An ambitious plan that would have set the stage for dense development in the Terra Bella area of Mountain View got axed Monday night, after council members voted 7-0 to reject it.
The 88-page vision plan for Terra Bella, crafted over the course of 20 months with a $185,000 consultant budget, would have set guidelines for transforming the largely industrial neighborhood into a mixed-use residential hub, adding between 1,700 and 2,000 housing units and building heights up to seven stories tall. The plan stands in stark contrast to the area's current use as a low-density employment center with single-family residences located directly to the south.
The vision plan was sharply opposed by nearby residents, many of whom spoke in opposition to it at the Nov. 18 meeting. Chief among the concerns were Terra Bella's traffic constraints and that large, looming buildings would blot out the sun and invade the privacy of residents, some of whom have lived in the neighborhood for decades and said they never imagined high-density development in their backyard.
"We consciously moved to Mountain View for the quality of life, not San Francisco," said resident Robert Murphy. "Please don't bring it to our backyards."
Despite the time and money spent creating the plan, council members agreed that the vision is the wrong fit for the area -- at least for now. Council members echoed the quality of life concerns from residents, and largely advocated for a more rigorous zoning process that explored traffic and other environmental impacts caused by future growth in the area at a later date.
Terra Bella, roughly bounded by Highway 101, Highway 85, West Middlefield Road and Crittenden Middle School, has an odd history that perplexed even some council members at the meeting. It was not identified in the city's 2012 general plan update as "change area" ripe for redevelopment and a new set of zoning standards, yet it was placed in front of council members this year as a priority spot for building up to five-story offices and seven-story apartments.
Councilman Chris Clark said the visioning plan was meant to be a benefit to the residents. After receiving a number of applications from Terra Bella property owners seeking exemptions from the zoning through so-called gatekeeper projects in recent years, city officials worried that the area could end up being a hodgepodge of one-off projects with no overarching strategy for things like schools, parks and comprehensive traffic management.
Reluctant to commit the resources for a full-blown precise plan with an environmental analysis, the city instead opted for a more lightweight visioning plan that would set the general approach to future development.
From the first community input meetings all the way through the Nov. 18 council meeting, residents living along the Terra Bella border have deeply criticized the higher density contemplated for the area, arguing they would have to bear the brunt of worsening traffic and have to deal with large building facades creeping right up to backyard property lines.
Murphy, a resident on San Pablo Drive, accused city staff of ignoring the well-being of residents during meetings on Terra Bella over the last year in favor of higher density, and said that the thousands of additional residents and workers trying to drive into and out of the area would be infeasible.
"The intersections are already gridlocked in the mornings," he said. "Pouring another 4,000 people into these intersections will severely impact our quality of life and anyone working there."
An earlier but similar iteration of the vision plan in April projected that Terra Bella, if fully developed under the guidelines, would bring as many as 3,600 new residents and 1,000 additional jobs. Though the vision plan concedes that congestion can make it difficult to get around, it suggests that existing conditions aren't that bad.
"The most recent data on traffic volumes and congestion suggest that intersections in (Terra Bella) do not experience significant congestion despite high volumes on North Shoreline Boulevard," according to the vision plan.
Beyond traffic, single-family homes along Morgan Street, San Pablo Drive and San Ardo Way would have a narrow buffer between backyard fences and three-story residential buildings under the plan. Resident Albert Jeans said he opposed the vision plan on the whole but, if it was passed, urged council members to at least boost the buffer between tall apartment buildings and existing homes.
"I don't think anybody wants this in their backyard," Jeans said. "You're used to seeing the sky -- you have no privacy left."
Councilman John McAlister said he was worried that the city was at risk of growing too fast, and that there's a good reason Terra Bella was excluded from the change areas. He argued that the city ought to pump the brakes and assess the cumulative traffic and quality of life impacts of housing projects already in the pipeline. The city has 1,929 housing units under construction, 2,854 units approved and 1,855 units under review.
Other council members, notably Margaret Abe-Koga and Lucas Ramirez, said they were unsure what the city was ultimately trying to accomplish with its higher-density vision for Terra Bella, particularly with the widespread opposition from nearby residents.
"If someone were to ask me, 'What is the Terra Bella area, what are we trying to achieve here?' I'm not sure that I have a good response to that question," Ramirez said. "I'd like to take more time to think about what is it we want to achieve here and get some community buy-in for that before we proceed with the land use vision for the area."
Clark joined the council majority in rejecting the vision plan, but said he hoped that it wouldn't be completely discarded as a result. He called it a "rough start" for a future precise plan for Terra Bella, which would provide concrete zoning standards and a much-needed traffic analysis, and gives city staff a template for what to expect when that time comes.
"There's some value in it," Clark said. "I just don't think it's in anyone's interest to sort of scrap this and do a one-off gatekeeper (project) here and there," he said.
The council is scheduled to review its two-year goals and discuss if and when to pursue a Terra Bella precise plan sometime early next year.