The city of Mountain View is looking to revamp its residential zoning across 480 acres of land dispersed throughout the city, with an eye toward increased density that could lead to the construction of 9,000 new homes.
The undertaking is the city's effort to redesign its so-called R3 zoning, which encompasses broad swaths of multifamily residential housing that makes up close to one-third of all homes in the city. Though steeped in bureaucratic urban planning and less eye-catching than places like North Bayshore, R3 zoning changes could significantly alter the future of the city's housing growth.
It's also much closer to home: Many of the R3 zoning areas flagged for increased density are right next door to lower-density neighborhoods.
Mountain View City Council members on Tuesday dove into the proposed changes, which are meant to incentivize new development and mix up the type of housing that gets built in the city. In recent years, R3 zones have been plagued with problems in which older, rent-controlled apartments are torn down and replaced with expensive for-sale rowhouses, sometimes reducing the number of total units on the property.
The constraints in R3 zoning are partly to blame, and it falls to the council to incentivize redevelopment that improves the city, said Councilman Lucas Ramirez. He listed off numerous housing developments in which there is no affordable housing, no additional park space, no park fees and a reduction in units.
"The status quo is actively detrimental to the community," Ramirez said. "I could not support anything that wasn't a dramatic change from what we have now."
The zoning revamp divides the city's R3 zones into four different categories, each with their own allowed density and targeted housing types. On the low end, housing would be able to reach three stories in height, and would be framed around stacked duplexes, fourplexes and "pocket" neighborhoods. On the high end would be mid-rise housing complexes between six and eight stories tall.
The hope is that the framework will not only manage density around single-family residential areas, but also encourage developers to build diverse housing that doesn't look exactly the same.
"We tend to get a lot of the same buildings stamped out over and over again," said Councilwoman Alison Hicks. "And I'm hoping that when we do this form-based zoning that it's a way to get beyond that."
Some council members worried that the changes amount to up-zoning residential properties without a clear purpose. Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga said she wanted to see the development of ownership housing in the form of stacked-flat construction, yet there's little guarantee that developers won't just use the density boost to build new rental units instead. She said she is not interested in incentivizing more apartments, especially if they end up as high-cost luxury apartments.
Abe-Koga also underscored that the R3 zoning changes are drastic, and that there hasn't been enough public outreach. The city's general plan never contemplated more housing and higher densities in some of the areas that are now poised for big changes, she said, and neighborhoods and community members need to be clued in and given a chance to respond.
"We have heard from folks, but these are frankly folks who are very interested in housing issues and they are mostly housing advocates," she said.
Another major concern is whether the zoning changes could lead to a surge in redevelopment of older, affordable apartments, causing even more displacement of longtime residents and working-class families. In 2019, city officials said Mountain View was on pace to destroy 127 of its rent-controlled apartments every year.
A recent state law, SB 330, stemmed the bleeding and effectively halted projects that raze older apartments in the city, but it sunsets in 2025. Councilwoman Lisa Matichak said SB 330 is not going to stay in its current form forever, and that she would prefer the city work on anti-displacement measures and halt R3 zoning changes until those protections are in place.
"I would like to focus on our own version of SB 330 to address displacement, and put this on hold and make sure we have a robust community input process before we go forward with changes to zoning," Matichak said.
Councilwoman Pat Showalter said she supported anti-displacement measures, but questioned whether changes to R3 zoning have to be put on hold in the interim. She suggested that both be worked on in tandem, with an emphasis on rolling out the city's replacement of SB 330 prior to the zoning changes going into effect.
Given the massive scope of the changes under consideration, Abe-Koga said the city might be better off updating its general plan, which would better capture community input and take into account the aggregate need for amenities created by the added housing. City officials cautioned that a general plan update would be a huge time sink that would take years and slow down the R3 rezoning timeline, and some council members pushed back at the idea of further delays.
"I'm not willing to sandbag every other single thing we could be doing for a four-year-long general plan update," said Councilwoman Sally Lieber.