Mountain View stands at the proverbial crossroads in the coming days as voters choose four City Council candidates from a roster of eight. In essence, majority control is up for grabs as the council prepares for major decisions regarding proposals including dozens of gigantic office and residential projects already in the pipeline.
If one thing defined the 2014 council race, it was an apparent mandate from voters to transform the city's North Bayshore office park into Mountain View's newest mixed-use neighborhood -- a place where tech giants and their employees could share the same home. The new direction was seen as a significant and symbolic step, but fulfillment of the vision remains years off.
The 2016 election spotlights problems that will remain in the interim, particularly an under-supply of housing that has continued to drive up both rents and costs for homebuyers, making costs wildly out of proportion to the income of many residents.
Meanwhile, the city's transportation network is assailed from all directions -- drivers gripe about daily traffic jams and gridlock, cyclists complain about insufficient bike lanes, parents decry unsafe school routes, and pretty much everyone lambastes the shortcomings of mass transit.
The Voice editorial staff sat down with all eight candidates in recent days to discuss their policy positions on a range of topics, including rent control, housing supply, transportation and recent big decisions by city leaders. As part of those discussion, the Voice asked all of them to list what they considered the three biggest problems facing city residents. Across the board, every one of them named housing and transportation as their top two concerns.
As for the third issue they hope to focus on if elected, the responses varied somewhat. Four candidates -- John McAlister, Lisa Matichak, Ken "Kacey" Carpenter and Thida Cornes -- singled out environmental sustainability. For Chris Clark, it was balancing the city's growth in a sustainable way. Greg Coladonato said his priority is to reduce conflict and build better collaboration. Margaret Abe-Koga said she wants to focus on safety, open space and quality of life. Lucas Ramirez named government transparency and improved public outreach.
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Occupation: Digital product manager, Online Sheet Music Inc.
Education: B.A. in music, Santa Clara University
Despite being just 28 years old, Lucas Ramirez can point to a long civic record to state his case as to why he should win a seat on the City Council. He serves on the city's Human Relations Commission and the Valley Transportation Authority's Citizens Advisory Committee, and he has attended almost every Mountain View City Council meeting since 2012. With his hearty appetite for the city's politics, Ramirez says he is eager to devote that energy to helping lead Mountain View.
At the top of Ramirez's list of priorities is housing affordability, the lack of which he describes as the "existential crisis" facing Mountain View. As with most other candidates, he believes rapid residential growth is the answer, but he also said that any housing gains could be undone if the city isn't careful about its office space expansion. He recommends that the city devise some type of metric to better track its jobs-housing balance.
Ramirez is cautiously supportive of both proposed rent-control initiatives, saying either could provide short-term relief for tenants at risk of displacement. The expanded rental-housing protections approved by the City Council are insufficient, he said.
"Ordinarily, I wouldn't be supportive of rent control; long-term it's not the solution," he said. "But because there are so many people at risk of displacement right now, I can't justify taking no action."
On transportation, Ramirez supports expanded bike lanes and transit infrastructure that encourages people to avoid solo driving. Over the long term, he said, the regional transportation woes could be solved only by re-evaluating land-use policy to avoid separating job centers from residences.
When asked about any recent council decision he disagreed with, Ramirez harkened back to a pivotal 2015 meeting in which the council doled out North Bayshore office development rights to several competing companies. At the time, the council picked LinkedIn to receive the lion's share, while Google received a fraction of its request. Ramirez explained that he understood council members' logic: By bolstering LinkedIn, they were keeping a viable rival of Google's in North Bayshore. But that decision didn't support the city's stated goal to bring housing to the area, Ramirez said, and he wished the council had delayed a decision until the area's residential growth is fully studied. That effort is still ongoing.
Another pillar of Ramirez's campaign is improving public access to local government. Too often, citizens have complained they didn't receive adequate notice ahead of pertinent city meetings, he said. If elected, he promised to look into publishing council agendas earlier.
Taking a cue from state government, Ramirez also suggested citizens should be able to petition City Hall to convene a hearing on a particular issue.
In a similar vein, he helped draft an ordinance earlier this year for better campaign transparency for independent political committees, which received council approval.
Ramirez supports the concept of a citywide food-scraps composting program, but he says switching to a less-frequent biweekly garbage schedule would be too stressful on families.
He supports the council's decision to close Castro Street to vehicle traffic at the Caltrain tracks, saying it was the sensible course compared with the expensive and disruptive construction needed for a grade-separation at that spot.
Occupation: Government affairs consultant for Synopsys
Education: Bachelor's degree in government, Harvard University
Margaret Abe-Koga's main selling point to voters boils down to experience: the assurance in having a proven pilot steering the ship. After eight years on the City Council, she said, she has learned the ins and outs of how things get done in Mountain View government. And particularly for this election, it will be an asset to have an established, knowledgeable politician on the council, she said.
"The current council is young and inexperienced -- I think it shows, to be honest," said Abe-Koga, who was termed out of office in 2014. "From my own experience, it takes a while to learn things since there's a steep learning curve."
Describing her time on the council, she had a lot of "sleepless nights" as the city struggled with recession-driven cutbacks that remarkably didn't result in City Hall layoffs. She credits that to the council's -- and her -- ability to renegotiate staff contracts at a savings of about $2 million.
Abe-Koga recognizes housing as a major concern, and she says the current council has lost its focus on addressing this problem. She advocates for the city to adhere more to the 2030 general plan, a citywide master strategy for redevelopment that the council spent four years drafting through many public meetings. Since approving the document in 2012, the council has strayed from its stated goals and instead focused on adding a swath of new housing to the North Bayshore area, an endeavor that she still finds of dubious merit. She is concerned that a rapid spree of housing development will be detrimental to the baylands wildlife, and she doesn't think the data supports the claim that residential growth would reduce traffic in the area.
The general plan contained many "innovative" strategies to create mini-village centers and transit connections throughout the city, but city officials now seem intent on reinventing the wheel, she said.
Abe-Koga is opposed to the Measure V rent-control package, but is "inclined" to support Measure W, saying it would have made sense if the council had approved its provisions earlier, when it had the chance, without bringing it to voters. As with other candidates, she said that the long-term solution to the housing crisis is to build more residences. But she emphasized that the public's demand for a quick fix such as rent-control could create a host of unintended problems that will undermine a long-term solution.
On transportation, Abe-Koga supports plans to build better connections to North Bayshore, including a bicycle track running from downtown. She supports rebuilding the city's downtown transit center, constructing a grade separation at Central Expressway and Rengstorff Avenue, and the Valley Transportation Authority's $6 billion Measure B sales tax. She also backs the city's underperforming Bike Share program, which she said had good ridership until its management changed hands.
She singles out the city's decision to close Castro Street to vehicle traffic as premature. While it may have been the best option, other ideas should have gotten more study, she said.
On the proposal to launch a Mountain View food-scrap composting program, Abe-Koga says she favors providing residents with split garbage cans with separate sides for garbage and food waste, similar to services in Sunnyvale. She opposes switching to a biweekly garbage pickup schedule unless more residents support the program.
Occupation: Community volunteer
Education: B.A. political science, Bryn Mawr College, MBA from University of California at Berkeley
Thida Cornes says she would offer a welcome new perspective to the council: She's a disabled woman and mother who will prioritize public safety and quality-of-life issues.
After eight years on the city's Parks and Recreation Commission, Cornes describes herself as well-experienced in Mountain View civic affairs and knowledgeable of its various issues, but her centerpiece issue is transportation.
The top of her priority list is building a safe traffic network to improve a system that she describes as "hostile" to anyone who isn't a driver. While Mountain View may have extensive bike routes, the trepidation of riding directly alongside zooming vehicles discourages most people from biking more frequently, she said.
"We have bike routes, but they're only for the skilled riders," Cornes said. "I'm not saying we need to be like Davis, but we could be doing a lot better."
Cornes' goal as a council member would be for Mountain View to adopt a Vision Zero policy, meaning the city would pursue a road system that is designed to eliminate all traffic fatalities. In the short term, the city could focus on traffic hotspots and implement better road striping, more crosswalks and rubber partitions to protect pedestrians and cyclists, she said.
Cornes said she hopes to tap the innovation of the local tech industry to solve local problems, and she criticizes the current City Council for not being ambitious enough. Case in point: She recalls the decision earlier this year to close Castro Street to vehicle traffic. City leaders went with the simplest fix, she said. She and other public speakers suggested that the city could instead look for private partners to cooperate on building new office space or residences above Central Expressway, but the idea was never studied by staff. She criticizes the city for rushing to a decision without giving enough time for the business community to respond.
On housing, Cornes agrees that Mountain View is facing a crisis on housing affordability. But she does not support either of the rent-stabilization ballot measures, explaining that she doesn't believe rent control is an effective policy. She said a better solution would be to build subsidized housing and encourage landlords to keep their rental pricing affordable. One way to do that would be to help provide public funding to retrofit soft-story buildings to withstand a future earthquake, a cost that is beyond many small property owners' ability to pay, she said.
While Cornes supports housing growth in North Bayshore, she emphasizes that the city will need to provide services for what will be a significant new neighborhood. Families will need mini-parks, bike routes and traffic connections; meanwhile the housing must be designed so that it doesn't impact the baylands wildlife, she said.
Occupation: Portfolio manager at Real Opportunity Capital and general manager at Roark Enterprises
Education: B.S. in physics and computer science from Cornell University, MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania
Distinguishing himself from his colleagues, Greg Coladonato wants to join the City Council to pull back the reins on local government's role and cede more control to the free market. Ultimately, this philosophy guides his approach to tackling the major issues of the day, from transportation and housing to open space and environmental protection.
On the rent-control issue, Coladonato opposes both measures V and W, explaining that he believes they will soon become unnecessary. Mountain View's rush to build more housing will soon balance out the rising costs of rents, he believes. To back up this claim, he points to recent figures showing drops in rental prices in San Francisco and San Jose, saying that demonstrates the market is correcting itself.
He blames the skyrocketing costs of rental housing on past city leadership that tightly restricted residential growth. If the city had taken a more laissez-faire approach, private developers would have met the demand for more housing stock, he said.
In fact, Coladonato says he is concerned that the city's recent rush for residential growth could backfire, leaving Mountain View with far more housing than the market will bear.
"There are many risks and uncertainties in life, but I feel that government should be protecting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and not constantly interfering in issues like private housing," he said. "The limits the city has put on (growth) in the past is one of the reasons we have bad traffic and insufficient housing today."
For transportation, Coladonato believes local corporations, especially Google, should be given more control since they have a vested interest in solving the traffic problems. Google wanted to build a bridge across Stevens Creek in 2012 to create a new artery into North Bayshore, but city officials blocked it, he said. He favors Google helping to build an express carpool lane on Shoreline Boulevard as an immediate fix to the congestion.
Coladonato proposes Mountain View should give similar leeway to Google with its plans to build housing in North Bayshore. Specifics on the project should be left to the company since it has a proven track record of environmental protection and sustainable building practices, he said.
He opposed the council's decision earlier this year to close Castro Street to car traffic at the train tracks, saying that the decision could be postponed until Caltrain electrification goes forward. While his family composts their waste and he encourages others to do it, he does not support the city's plan to pressure residents to do so by switching to a less frequent garbage pickup schedule.
Coladonato was elected to a four-year term on the Mountain View Whisman School District Board of Trustees in 2014, and he says he is ready to move on after two years of helping the district complete its strategic plan and hire new administrators. He previously served on the city's Human Relations Commission and helped launch "Repair Cafe," a free public event for local tinkers to try to repair people's malfunctioning gadgets.
Ken "Kacey" Carpenter
Occupation: Global lead, Cicso Systems
Education: B.S. in math, engineering systems science from University of California at Los Angeles. MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania
When asked why he should get your vote, Ken "Kacey" Carpenter first highlights his deep ties to Mountain View as a resident and father, coaching youth sports and taking his children to Scout meet-ups. More than anything else, he says, his mission in politics is to balance out the impacts that Silicon Valley's racing economy is having on local families.
He also mentions his professional career, working at Cisco Systems in the company's global affairs division, a role that he says brought him to cities across the world grappling with problems similar to those at home, such as building smarter traffic systems, growing sustainably and improving the local quality of life.
The city is at a crossroads, Carpenter says. Like other council hopefuls, he underscores the rising cost of housing as the city's foremost challenge. But unlike most others, he is firmly on the side of bringing rent control to Mountain View. Explaining that he will vote for both measures V and W, Carpenter says either proposal can offer some protection to at-risk tenants. However, he takes issue with the City Council's actions behind Measure W: essentially placing an initiative on the ballot based on a proposal it originally rejected. If the council had been a little more bold and approved Measure W's provisions earlier, it could have avoided a lot of political turmoil, Carpenter said.
Carpenter believes in expanding the housing supply, and he says Mountain View needs to transition out of its paradigm of suburban homes and cars. But he stresses that any change need to be gradual. He extols Amsterdam for creating a bike-dominant city. North Bayshore, he believes, could be a great staging ground to implement that model.
In a line he often brings up, he says Mountain View should aim for a "moonshot" -- something ambitious and disruptive to get more people sharing services in a new way. "It's radically challenging people's beliefs of what's possible," he said. "If we unleash that power, we'll be amazed."
Speaking of his priorities, Carpenter includes environmental protection, saying he is committed to carbon reduction and preserving open space. He also emphasizes open government, explaining he wants to find ways to improve outreach so that more citizens are informed and engaged with their government.
"We need to flip the model so that we're being more responsive to businesses and citizens," he said. "We have to reach out to citizens rather than waiting for them to come to us."
Carpenter is ambivalent on the council's decision to close Castro Street at the Caltrain tracks to car traffic. Assuming the staff did a diligent job studying all possible alternatives, closing Castro seemed to be the least unpleasant option available, he said. It was a "Catch-22" situation, he said, but ultimately the city needed to prioritize getting everything ready to redesign the downtown transportation center.
Carpenter believes the city's food-scrap composting program should continue as a voluntary pilot and local households should still have weekly garbage pickup as the default service.
Occupation: Head of operations, Y Combinator Research
Education: B.A. in Political Science, Stanford University
Seeking a second term as a city councilman, Chris Clark points to his experience and track record to explain to residents why they should vote for him. He sees his role as a politician to be consensus builder, working to craft a compromise that might not make everyone happy but at least gets something accomplished. This is more than words -- in many council meetings, Clark tends to speak less than other members, but he fills the role of a mediator if the others reach an impasse.
Earlier this year, Clark summed up the role of a legislator: "The art of policy-making is disappointing everyone in the room at a rate they can accept."
In interviews, Clark often points out that most of the council members staying in office will be relatively new, and he says some seasoned leaders should be kept around to ensure stability.
Among Mountain View's top challenges, Clark cites a lack of housing and growing traffic problems. He singled out sustainability as a third issue needing to be addressed. By sustainability, he says, he means controlling growth to ensure that it benefits the quality of life for the city's residents.
For housing, he believes the true remedy is building more supply, but that solution will take years to accomplish. In the interim, he supports the tenant mediation system approved by the City Council in April, which he describes as something that will help resolve disputes with landlords but hasn't had enough time to prove itself.
As a main author of Measure W, Clark believes the city's ballot measure will provide immediate rent relief in a balanced and controllable fashion. He opposes Measure V, the ballot initiative backed by tenant advocates, primarily because as a charter amendment it would be difficult to amend.
Clark approves of adding housing to North Bayshore, and he now says he is committed to making it work. He emphasizes that having enough housing to support a grocery store is crucial, and the new neighborhood needs an easy transit connection to the downtown area.
Clark is more receptive to the idea of office growth in Mountain View than his rivals. While he cautions that office development needs to carefully planned, he said that Mountain View stands to benefit from the booming market demand by extracting community benefits from private developers. In a few years, the city might not be in such an advantageous position to request such concessions, he said.
He is a strong defender of the council's decision earlier this year to eventually close Castro Street at the Caltrain crossing to vehicle traffic. And he argues that the available alternatives would be far worse.
"It's the option that makes the most sense even though I know it sounds scary and horrible," he said. "But it's already a nightmare there, and I think doing nothing is not an option."
Clark is undecided on the issue of the city's proposed food-scrap composting program. To get his support, such a program would need to accommodate a reasonably priced weekly option for residents, and he still wants to see more results from the city's community outreach.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Clark's stance on North Bayshore housing. He has approved of the idea since before joining the City Council in 2012.
Occupation: Senior marketing director, Bromium
Education: B.A. in Business Administration, California State University at Fullerton; M.B.A from University of California at Los Angeles.
Now in her seventh year on the Environmental Planning Commission, Lisa Matichak could teach a university seminar on municipal land-use, perhaps the most powerful tool wielded by local government. Her strategy is to use that knowledge and experience from countless late-night project hearings to present herself as the most qualified candidate running for a City Council seat.
On housing, she advocates creating a package of new incentives for residential growth. Planning commissioners and city staff, she explained, are working on creating a new bonus system modeled to encourage developers to building housing with affordable units. For developers, the carrot would be an opportunity to circumvent local zoning rules, essentially allowing them to pack more units into less space. As a supporter of Santa Clara County's proposed $950 million housing bond, Measure A, Matichak believes Mountain View should prepare affordable projects to be ready for a new funding pool.
The East Whisman neighborhood is the most appropriate area for rapid housing growth, she said, pointing out the area has available space, a light-rail connection and a desire among established residents to grow. While she supports housing in North Bayshore, she says that neighborhood has its work cut out to create the transit links and the thousands of homes needed for a new community.
Like many other candidates, Matichak sees housing growth as the true solution to balance Mountain View's soaring cost of living. She opposes both rent-control measures V and W, although she could justify supporting W "if forced."
"Rent control does not incentivize owners to invest in their properties and sometimes they opt for tearing them down," she said. "In fact, I think we're already seeing that. We have quite a few proposals of property owners doing exactly that."
Among the priorities she highlighted was environmental protection. As a planning commissioner, she says she pushed to ensure projects provided ample tree coverage. She favored Mountain View's proposed food-scrap composting program, but she said it was also important to continue giving residents weekly trash pickup.
As for transportation, Matichak favors adding more aggressive traffic-demand plans and expanding the local community-shuttle system. She also backs extending light rail to include more areas of Mountain View, especially residential neighborhoods. Mountain View stands to benefit if the transit-focused sales tax Measure B passes, she plugged.
Occupation: Small business owner
Education: B.S. in Business Administration, University of California at Berkeley
Running for re-election after joining the council in 2012, John McAlister presents himself as a critical voice in City Hall representing the business community and local families. He insists that Mountain View's growth shouldn't come at a sacrifice to its character or its quality of life.
To a degree, McAlister views transportation as the underlying problem behind the housing crisis. If regional mass transit could be improved, then it opens up new opportunities for how the housing shortage can be addressed, he said.
"If I can get you from South San Jose, where housing is affordable, to Mountain View, where the jobs are, in a half-hour in a express bus, then that opens up a whole new range of affordability," he said. "In the long run, I think transportation will give us a solution to our housing woes."
In his time on council, particularly his 2015 term as mayor, McAlister made transportation his signature issue. He takes credit for spearheading a joint effort among North County cities to pressure VTA to prioritize funding for local transportation projects. Similarly, he also cites his role in bringing together Google and the Valley Transportation Authority to partner on an ongoing study of the extending the light-rail system into the North Bayshore area.
When it comes to rent control, McAlister is firmly in the Measure W camp as one of the council members who voted to put it on the ballot. The possibility that restricting rents could result in unintended consequences worries him, and for that reason he prefers Measure W's ability to be amended by the council after two years.
In interviews, McAlister said he is nervous about the rapid growth of Mountain View's tech sector and its ongoing demand for more commercial space. Yet he see local corporations as the primary way to solve local problems, either by ponying up money or taking on the issue themselves. As mayor, he would sometimes from the dais attempt to extract bonus concessions from developers as their projects were up for review. If re-elected, he suggested he would request that Google expand its public shuttle service to deliver students to class.
Perhaps McAlister's sharpest departure from his colleagues was his opposition to closing Castro Street to car traffic. As a small business owner, McAlister echoes downtown merchants and cafe owners who argued that the city should have further studied the economic impacts before making a decision.
He is also skeptical of a city proposal to switch to biweekly garbage pickup as part of a food-scrap composting program. While he supports composting, McAlister said the default garbage schedule should remain as it is. Households who can handle a less frequent garbage schedule should be able to opt-in for that service, he explained.