News

Council can't pass up tempting gatekeeper projects

Overwhelmed planning staff asks for all 13 to be rejected, to no avail

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.

Sponsored
...
6 Steps to master the home buying process during a pandemic

Your no-stress guide to buying a home no matter what the circumstance.

...
Sponsored
6 Steps to master the home buying process during a pandemic

Your no-stress guide to buying a home no matter what the circumstance.

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.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Sign up

"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.

Craving a new voice in Peninsula dining?

Sign up for the Peninsula Foodist newsletter.

Sign up now

Follow Mountain View Voice Online on Twitter @mvvoice, Facebook and on Instagram @mvvoice for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

...
Sponsored
6 Steps to master the home buying process during a pandemic

Your no-stress guide to buying a home no matter what the circumstance.

Council can't pass up tempting gatekeeper projects

Overwhelmed planning staff asks for all 13 to be rejected, to no avail

by / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Thu, Dec 8, 2016, 11:48 am

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.

Comments

Bruce Karney
Old Mountain View
on Dec 8, 2016 at 2:38 pm
Bruce Karney, Old Mountain View
on Dec 8, 2016 at 2:38 pm
21 people like this

The first three paragraphs of this article brought a smile to my face. You don't usually get excellent imagery like this in a local news article. Nice job in delivering the facts and context in one well-wrapped Christmas package, Mark.


OldMV
Old Mountain View
on Dec 8, 2016 at 2:43 pm
OldMV, Old Mountain View
on Dec 8, 2016 at 2:43 pm
26 people like this

To a perpetual cynic like me, this smacks of Mountain View abusing its permitting process. Isn't this just MV allowing developers to "buy access" to favorable treatment by the city? To me, this smacks of shameless corruption.


Ross Heitkamp
Waverly Park
on Dec 8, 2016 at 3:14 pm
Ross Heitkamp, Waverly Park
on Dec 8, 2016 at 3:14 pm
33 people like this

Please, council members, learn to say "NO". Every time you work around the general plan, you erode it a little more. You are destroying our city. Really. We are already way out of balance. Transportation infrastructure is probably 50% over capacity and no significant projects at any stage of planning to resolve it. Entertainment options for residents keep being replaced by more housing, but maybe that's okay since we have no time left after commuting.


Mark Noack
another community
on Dec 8, 2016 at 4:08 pm
Mark Noack, another community
on Dec 8, 2016 at 4:08 pm
9 people like this

Thanks Bruce!

As you can tell, I had some fun writing this story.


Jamie
Shoreline West
on Dec 8, 2016 at 4:24 pm
Jamie, Shoreline West
on Dec 8, 2016 at 4:24 pm
15 people like this

When did the city council in Mountain View get So much power? Why have a General Plan? Why does just a small group of people get to screw up this city for everyone? If you walk down town in the morning look at how tattered the city is. Dirty sidewalks buildings in disrepair. Maybe we could spend a little money that the building industry SHOULD be giving Mountain View for, Oh I don't know, for power washing and a paint job?


Otto Maddox
Monta Loma
on Dec 8, 2016 at 7:45 pm
Otto Maddox, Monta Loma
on Dec 8, 2016 at 7:45 pm
18 people like this

The City Council only has the power the voters give it.

You don't like what the council is doing? Vote for someone else.

Sadly most people don't vote for council. We worry more about President when in reality our City Council has far more control over our day to day lives.

Make Mountain View Great Again!


Mt. View Neighbor
North Whisman
on Dec 9, 2016 at 7:39 am
Mt. View Neighbor, North Whisman
on Dec 9, 2016 at 7:39 am
6 people like this

New I'm thinking the city should stop all new building. Give free permits to homeowners who want to improve or expand their homes. This would give some relief to the housing problem and would benefit residents.


zhiyong
Rengstorff Park
on Dec 9, 2016 at 8:54 am
zhiyong, Rengstorff Park
on Dec 9, 2016 at 8:54 am
14 people like this

It is a quite struggling for me to buy a house in mountain view. Comparing other people who owns a house, pursing a low density life, I merely want an affordable townhouse or apartment. Please build more.


Jim Cochran
Monta Loma
on Dec 9, 2016 at 10:51 am
Jim Cochran, Monta Loma
on Dec 9, 2016 at 10:51 am
5 people like this

The city staff is already working on 30 development projects, and the article says they have 2 empty positions. Staff says, "no more now".
Since the City Council decides on the General Plan, they can also use the same judgement to consider changes proposed by the developer or owner. But the main thing to remember is that there are changes coming down the pipeline soon.
Some of those in process are: 650 residences on Pear; 700 residences (double existing) on W. Middlefield; 157 units to replace 71 motel units on El Camino, with another 204 units next door; 583 residents on San Antonio: and next week the Council will consider 644 residences and 20k commercial to replace the Safeway on California.
Lets hope that traffic management can keep up with these changes.

Expand our residences? I would prefer that some new residential units that would be smaller and cheaper (per Zhiyong, above)


ivg
Rex Manor
on Dec 11, 2016 at 8:14 am
ivg, Rex Manor
on Dec 11, 2016 at 8:14 am
3 people like this

This is not a good situation. Here are some ideas:

1) I'm generally very pro-growth, but I'm concerned about the locations of some of these projects. I'm a fan of ABAG's idea of "priority development areas": leave most established neighborhoods alone, and concentrate new development in selected areas.

2) Maybe the developers can give Planning a pay raise so they can fill those vacancies? Specifically, impose a permit fee for gatekeeper projects commensurate with the cost to staff of evaluating them. If it's the same fee for everyone, no risk of corruption.

3) The number of gatekeeper projects points to a deficiency in the general plan. I think it's out of sync with both the real-estate market and Council priorities. Why don't we update it?

4) "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."
Sounds good to me. Maybe precise plans, are, well, too precise.


reside
Stierlin Estates
on Dec 11, 2016 at 11:36 am
reside, Stierlin Estates
on Dec 11, 2016 at 11:36 am
3 people like this

1500 rental units along Middlefield between Moffett and Shoreline should be off the table at this time. Not just because of the extra traffic, this city needs more homeownership. You can see it in every report our local realtors send us, condos and townhouses sell at a rapid speed.
Our so called great companies should look at an 'old' concept, have your employees work a couple of days from home. Result: companies need less office space, employees can share desks, employees can live further away, and traffic will be less.
Our neighborhood will be destroyed with all this new development, all we have is one tiny park along Middlefield.
City staff is correct, SLOW down city council, take a deep breath and keep Mtn View livable for us residents.


ivg
Rex Manor
on Dec 11, 2016 at 6:00 pm
ivg, Rex Manor
on Dec 11, 2016 at 6:00 pm
3 people like this

I wonder what it would take to develop the section of Hetch Hetchy right of way behind the Buddhist temple into a park and bike path.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.