Out of fears that city staff are getting burned out from overwork, Mountain View leaders are pulling up the drawbridge on the city's gatekeeper process, delaying most projects for at least a year. But shutting off the development pipeline is no easy task, as demonstrated at the City Council's June 18 meeting.
The gatekeeper process has served as the city's backdoor for development projects to move forward even if they don't comply with normal guidelines. Typically, these projects are taller, denser or in restricted locations, but the upside is they usually offer some plum concessions to the city.
In each prior year, city staff have urged council members to be cautious in adding projects to the gatekeeper list, and the Tuesday council meeting was no exception. Community Development Director Aarti Shrivastava warned that staff was overwhelmed working on the city's updated goals, precise plans and about 250 other building projects.
"This is entirely about staffing," she said. "It's hard to maintain quality control or even to get things on council agendas."
Yet the notion of turning away projects in a red-hot market was a hard pill to swallow. A line of developers speaking at the meeting urged the city not to shut down the gatekeeper review. Their message was the city had the opportunity to build some badly needed housing, and those projects would vanish if the city dithered.
"I want you to think of the gatekeeper process as a way to deliver housing without any displacement," said Katia Kamangar of SummerHill Homes. "We do have a cooperative and patient property owner on these properties, but there's a limit to that patience."
It was a message also echoed by Randy Tsuda, the city's former Community Development director, now CEO of the Palo Alto Housing nonprofit. Pointing to his project to redevelop a Public Storage lot on Terra Bella Avenue, Tsuda asked city officials to give some special consideration for projects that would bring affordable housing. When he was still working for the city in 2016, Tsuda was urging the council to deny all gatekeepers.
"I'm sympathetic to city staff, having lived through it for many years," he explained. "But what I'm asking tonight is that you leave the door open to consider certain limited sets of gatekeepers, ones that deliver affordable housing beyond what the city's asking."
Keeping the gatekeeper process alive was especially vital for developers in the Terra Bella neighborhood. Earlier this year, the City Council pulled the plug on a Terra Bella precise plan, a decision that was also made due to staffing constraints. That meant that it could be years until a full-fledged process is available to redevelop the industrial area. For developers who had secured land deals there, saving the gatekeeper process was seen as a last chance to keep their projects alive.
Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga argued that the gatekeeper process was becoming too much of a distraction, hogging staff resources and meeting agendas. If gatekeepers were put on ice, the city could focus on completing its backlog of other projects, including about 3,500 housing units, she said.
"There's a lot of projects in the pipeline, and I want to get those done before we consider more," she said. "Maybe this is the time for us to take a pause."
It was a difficult idea for some on the City Council to accept. In lieu of a Terra Bella precise plan, the City Council had directed staff to instead work on a neighborhood "visioning" plan. This conceptual plan would signal the city's receptiveness to certain kinds of redevelopment, but it was premised on proposals moving through the gatekeeper process.
Now it seemed like all avenues for redevelopment were being blocked off, said Councilman Chris Clark. He criticized the idea as "short-sighted," especially given the willingness by developers to go farther in adding subsidized housing and community benefits.
"We actively choose not to do long-range planning in an area where the zoning is old and we're seeing a lot of applications," he said. "By doing this, we're not creating any sort of path forward to look at these things."
Even beleaguered city staff acknowledged that not all gatekeepers should be postponed. Back in 2017, city officials agreed to use the gatekeeper process as a way to expedite several projects that could provide $79.3 million in funding to help build a 10th campus for the Los Altos School District.
That money will likely be needed soon -- school district officials were scheduled to vote on a $155 million land purchase deal at their June 19 meeting. Developers would pay money to the school district only after they receive entitlements from the city of Mountain View.
The City Council agreed to allow those projects to proceed in a 5-0 vote with Councilman John McAlister and Lucas Ramirez recused.
For the rest of the gatekeeper proposals, Abe-Koga said that the city wasn't permanently blocking them. The city would be pausing them for about a year, and the council would then have an opportunity then to consider more.
To her point, she reminded her colleagues that the city is already zoning for about 15,000 housing units in the North Bayshore and East Whisman neighborhoods.
"Let's get some of these projects done, and then we can take on a whole new batch," she said. "We're building more housing than anyone else. This is one year, just to give staff some breathing space.
The decision to delay the gatekeepers for a year was approved in a unanimous vote.