In what has become a Mountain View holiday-season tradition, developers and property owners made a pilgrimage to City Hall on Dec. 6 to compete over who could offer the city the best gift.
These presents weren't gussied up in gift-wrap and ribbons, but rather they were promises of future citywide perks, such as more affordable housing, parkland or tax revenues. All the council had to do was give their development requests the courtesy of a fair review.
It was a surreal scene that almost any other city would envy as Mountain View leaders on Tuesday night scrutinized a series of proposals to invest millions of dollars in private money in the city. But for Mountain View officials, this process has become quite the chore.
The event was Mountain View's once-a-year review of so-called gatekeeper requests. These are projects that don't comply with the city's master planning strategy, typically because they seek to build taller or denser projects, or in locations not sanctioned by the city.
Many of the city's most monumental projects are winding their way through this process, including a 700-home complex at 777 W. Middlefield Road and the latest phase of the transformation of San Antonio Center into an upscale, mixed-use shopping pavilion.
It was a sign of the still-hot development market that the City Council on Dec. 6 was presented with a record 13 gatekeeper requests. But city staff urged elected leaders to not be tempted. Community Development Director Randy Tsuda said that the city's 12-person planning team was overwhelmed with working on several long-range studies and a stack of nearly 30 projects previously approved for gatekeeper review. Despite a yearlong recruiting effort, two of the department's zoning-administrator positions are still vacant, he said.
But more to the point, he warned the whole gatekeeper workaround to the city's normal planning process was showing signs of being fundamentally flawed. It was simply too easy for developers to add projects to the queue, including proposals for areas never intended for massive developments, he said. He recommended the council reject all 13 proposals and plan to rework the whole gatekeeper system.
"Staff's recommendation to the council is to not authorize any gatekeeper requests at this time," he said. "In our mind, this raises a number of questions about this gatekeeper process and its relation to the city's general plan."
It wasn't easy for the council to say no that night. Right after Tsuda's warning, the applicants stepped up to the podium to plug the immense value and perks of their respective projects.
Google representatives hyped the benefits tied to their bid for 330 apartments and 203,000 square feet of offices in the East Whisman neighborhood. Google spokesman Ryan Trinidade pledged the project would bring traffic reductions, a new swath of affordable housing and the company's bike/pedestrian green loop trail to the neighborhood.
"Let's use this gatekeeper as a catalyst and experiment for some of the ideas in the forthcoming (East Whisman) precise plan," Trinidade cheered. "We want to work with the city to build a great space."
It took more than an hour for all the applicants to get through similar presentations describing how their projects would be a boon for Mountain View. Almost all applicants make sure to pitch affordable housing and transit connectivity. Some added extra pressure, hinting that if the city didn't act now, these wonderful opportunities would surely pass away.
"It would be a shame -- but really, any delay at all in reviewing this project or this property in conjunction with what's going on would take it completely out of phase and could lose this opportunity for a generation," said Dennis Randall of Insight Realty Co. about his firm's bid for an eight-story downtown office and apartment building.
Council members found the urge to indulge a few projects irresistible, despite the warnings.
One of the winners of the night was a condominium project at 2645 Fayette Drive that was an intensified version of a proposal city leaders had already approved earlier this year. Since the retooled package would require a bare minimum of staff time, it seemed a "no-brainer" to give it a green light, said Councilman Lenny Siegel.
The second victor was Prometheus Real Estate Group, which won council support for one of its two requests. That project, located at the former Flower Mart site at 525 E. Evelyn Ave., would build 470 luxury apartments. The proposal deserved priority because Prometheus would take over the environmental cleanup effort for the site's toxic groundwater that the current owner reportedly can't afford.
City planning staff warned in advance it would take months before they could begin working on these gatekeeper projects.
But council members did agree the whole gatekeeper process needs to go back to the drawing board. It was a process that focused development in certain areas of town, but didn't lend itself to a cohesive neighborhood vision, said Councilman Ken Rosenberg.
"I'm not a big fan of the gatekeeper process; it creates excitement and consternation at the same time," he said. "Even for those who get approval, their projects don't always come through, and then there's folks who have to keep coming back."
Case in point, representatives from the Ambra family highlighted that they were coming to the city for the third time for gatekeeper review for their proposal to build high-density apartments at the family's former olive-oil factory at 987 Rengstorff Ave. Delaying the project yet again simply felt "unfair," said the Ambra family's attorney.
At the council's direction, the city will schedule a study session, possibly as early as February, to figure out how to rework the gatekeeper process. Among the ideas suggested, the city could investigate "visioning" for certain neighborhoods to provide a basic template for what city leaders wanted to see developed without the hefty workload of a full-fledged precise plan.