lieu sum. The city's vision for North Bayshore looks to dramatically increase affordable units to as high as 20 percent for new projects. If developers fully go along with that plan, the result could be more than 2,000 new affordable housing units. City staff also proposed that the highest-density apartments include amenities such as on-site child care, subsidized retail space or shared community facilities.
As an incentive, city officials said they would offer developers a sizable density bonus for building residential units. In the neighborhood's "central core" near Shoreline Boulevard and Plymouth Street, new apartment buildings could be allowed to go as high as 12 stories, which is pretty much the limit due to the nearby Moffett Federal Airfield. Outer areas along Huff Avenue, Charleston Road and La Avenida Street would range from four to eight stories.
But Councilman Chris Clark expressed some trepidation that the city could be asking for too much. He worried that the city could be stacking on costs for developers that look to maximize housing.
"There seems to be a conflict here -- we want to incentivize housing. But if you build too much, we're going to ask for additional things," he said. "We want housing, but if we make it expensive to build, then we've defeated the incentive structure."
Community Development Director Randy Tsuda said his team was aware this could be a problem. A city consultant was drafting a financial analysis to make sure the proposal didn't make high-density housing cost-prohibitive to build, he said.
"That's a conflict we've spent a lot of time wrestling with," he said. "(We're) intent on ensuring there's a incentive to build housing and the incentive works so the city gets a high percentage of affordable units out there."
Council members showed cautious interest in offering a streamlined review process for future housing projects as another incentive. Staff promised to provide more details on how this would work at a future meeting.
Google and Sobrato
City officials admitted the pool of potential developers expected to pitch future housing projects in North Bayshore is pretty much limited to Google and the Sobrato Organization.
Google officials were conspicuously absent from the meeting, but they sent a letter outlining their support for the new emphasis on housing. The letter, signed by the company's vice president of real estate, Mark Golan, offered support for a variety of housing density categories, the highest of which could approach 200 dwelling units per acre. In other Mountain View neighborhoods, the current standard for high-density residential development is 80 units per acre.
Golan encouraged the city to be flexible for future mixed-use buildings and not adhere too rigidly to planning statistics. He emphasized that the company wants any office space that's demolished for new housing to be allowed to be rebuilt elsewhere.
"Our home is North Bayshore and we are committed to working with the city," Golan summarized. "Google supports the city's desire to create a complete neighborhood in North Bayshore."
For the most part, council members endorsed the idea of developers being allowed to relocate office space elsewhere, but the idea was opposed by Councilman John McAlister. Seeing as how previous office expansion had already benefited from a density bonus, he said he didn't like the idea that the same developers would get a new bonus for residential projects.
The other main housing developer, Sobrato, has already put forward an initial project for city review. In a study session preceding the meeting, the City Council reviewed Sobrato's proposal to build up to 670 housing units on a 17-acre site along Pear Avenue. Sobrato's vice president, Tim Steele, said the proposed project could include as many as 180 below-market-rate housing units.
To build the below-market-rate units, Mountain View staff said the city would take funds provided by Sobrato and partner with a nonprofit agency to build them at a site adjacent to the market-rate housing. Some council members raised some concerns about having a literal divide between the rich and the poor, but Councilman John Inks warned that too much nit-picking by city officials could ultimately reduce the number of subsidized homes. He pointed out that the Madera development was originally slated to have 20 off-site affordable units, but the city's demand for subsidized housing to be included in the main project ended up providing only seven units.
"I question whether that's the most effective policy to support the greatest number of people," he said.
Other council members largely agreed, but they said that the amenities at the future housing should be shared among all residents.
Given the incentives the city was providing to encourage housing, some council members believed more proposals would materialize.
"One of the things that may come out of this is the developers that haven't included housing in their plans may change their minds," Siegel said, making a not-so-subtle hint to LinkedIn, which has declined to add housing to its expansion plans in North Bayshore.
City staff said the North Bayshore precise plan would come back for another review in April.