In their quest to rapidly inject housing into the North Bayshore business park, Mountain View City Council members wavered on some incentives for developers, based on new fears that they could be unintentionally unleashing a spree of new office growth.
At a two-hour study session on May 24, the City Council considered a variety of proverbial carrots to encourage private developers to bring about 10,000 new homes to the area. As one incentive, property owners would be able to rebuild offices elsewhere if they were demolished to construct housing. The new housing would receive significant density bonuses -- meaning new apartment complexes could be tightly packed and up to 15 stories high -- but only if developers agree to set aside 20 percent as affordable housing.
But the discussion hit a bump over a long-simmering idea to grant clearance for extra office construction if developers could prove their new housing was reducing traffic, especially at North Bayshore's clogged entryways. City planners admitted they hadn't figured out a good yardstick to measure these so-called "trip credits" for new development. But they acknowledged that traffic along area's three arteries has long been the main barrier to further growth, and even some green-lighted office projects were currently stalled as a result.
The idea of tech workers living in North Bayshore, and thus having a negligible impact on -- or creating a reduction in -- congestion has already generated sizable interest among the area's biggest tech firms. At Tuesday's meeting, those companies gave a clear signal they would seek to develop more offices.
John Igoe, Google's real estate director, pointed out that a swift push to build the city's goal of 10,000 new homes would cost a gargantuan sum -- something in the area of $6 billion. It went without saying that much of that investment would come from Google. Emphasizing his company's stake in the city's vision, Igoe urged the city to use its current planning process to consider 2 to 3 million additional square feet of office space in the area.
"When you look at the impact of the residential development, I think you're going to find you have more capacity in North Bayshore," Igoe said. "Now that you're in the (environmental-impact report phase) it'd be of value that you take this opportunity to study additional commercial space."
Other tech firms caught the scent of opportunity in the air. LinkedIn officials, who have long resisted the idea of adding housing to their proposed future headquarters, have had a change of heart. In a letter to the city, LinkedIn Vice President James Morgensen asked the city to add his company's 1400 Shoreline Blvd. parcel to the areas under consideration for future housing.
"It has become increasingly clear how critical the addition of housing is to the community as a whole and to city leaders," he wrote. "Housing access and affordability is a serious issue that impacts all of us."
One year earlier, Morgensen told city officials that housing on his company's parcel was essentially impossible due to toxic contaminants in the groundwater.
But City Council members were more reluctant to embrace the idea of trip credits. Mountain View, like other Silicon Valley cities, is struggling with a severe jobs-housing imbalance, said Councilman John McAlister. If adding housing was only a tool to provide more offices, then the city would be doing little to solve this problem, he said.
"I'm not in the favor of (trip credits) -- if we're trying to increase balance, then this negates it," he said.
The idea could be problematic in other ways. Council members have previously pressured Google and other would-be residential developers to pledge that the new housing not be reserved for their own stable of employees. But if there were incentives based on reducing traffic, then wouldn't North Bayshore companies have a significant interest in housing only North Bayshore workers, asked Councilman Ken Rosenberg.
"People who don't work in North Bayshore will be not selected for one of the units because it wouldn't be in the company's interest," he said. "How do we police that? What if we said we need to have housing for a certain amount of teachers?"
That shouldn't be a significant problem, said principal planner Martin Alkire. He explained that city staff wasn't studying any type of "preferential plan" for housing North Bayshore workers in the future housing. In their research of similar areas, he said only 20 to 30 percent of the future homes would be occupied by local workers.
Councilman Lenny Siegel pointed out that it would take years to figure out whether new housing was actually solving the area's traffic woes. He suggested a better idea would be to allow developers to build their stalled office projects in tandem with their housing as an incentive to rapidly move projects forward.
City staff hastened to explain that the concept of trip caps was only conceptual at this point.
"We're outlining an opening-of-the-door to consider additional office footage," said Community Development Director Randy Tsuda. "If a developer wants to make use of that credit, they'd still have to go through the (environmental review) process."
In the end, city staff recommended tabling the discussion over trip caps for a future meeting.
Council members emphasized flexibility as they quickly went through a list of other questions at the study session. In regard to housing-density bonuses, elected leaders urged staff to include a "menu" of options to help developers include as much affordable housing as possible.
The council also backed a proposal to create an expedited review process for future housing projects that follow the city's master plan for the area. Such projects could have their permit-processing time cut in half by avoiding the need for public hearings by the zoning administrator and City Council.
City staff reported that the updated North Bayshore precise plan and its associated environmental impact report would take longer than initially planned -- it would likely be complete by spring of 2017, Alkire reported.
It was clear at the meeting that regional leaders beyond Mountain View are closely watching the city's North Bayshore planning. Speaking as a member of the public, San Francisco Planning Director John Rahaim gave a "thank you" to Mountain View leaders for prioritizing housing to help solve a regional crisis.
"I applaud you for moving ahead like this -- these sites are challenging to develop," he said. "I have come to believe that large sites like this are really important for all of us to consider."
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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated the city was working on a preferential plan for housing North Bayshore employees.