As Santa Clara County is advancing its plan to build 110 apartments for teachers and school district employees near California Avenue, it is facing the type of mixed reaction from the community that has become synonymous with residential developments in Palo Alto.
Proponents say the housing is badly needed and should be greatly encouraged, while critics say the proposed four-story complex is too massive for an area already undergoing a transformation.
But unlike other housing projects that have withered in the face of community opposition or City Council skepticism, the proposal for 231 Grant Ave. appears to be on track toward approval. For one thing, even though the development exceeds some of the city's standards, the council doesn't have the authority to turn it down. For another, despite some misgivings from area neighbors, council members signaled last week that they believe it is the right project for the right site at the right time.
The proposal is being championed by county Supervisor Joe Simitian and developed by the nonprofit groups Mercy Housing and Abode Communities. The county and the city are contributing $6 million and $3 million toward the project, respectively, while Facebook has offered a $25 million grant.
Just about everyone who spoke at the Feb. 8 hearing on the project or who submitted a letter to the council agreed that teacher housing is a laudable amenity that should be encouraged. The issue, for some, had to do with the project's height, density and parking plan. The 55-foot tall building would exceed the city's 50-foot height limit and its proposed density of 80 apartments per acre is double what the city would normally allow in a multifamily residential zone. The project would be made up of 25 two-bedroom apartments, 61 one-bedroom apartments and 24 studios. It would also include a garage with 112 parking spaces, 23 fewer than city code would normally allow for the proposed unit mix and a secure room with 134 bike parking spaces.
Because the project is being developed by the county, which enjoys sovereign immunity when it pursues a government function, the county doesn't need the city's approval to exceed development standards. Some residents, however, believe that it should still comply with the local regulations.
Becky Sanders, a Ventura resident and co-chair of the umbrella group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, argued at the hearing that the project is "under-parked in an overly saturated neighborhood that has safety and congestion concerns." She was one of several speakers who asked that the county "split the difference" and scale down the project.
"Stop relaxing our standards in such a gross way," Sanders said. "We hope we can work out some kind of a compromise where everyone gets a little bit of what they want."
Annette Glanckopf, a longtime neighborhood activist, similarly requested that the project undergo major revisions to better conform with the city's zoning rules, including the 50-foot height limit and parking regulations.
"Teacher housing is good — this project is not," Glanckopf wrote to the council. "It is out of scale — looming over its residential neighbor. I ask you to require the county to reduce the density — scale and mass."
Many others, however, argued that the project is exactly what the city needs. Gail Price, who served on both the school board and City Council and who is now president of the nonprofit group Palo Alto Forward, observed that the city has consistently failed to meet its regional obligations for both affordable and market rate housing. This failure has left "a gaping hole for community members who neither qualify for subsidized affordable housing nor earn enough for the steep rents and home prices."
"Without proposals like this one, it is virtually impossible for local teachers to live near their schools," Price said.
Last year, Palo Alto Forward surveyed 68 local teachers to hear about their housing concerns, Price wrote. Every single participant indicated that the high cost of housing was a problem, she said, and "many gave examples of colleagues and family members who have moved out of the region because of housing prices and availability."
Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association, noted in a letter to the council that local teachers earn too much to qualify for low-income housing but not enough to afford market rate rents or home purchase, she wrote in a letter. The union's executive board has heard from many of its 900 teachers about the need for affordable housing. The vast majority had indicated that they cannot live in the community.
"Even with newly constructed apartment complexes adding to the housing supply in the area, typical rent can exceed half of the monthly take-home salary of an experienced teacher," Baldwin wrote in a Feb. 5 letter to the council.
When teachers live in or near their school communities, students also benefit, she noted.
"We want to be part of the community we teach in," Baldwin wrote. "We want to organize or attend after school events and support and encourage our students. When a teacher has a commute that can exceed an hour each way, such participation in the life of a school community is much more difficult."
Resident Raven Malone said supporting the project is "the bare minimum we can do for some of our essential workers and our teachers, who work so hard and are largely underpaid."
"We can't keep great teachers in our school system if we can't make it easier for them to do their job," Malone said.
Most council members shared her sentiment. Council member Greer Stone, who teaches history at Gunn High School, spoke for the council majority when he called the proposal a "great project." Last year, he said, one of the teachers he worked with very closely left the district and moved to Oregon because that was the only place where her family could afford a house. This situation, he said, is happening more and more often in the Palo Alto district.
"It's desperately needed," Stone said of the housing proposal. "There's reasonable concerns about the size and density of it, but this is the area in Palo Alto where a building of this size is compatible."
Council member Eric Filseth said the project falls "right in the sweet spot of housing we need in our community." Vice Mayor Pat Burt noted that the income category that the county's housing proposal targets is the one in which the city has fallen particularly short.
"On top of that, we said that critical public service workers were vital to our community and this addressed that in a way that we haven't had any other projects do," Burt said.
Several council members, including Alison Cormack and Lydia Kou, suggested that the county work more closely with residents in surrounding neighborhoods to address their concerns about potential traffic and parking impacts.
"Engagement is very important with the community right there," Kou said.
Simitian said that in awarding its $25 million grant, Facebook had indicated that it is looking to assist educators in the Ravenswood City School District, some of whom are currently occupying affordable apartments in south San Mateo County on short leases. The goal, he said, is to provide "longer-term opportunities to provide housing needs of that population." The county has also been talking to officials from the Menlo Park Elementary School District and Menlo-Atherton High School, which is part of the Sequoia Union High School District, about making some units available for their educators.
The county is also considering making the apartments available for teachers and district employees from the Mountain View Whisman School District, Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, Las Lomitas School District, the Los Altos School District and Foothill-De Anza Community College District.
"All of those details have not yet been worked through, but I was excited by an opportunity to make sure that a project like this was truly regional and crossed artificial political boundaries, city and county, and also that we are serving diverse student populations with a project of this type," Simitian said.
If things go according to plan, the county will complete the design and environmental analysis for the project this year and launch construction in August 2022, according to a timeline provided by the county. The project is set to be completed in February 2024.
Simitian, who has been working on the proposal for the past two years, suggested that building teacher housing on Grant Avenue would not only help the city meet its housing goals, but will also help the school district with recruiting and retaining teachers and staff. The project is designed to address both challenges, he said.
"As the need to hire new teachers bumps into the extraordinary affordability challenge of our area, how can we continue to attract and retain the best possible staff in our schools, which is what makes great schools great?" Simitian said. "And the answer was: by addressing this housing affordability question head-on."