As cities across California search for new places to allow more housing growth, Mountain View is relying on a new approach that would permit commercial properties like strip malls and shopping centers to redevelop into housing.
The city recently released its draft housing element, a blueprint for how Mountain View will meet state requirements for housing growth between 2023 and 2031. The 286-page strategy lays out a spurt in development that would allow for a whopping 15,100 new units, a comfortable margin over the 11,135 mandated under the state's Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA).
If all those units are built, it would crank up the city's total housing stock by just over 40%.
In order to get there, the city's so-called site inventory contemplates a rapid pattern of redevelopment on commercial properties. Some of those properties have since dropped off the city's list, including the Target store on Showers Drive (the owner has no intention of redeveloping) and 901 N. Rengstorff Ave.
But what's new to the inventory, and was a focus at the city's May 18 Environmental Planning Commission meeting, is the addition of what are called General Plan Village Centers, which include several shopping centers that serve neighborhoods throughout Mountain View. In other words, housing – in some cases at high densities – would be allowed in places like the Grant Park Plaza and the Blossom Valley Shopping Center. Smaller strip malls like 400 Moffett Blvd. and the commercial retail at the corner of Central Expressway and Rengstorff Avenue would also be included in the rezone.
"Many of these sites align with a variety of the evaluation criteria that make them ideal candidates for residential development given their proximity to services, goods, amenities, and transit," according to the draft housing element.
These commercial mixed-use districts would generally be permitted to have up to 30 units per acre, but more density will be allowed in the Grant Park Plaza, which could realistically allow for up to 50 units per acre, according to city staff. The plan is to rezone all General Plan Village Centers to allow for multifamily housing while still maintaining its designation as a village center – a place for neighborhood-serving stores and services.
The prospect of losing these plazas to residential redevelopment had some residents and commission members worried. Robert Cox, speaking on behalf of the group Livable Mountain View, said any future development on these sites needs to include the same amount of retail it bulldozed in the process.
"If we are to have a walkable community, we cannot condemn our residents to driving ever-further distances to buy groceries, use services and enjoy locations where they can get together," Cox said. "Let's say that comparable retail is what we want up front now, rather than having to fight for it each time a redevelopment proposal comes forward."
The commission generally opposed the idea of cannibalizing retail in order to spur housing growth, and argued with staff's choice of words that the rezoning would "maintain minimum retail." City principal planner Eric Anderson clarified that the plan is to measure the existing square footage of retail space in each of the village centers and make that the bare minimum required under redevelopment.
Parks and parking as barriers to housing
As part of the housing element update, cities are required to take a close look at what's preventing housing growth, including design constraints and cost burdens that could prevent developers from building otherwise compliant projects.
In Mountain View, that means finding ways to ease the sky-high cost of open space and park fees, an expensive obligation that developers say prevent projects from penciling out.
By the city's own estimate, a developer looking to build housing is going to have to either set aside costly real estate for open space or pay a fee that can run between $51,600 to $74,400 per market-rate unit. The city's Community Services Department is set to consider revisions to park dedication requirements, which is expected to find ways to "reduce constraints on residential development."
In a letter to the commission, resident James Kuszmaul said the city should bring down the cost of park fees until housing is economically feasible, pointing to a 2019 memo that cited significant cost constraints in building homes in the East Whisman area. The report found that, barring some reduction in project cost or financial assistance, residential developments in the area may not get built.
How exactly the city plans to soften the blow of park fees is still up in the air, but the idea was enough to raise concerns that the drive for more housing could lead to a dearth of open space. Resident Bill Lambert told commission members in a letter that parks shouldn't just be seen as a "major cost factor," and that the city should avoid taking a singular focus on housing growth.
"Providing and increasing meaningful parkland is a critical community investment and opportunity to improve the quality of life in Mountain View," Lambert said.
Silja Paymer, a member of the group GreenSpacesMV, argued that, if anything, the park fees are too low and already fall short of providing 3 acres of park space for every 1,000 residents. Developers shouldn't be expected to pick up all the slack, she said, but they should at least meet that minimum requirement.
Anderson said the city isn't necessarily going to scrap its ratio of parks to residents, and that there can be a balanced approach to providing park space without killing the feasibility of residential development.
"There's plenty on the table in terms of how we can update our park land dedication standards in order to both reflect the housing needs of the community and lower barriers to creating housing, as well as also maintaining the quality of open space and the accessibility to open space that the community expects," Anderson said.
Though less of a hurdle to housing growth, city staff also cited parking requirements as a burden worth tweaking. Specifically, Mountain View could reduce the number of spaces required for all-affordable housing projects, where tenants typically drive less and use public transit at higher rates.
The City Council is expected to review the housing element on June 14. An environmental study of the housing element update will also be available for review in July.