The Mountain View City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve a seven-story housing project in the city's East Whisman office park, marking the first major step in transforming the area into an urban mixed-use neighborhood.
The project, located along Middlefield Road east of N. Whisman Road, has been in the works for years, developed alongside the city's plan outlining the overarching vision for the future of East Whisman. The city has held firm that East Whisman must maintain a strict jobs-housing balance, meaning future office development hinge on the housing project's approval.
Council members were quick to praise the proposal by developer SummerHill Homes for incorporating a mix of ownership and rental housing in the 463-unit project. It includes 270 apartments and 157 for-sale condos located in two seven-story buildings, along with a 36 four-story townhouses to the west.
SummerHill's project also stands out in that the affordable units included in the development will be available to both low and middle-income families. It's responding to the city's appetite for options for the so-called missing middle -- those who earn too much for subsidized low-income housing but too little to afford market rate units. Of the 270 apartments, 27 will be available to those making up to 80% of the area's median income, roughly $104,000 for a family of four, while 41 units will be available to families making up to 120% of the median income, nearly $153,000 for a family of four.
Despite its significant height relative to the rest of the city -- topping out at 90 feet in some places -- the housing project complies with the new zoning for East Whisman, making it a sign of things to come in an area marked for rapid redevelopment.
Though the project won unanimous approval from the council, it wasn't without some misgivings about traffic and lengthy debate over how to spend a total of $4 million in community benefit money from SummerHill. School district officials suggested at the May 5 meeting that much or all of the funding should go to pay for school facilities, noting that a spurt in residential growth in East Whisman would inundate schools with additional students.
"Allocating the full $4 million to the local school districts would enable the families and kids who actually live in the SummerHill development to be the direct recipients of the community development," said Mountain View Whisman School District board member Laura Blakely. "It only seems fair."
School funding has been a thorny issue in Mountain View for years, and remains contentious as the city moves forward with plans for intense residential growth in the North Bayshore and East Whisman neighborhoods. School officials say the state-mandated developer fees to offset the cost of accommodating additional students are paltry at best, and long-term plans to boost the city's housing by as much as 20,000 units threaten to dump the financial burden on schools.
Though the city has mulled the possibility of an overarching school district "strategy," devising a fair plan for extracting fees from developers without killing the financial viability of much-needed housing, that framework doesn't exist yet, complicating the approval of the SummerHill project.
Mountain View Whisman Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph told council members that the city and the two affected school districts -- Mountain View Whisman and the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District -- should all come together to figure out an equitable way to spend the $4 million, with an eye towards prioritizing the money for schools.
"We all need to keep the needs of our community at the forefront of all our minds," Rudolph said.
Mountain View-Los Altos Superintendent Nellie Meyer suggested the council go a step further and postpone the approval of the SummerHill project until the school strategy is put in place. At the very least, she said, the council should avoid earmarking any of the community benefit money for the city's priorities -- including affordable housing, transportation, schools and open space -- until the school districts are accommodated.
Council members ultimately voted on a two-part split of the community benefit funding. Of the $4 million, $1.5 will go towards schools, while another $2.5 million will remain unallocated until the school strategy is fully developed.
Beyond schools, council members wondered just how well the future housing would be served by public transportation in the area. Though the expectation is that residents will use the nearby Middlefield VTA light rail station, Councilwoman Lisa Matichak said the station has low ridership and may not be seen as a viable transit option for the future residents.
"It really is not an effective form of public transportation," Matichak said.
Ideally, some residents won't be boarding public transit at all. Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga said the vision for East Whisman puts homes and jobs right next door to each other, and the expectation is that some of the people living in the SummerHill housing project would be in close proximity to where they work.
"My hope is that by providing residential opportunities in this area, we would reduce the need for people to go outside of Mountain View and be able to walk to their jobs or bike down the street," she said.
Development rights dumped
The SummerHill Homes housing project is unique in the sense that it was designed and went through the city's development pipeline while the blueprint for East Whisman was still in flux, putting it ahead in the queue as developers seek to redevelop the area.
The city granted the developer early access, in part, because SummerHill was part of a larger plan to build a school on the opposite side of town. The Los Altos School District recently purchased $155 million in property at in the San Antonio shopping Center in order to build a new campus, and is relying on developers -- including SummerHill Homes -- to offset the costs.
Through a process known as the transfer of development rights (TDRs), the Los Altos School District will sell the San Antonio property's "unused" square footage entitlements, totaling 610,000 square feet, for $79.3 million. SummerHill formally announced its intent to buy 10,000 square feet for $1.3 million to increase the size of its housing development in East Whisman.
In partnering with the school district, SummerHill was allowed to proceed with its project in 2018. But in a surprise move shortly before seeking approval of the project, SummerHill announced it no longer intended to use its 10,000 square feet of TDRs. SummerHill is permitted to resell the 10,000 square feet to another developer, which it intends to do.
Matichak bristled at the idea, saying this was never the intent of the TDR program. The so-called secondary market for TDRs was intended for developers who ultimately don't move forward with a project proposal, she said. Instead, it's being used as a vehicle for early development access only to be discarded afterward.
Smoothing over those concerns, SummerHill planning director John Hickey said the plan is to sell the TDRs and grant all of the resale money to the Mountain View Whisman and Mountain View-Los Altos school districts. The value of the sale is broadly estimated to generate between $400,000 and $1.3 million.