Now, the residents are preparing for a more dramatic change. On Feb. 13, the Housing Authority unveiled to the Palo Alto City Council its plan to redevelop the entire park, which involves replacing old homes — also known as coaches — with new ones and constructing a three-story apartment building at the western portion of the site. In the coming months, members of each Buena Vista household will be meeting with consultants to discuss their particular needs and desires. They will then have the option of temporarily relocating to make way for construction or leaving for good.
Some residents have already left since the park was saved. The park's population is down from 400 to 270, and the number of households has dwindled from 117 to 75, which includes 60 homeowners and 15 renters, according to Flaherty Ward, the Housing Authority's director of real estate. By redeveloping Buena Vista, the agency plans to address long-standing concerns voiced by residents about the park's inadequate infrastructure.
"When the utilities are impacted or the gas line has to be shut off, that impacts them," Ward said. "And residents have consistently shared these concerns with us. And ultimately, the answer to these concerns is redeveloping the park."
While some upgrades have already taken place, the scope of the next phase of improvements is far more ambitious. The Housing Authority plans to demolish the 10-studio motel near the center of the property, which has been vacant for the past two years, and replace all the utilities.
"Everything needs to be pulled out: the gas, the sewers, the water. Everything needs to be pulled up and redone. It's difficult to do with brand new coaches on site," Ward said at the council meeting. "A lot of the coaches are several decades old and they can't survive that kind of move."
But while everyone can get behind equipping Buena Vista with safe and reliable utilities, some residents are concerned about what the project will mean for them in the near term. Josefina Martinez, who has lived at Buena Vista for the past 16 years, told this news organization that most of her neighbors would prefer to stay where they are and many are anxious that once they are relocated, they'll end up in a unit with less space for themselves and their families, she said.
Her son, who used to live in a residence on the El Camino Real side of the park, is among the Buena Vista residents who have already been relocated by the Housing Authority as part of its recent efforts to bring all units up to code. The new unit, Martinez said, is only about half the size of the original one.
"They had to get rid of tables, chairs and other furniture because they couldn't fit it," Martinez, 69, said through a translator.
Martinez has two daughters, a son and six grandchildren who live at Buena Vista. She wants to remain in the community. One of her granddaughters, Jessica Guzman, was part of a group of residents who attended the Feb. 13 hearing to learn more about the redevelopment proposal. Guzman, 21, shared with the council her concerns about ending up in a unit that is too small to accommodate her family's growing needs. A student, Guzman said she expects to live with her family at Buena Vista for at least another two years.
"My mom always told me I can come back home, but my home might not be suitable for me to live for months and months if the size is too small or if there's too many people who are already living there," Guzman told the council. "These kids are going to grow up and some will have to stay home longer than necessary and that's the reality."
For others, like Buena Vista resident Javier Solano, the primary concern is schools. Solano, 52, has two children who currently attend Barron Park Elementary School. His wife also works at the school.
Solano told this news organization that his biggest issue with the plan is uncertainty over whether his children would be able to continue to attend Barron Park. He is hardly alone in this regard. According to Shana Segal, member of the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education, 71 children from Buena Vista currently attend Barron Park Elementary, Fletcher Middle and Gunn High schools. Speaking for herself, and not as a board representative, she urged the Housing Authority to "mitigate the impacts of this plan on our families and provide transportation to each and every student."
Solano said many residents are still learning about the Housing Authority's plans for redevelopment and relocation of residents. He did not hesitate, however, when asked if he'd want to return to Buena Vista after the park's renovation.
"Absolutely," he said.
But the Housing Authority assumes that some people will reach a different decision and choose to go elsewhere. Since it took over Buena Vista, the agency had seen an annual turnover rate of about 5-10% at the property, which is comparable to the turnover rate in its broader real estate portfolio. The main difference, however, is that the Housing Authority has not been leasing out the vacated spaces at Buena Vista, said Nathan Ho, strategic communication assistant at the Housing Authority.
The units are being kept vacant for two reasons, he said. First, the Housing Authority is trying to decrease demand on the park's aging infrastructure — particularly the gas, electric and sewer lines — which is past its useful life. Second, when a resident leaves the park, their investment required to make the unit rentable again is often higher than what the residence is worth, he said.
Ho said that between six and eight households have been leaving each year. When that happens, the Housing Authority buys the residence and provides a modest relocation payment.
"It's important to note that our intention is to get the occupancy back up to 2017 levels after the redevelopment is complete," Ho said in an email.
The Buena Vista project poses some unique challenges for the housing agency, said Preston Prince, who took over as its chief executive officer in 2020. As part of its agreement from six years ago, the agency is tasked with improving infrastructure, bringing all households up to code and, at the same time, preserving it as an affordable-housing community that would remain available to all present residents.
"Expectations are really high," Prince said in an interview.
He emphasized that in pursuing the redevelopment, the agency is "thinking about the families first and foremost in our approach." The Housing Authority has already held two community meetings about its proposed redevelopment and plans to hold more in the coming months. It has partnered with the company Associated Right of Way Services, which is advising each household about its options. And it is seriously thinking about factors such as assistance with transportation and schools, services that Prince said are important in making sure that Buena Vista remains the strong community that it is today.
"We believe in the kids, we believe in the parents. We are really wanting to create the space where they get to make the choices about their lives as they move forward," Prince said.
Even so, each household will have to make some tough choices in the coming months, as the redevelopment plan shifts from concept to reality. Ward said in her presentation that homeowners will have three options: purchase a new residence at Buena Vista, sell their existing home to the Housing Authority and rent an apartment in the new building; or sell their residence and request a relocation assistance payment so that they can move elsewhere. Renters will have to decide whether they want to live in the new apartments or receive relocation assistance.
"Why we're offering this is because we do believe that not all families will want to stay while their new unit is being built, and perhaps they don't want to live with the compliance requirements of an affordable-housing community," Ward said at the Monday meeting, noting that the mobile home park was largely unregulated before the Housing Authority purchased the property
While the agency hopes residents will make their decisions by the end of March, the agency's plans for the new apartment building remain somewhat hazy. The layout that the Housing Authority presented to the council this week shows a C-shaped structure on the west side of the property, its back facing the rest of the park. And while these plans were only intended to show the proposed massing (the actual building has not yet been designed), some council members and community advocates took issue with the drawing and urged the Housing Authority to make sure that the apartment complex and the mobile homes remain integrated as a single community.
Winter Dellenbach, a Barron Park resident who was at the forefront of the battle to save Buena Vista from redevelopment, urged the agency to include shared playground space and other amenities for all residents of Buena Vista, regardless of whether they live in mobile homes or apartments.
"Buena Vista is a community and changes there must foster its community," Dellenbach told the council. "It's one community. We can't diminish it, we can only improve it."
Palo Alto City Council members agreed and requested that the housing authority explore other approaches for the new building, including having several smaller apartment buildings instead of one large one. Council member Pat Burt suggested that the site plan include more open space and recreational amenities. He and council member Julie Lythcott-Haims also suggested that the new building be reconfigured so that they face the mobile homes, which would help maintain a sense of community.
"We wouldn't want to add an apartment building that looks like it just came from outer space and landed in the park," Lythcott-Haims said. "I think it's really important when we're constructing housing for humans, particularly when we're constructing low-income housing, to try to make sure that it affords the possibility for the sort of continuation of community rather than just some sort of governmental building."
Prince said in an interview that when it comes to designing the new building and improving the broader area, the Housing Authority will pay close attention to the concerns and wishes of its residents. The concept, he said, "is that all owners can remain owners and all renters will have a place in the future multifamily building."
"As we talk about residents over the next two months, we'll find out a little more. Maybe we'll have more land to work with and maybe we won't," he said.
But while the many details are yet to be hammered out, city and county officials expressed cautious optimism about the latest redevelopment plan. Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who played a pivotal role in preserving Buena Vista, acknowledged at the Monday meeting that it's taken longer than it should have for the Housing Authority to get to this point. The new redevelopment proposal, he said, is "only the beginning of the conversation."
"Done right, the Housing Authority's plan for redevelopment can actually increase the number of affordable housing units, upgrade the living environment for all who call Buena Vista home and preserve the sense of community that is unique to Buena Vista," Simitian said. "Which is to say, it is important to get this right."
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