The city of Mountain View faces a tough balancing act between building more housing and preserving mature trees, with an upcoming project slated to add 323 new apartments at the cost of close to 130 trees.
The proposal at 555 W. Middlefield Road has been the subject of scrutiny for years, as the developer seeks to pack three new apartment buildings in an existing 402-unit complex.
The good news is that the construction won't displace the hundreds of current tenants. The bad news is that the buildings have to be constructed on the edges of the property and surface parking relocated underground, meaning a large portion of the 417 trees on the site must be chopped down.
The developer, Avalon Bay, originally proposed axing far more trees. An arborist report from 2016 recommended removing 182 trees in total, 117 of which qualified as heritage trees. Heritage trees include sequoias, cedars and oaks, along with any tree with a diameter of at least 15 inches. The plan has been refined since then, and the developer is now only seeking to remove 62 heritage trees.
The improvements have done little to assuage the concerns of nearby residents and environmental groups, both of whom came out in staunch opposition to the project. A joint letter by the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and the local chapter of the Sierra Club urged the city to scale back the plans and remove one of the three proposed apartment buildings that would abut Highway 85.
The building would require cutting down trees that serve as an important barrier between housing and the highway, the letter argues, and would destroy a part of the Stevens Creek habitat corridor extending from the ocean to the inland hills.
"The existing landscaping provides an effective aesthetic barrier to Hwy 85 visually and as a barrier for freeway noise," the groups said in the letter. "It also helps to trap airborne toxics, such as particulates from auto exhaust and tire dust, and brake linings dust from the highway."
At the city's Oct. 6 Development Review Committee meeting, several residents echoed similar concerns. Hala Alshahwany, who owns a condo on the nearby Cypress Point Drive, said the mature trees create a buffer between her neighborhood and the highway, and that those trees still remain on the chopping block despite all the changes to the plan over the last five years.
Cypress Point resident Daniel Shane, a vocal critic who called the proposal an "ill-conceived" plan that would worsen traffic and parking problems, also flagged the loss of trees as a reason to nix one of the proposed apartment buildings.
"Our main concern is the loss of many trees, some 135 trees including 62 heritage trees, that form a very important, significant extensive protective barrier between Highway 85 and our homes in our neighborhood," Shane said.
Others took a more measured approach. Resident Toni Rath said the city should take steps to ensure that mature, contiguous tree canopy isn't replaced with token landscaping that just lines the outside of buildings. Bruce England, a member of GreenSpacesMV, said the city should carefully balance the needs of housing against tree preservation, and encourage developers to mitigate tree losses as much as possible.
"We still have concerns about balancing the need for habitat protection and the severe need for housing," England said. "Pay attention to both please, even though they both conflict with each other and it is difficult."
A 2018 analysis by the Voice found that the city had lost about 2,400 trees over the course of a three-year period, mostly due to new development, and that they have been replaced by a 60% increase in new trees and saplings.
The same will be true at 555 W. Middlefield Road. The developer is offering to plant 197 replacement trees on the property, which would exceed the existing tree canopy in 10 to 15 years, according to a city staff report.
Deputy Zoning Administrator Rebecca Shapiro said the project has come a long way from its original proposal to axe close to 120 heritage trees, and that the conflict between housing growth and tree preservation will fall to the city's Environmental Planning Commission (EPC) and the City Council.
"It will be critical and ultimately the responsibility of our EPC and the City Council to be the arbiters of that particular conflict," Shapiro said.