With an eye towards balancing future jobs and housing growth, Mountain View city planners are proposing a new strategy that inextricably ties residential development to any office growth in the East Whisman area of the city.
The "jobs-housing linkage" strategy is the city's attempt to to take a clear-eyed approach toward solving the regional housing crunch, caused in large part by job growth that vastly outpaces the construction of new housing. The city's blueprint for future development in East Whisman seeks to address the problem head on, with tight restrictions to ensure 5,000 units of new housing are built alongside 2.25 million square feet of office space in the northeast corner of the city.
The East Whisman Precise Plan, currently under public review, is premised on the idea that office and housing construction are not on an even playing field, with obvious financial incentives favoring offices. Absent a mix of incentives and restrictions, the housing envisioned for East Whisman may go unbuilt while developers scramble to build as many tech offices as allowed.
Before any project gets approved, developers will have to submit a jobs-housing linkage plan detailing how they plan to "facilitate residential development." The plan could include dedicating land for housing or a partnership with a residential developer, and it's contingent on the housing getting built first. Residential developers also have an extra financial arrow in their quiver, with the ability to demolish offices for housing and "sell" the rights to that square footage to an office developer in the area.
All told, the policy is intended to lock East Whisman's future development at a ratio of 2.5 homes for every 1,000 square feet of office and research and development space. A city staff report readily admits that's still below a perfect equilibrium -- estimated at 3 housing units for every 1,000 square feet of offices -- but it would still put a big dent in the city's lopsided jobs-housing imbalance.
Developers in the area have warned that office and residential growth can't be expected to always happen at the same rate, particularly with the hodgepodge of property owners in East Whisman, according to the report. And having office projects contingent on the approval of housing means office developers are put in an uncomfortable position, relying on projects over which they have no control. The precise plan does have some flexibility on the timing, allowing office projects to move forward once there is a deed restriction or land dedication for housing.
The framework of the linkage strategy largely won the support of the city's Environmental Planning Commission on Wednesday, April 17, with commission member Robert Cox seeking assurances that the city will hold the developers' feet to the fire on the ratio of 5,000 housing units to 2.25 million square feet of offices.
"The 2.5 (ratio) is just about an even housing balance and I really have a strong desire that we don't make things worse with these precise plans," Cox said.
But one lingering concern, which dominated much of the commission's discussion, was whether the city is already on track to break those rules. On the other end of town, the City Council signed a deal with the Los Altos School District for the district could "sell" developers the rights to build 610,000 square feet of additional office and residential development in exchange for $79.3 million, which would help finance the purchase of land and construction of a school campus.
Six of those developers who bought development rights intend to build in East Whisman, and much of which is proposed is offices. Taken together, the projects would put 389,000 square feet of offices and 762 housing units in the area -- or about 2 housing units per 1,000 square feet of offices -- immediately running afoul of the precise plan's proposed ratio.
The city could simply exempt all projects from the linkage strategy if they bought density rights from the Los Altos School District, or it could stick to the ratio and put the onus on the developers to incentivize housing growth. The latter, city staff cautioned, could torpedo the school district's financial agreements.
Tampering with the complex and potentially fragile deal between developers and the school district seems like a bad idea, said commission member Bill Cranston, who strongly opposed the idea of imposing the linkage strategy on projects involved in the transfer of development rights (TDR). The precise plan is a forward-looking document exclusively for East Whisman, whereas the school district's sale of development rights is already in the pipeline and not exclusive to East Whisman.
"The TDR program is a different program landing on this at the same time," Cranston said. "I think the jobs-housing linkage program should be there, it's just that we've got a timing problem."
Commission members unanimously agreed to allow the TDR projects to move forward, but subject to "limitations." For example, developers who bought density rights from the school district may not have to directly partner with or facilitate residential development. Instead, they would be held to a lower standard and could offer fewer housing incentives. One of those TDR projects, located at 339 N. Bernardo Avenue, may be only partially responsible for offsetting its development with housing incentives.
Cox, who voted on the compromise, said the city should do its best to stick to its guns on the linkage ratio, particularly at a time when state lawmakers are proposing to take away local control over housing development in order to ensure housing gets built.
"Trying to achieve some jobs-housing balance is an important role for our city, even to the point where we have people in Sacramento that think it's important enough that they may have to take away our ability to make decisions," Cox said. "I really believe we have to show we are doing that."
The draft East Whisman Precise Plan can be viewed online. The City Council is tentatively scheduled to discuss the plan on Tuesday, May 7.