The Mountain View City Council agreed Tuesday night that zoning for 4,900 housing units in East Whisman has to be more than aspirational, even if it means restricting office growth or boosting residential density.
Among several straw votes at the May 7 study session, council members agreed to explore higher-density housing allowed in the East Whisman Precise Plan, which calls for transforming the city's employment center into a mixed-use neighborhood with thousands of new homes.
The plan also includes a new concept that requires office construction to occur simultaneously with housing construction, encouraging partnerships between developers to ensure that the 4,900 units in the plan actually get built. Although the idea has the been the source of consternation among developers in the area, council members had little appetite for making compromises.
"If your goal is to increase the housing stock, you have to be firm with where you stand," said Councilman John McAlister.
Acting as a first test for the jobs-housing balancing act, City Council members were faced Tuesday with a conundrum. The Los Altos School District, in its effort to build a school in Mountain View's San Antonio neighborhood, "sold" to developers the rights to build about a quarter-million square feet of additional offices across town in East Whisman.
The so-called transfer of development rights (TDRs) includes six projects in the area, which total 762 housing units and 389,000 square feet of offices -- falling short of the city's required ratio of 2.5 homes for every 1,000 square feet of offices.
Under the city's precise plan, each one of those office projects would be required to satisfy the city's housing requirements, which could include land dedication for housing or partnerships with residential developers. The plan also allows a sort of zero-sum game whereby residential developers can demolish offices and sell off the square footage they just destroyed to office developers.
Alternatively, the council could go with the Los Altos School District's preferred option, which is to give all six projects a free pass and violate East Whisman's jobs-housing ratio right out of the gate.
A majority of the council agreed on a compromise, saying that all six projects -- taken as a whole, rather than individually -- would need to satisfy the jobs-housing ratio in East Whisman. Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga said pressure from state lawmakers in recent years is a clear sign that the city needs to stick to its guns, and that developers should have been well aware of the council's housing goals.
"There was explicit interest from the council that the TDRs go more towards residential," Abe-Koga said. "I think that was clearly addressed and relayed to the school district when they were going out to sell the TDRs."
Abe-Koga added that the council can only approve projects, and that it's up to developers to actually build the housing. There's a disconnect, she said, between the planned and permitted housing and what's actually getting built.
"If this linkage is what we we need to do to get those units built I think we really have to stick to this and be as strong as we can on this," she said.
A majority of council members also agreed to consider increased residential density in the plan following concerns that the allowed heights and square footage fall short of what's feasible for housing developers. Perry Hariri of Miramar Capital, a property owner in the area, told council members that building housing is predicated on taller construction and "relief" on the size of required setbacks from the edges of the property. John Hickey of SummerHill Homes, also a housing developer, said the density limits as they exist today will fail to reach the 4,900-unit goal by only allowing about 20 to 25 units per acre.
Councilman Chris Clark said he worried the plan would force housing developers to stick to two- or three-story townhouses in an area that's better suited for taller condos and apartment buildings, and that the precise plan should be tweaked so every single residential project isn't forced to come before the council requesting an exemption.
Representatives from both the Mountain View Whisman School District and the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District urged the council to find ways to offset the impact of thousands of new residents on local schools, including land and monetary concessions from residential developers. Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said the Precise Plan, as envisioned today, would add 728 elementary school students, 349 middle school students and 526 high school students -- putting a significant strain on districts.
Although the Mountain View Whisman district is just months away from the grand opening of Vargas Elementary, a new school near the East Whisman Precise Plan area, Rudolph said it is expected to be at capacity by the 2020-21 school year -- long before any housing gets built in East Whisman.
"We do not have the facilities to house these students," he said.
The council had previously sought to offset the impact of housing on schools in North Bayshore through a "local school district strategy," negotiated between districts and developers, that would be a required part of the project's approval. But putting that strategy into practice has been a challenge, with a great deal of uncertainty over how much developers are on the hook to pay, Rudolph said.
Other topics the council agreed to explore include parking, public art and community benefits. The draft environmental impact report for the East Whisman Precise Plan is expected to be done by June, with final approval of the plan tentatively scheduled in the fall.