PALO ALTO – As Santa Clara County struggles to meet the state’s housing goals, a Grand Jury report released this week highlighted two neighboring cities on the peninsula – one for the right approach and the other for weakness.
In its report Affordable Housing: A Tale of Two Cities, the grand jury praises Mountain View, stating that Google is on track to meet its housing targets through planning, political will and creative funding.
But, according to the grand jury, Palo Alto, Stanford’s hometown, is failing. The city needs to revitalize it and build more housing to meet the state’s goals and end its Palo Alto process, a planning approach notorious for turning construction proposals into time-consuming red tape.
Comparing Mountain View and Palo Alto, a 19-member grand jury judged political and public support for affordable housing, active planning, effective accountability, support measures, and funding for affordable housing.
Over the years, Mountain View was found to have “built up strong public support for affordable housing,” building and sustaining “the political will over the years to move towards its goals and fulfill its mandates.”
Palo Alto, on the other hand, “lacks a coherent and effective way of communicating with its citizens and, as a result, continually tries to enlist community support for the value and need for affordable housing.”
While Palo Alto City Council members continue to claim to support affordable housing, the city’s actions are “not in line with politics,” the grand jury said.
“Rather than relying on staff to educate Palo Alto residents about the complexities of affordable housing and listen to residents’ concerns, Palo Alto councilors should be key actors in reaching out to residents and listening to their voices,” the report added.
The report says Mountain View has become a model for housing thanks to good planning.
The city currently has 25 precise development plans for its 24 neighborhoods, and the report notes that city leaders have played an “active role” in developing them over the years. Mountain View has also actively intervened to help property owners resolve development conflicts.
For example, in its deal with Google to build a large urban village in North Bayshore, Mountain View drew up precise plans for many years to come, defining all land uses, building heights, parking requirements, and other details that drive development. It also helped resolve a conflict between Google and SyWest, the owners of the land adjacent to the construction site.
“Mountain View has systematically planned to achieve its AH (Affordable Housing) goals through well-coordinated regional housing plans and simple short-term planning,” the report says. “Once the plans were drawn up, they were continuously monitored and effectively communicated to citizens.”
Because Palo Alto has long resisted accepting government goals for affordable housing and building properties like Mountain View, it has “separate plans and policies, but few results,” the report said.
The agreed Mountain View plans result in much shorter approval times than the Palo Alto Process, according to the report.
The disputed agreed territory of North Ventura near the former Frye site has been cited as one example of the city’s lack of vision. Affordable housing advocates see the area as an opportunity to build the homes they need, but other residents don’t want their area to change.
As a result of political divisions over four years, a 14-member group tasked with creating alternative plans for the area “did not reach consensus on goals, let alone how to achieve them.”
Few were satisfied with the three alternatives presented to Palo Alto City Council, according to the report. The alternatives were “deemed unfulfilled by the city’s consultants and unattractive to property owners and residents.”
“Residents of North Ventura felt that city staff and consultants were in control of the process and were not listening to community concerns,” the report says. “The result of this four-year planning process has been described as ‘a terrible, disappointing and unfortunate failure.’ “
In response to the report’s conclusion, Palo Alto Mayor Tom Dubois said on Friday that the report “appears to be intended to criticize Palo Alto while ignoring the underlying facts.”
He said Palo Alto actually has one of the highest rates of affordable housing in the county, with 1,000 units below market value more than Mountain View, even though it’s a small town. He also notes that 9% of the city’s housing stock is available, compared with 3.9% of Mountain View’s housing stock.
“Many cities are following the old tactics of approving commercial and housing developments,” he added. “Palo Alto believes that this is exacerbating the problem, not improving the situation, because commercial construction creates more demand for housing than new housing. Palo Alto is trying new tactics to curb commercial growth while continuing to focus on housing. We think this is starting to bear fruit. “
Nonetheless, Dubois acknowledged that there was something right about the report.
“We need to tackle the Palo Alto process, we need to pay attention to the time it takes,” Dubois said.
Mountain View Mayor Ellen Cameos welcomed the positive report in her city’s approach. “Personally, I am grateful to the Grand Jury for recognizing all our efforts and leadership of the city in this important issue in our region and district.”
She said there are currently 1,500 affordable housing units in Mountain View with about 1,000 more under development, and there are plans to build affordable housing in a former VTA parking lot next to the Mountain View Transit Center.