For Mountain View's Environmental Planning Commission, the Terra Bella light industrial area represents a big opportunity for housing growth, but it comes with some serious challenges.
The area has been flagged as a prime spot for redevelopment by city officials and could go from having a paltry nine homes to becoming a dense, mixed-use neighborhood with as many as 2,600 housing units, not far from the city's largest jobs center north of Highway 101. Developers are already eager to break ground on the new vision for the area.
It won't be an easy change. The area -- roughly bounded by Highway 101, Highway 85, West Middlefield Road and Crittenden Middle School -- is already plagued with traffic problems, its few entry roads are packed during commute hours.
The area also borders single-family homes on two sides, and residents sharply object to becoming neighbors to three-story structures that they say will block the sun, kill outdoor gardens and invade their privacy.
Although the planning commission was deadlocked on several specific aspects of Terra Bella's future, commissioners generally agreed at the Wednesday, Feb. 20, meeting to stick with a dense residential approach estimated to bring between 4,200 and 5,500 new residents to the neighborhood. Commission member Kammy Lo was absent, leading to many 3-3 straw votes on tweaks to the plan.
"I think there's enough room in this process to make sure that we continue down a path that is respectful of the neighbor's concerns," said Commissioner Preeti Hehmeyer. "This is one of our few opportunities to put housing near jobs, to allow people to walk to work."
The Feb. 20 meeting marked the second chance for the Environmental Planning Commission to dig into the nuts and bolts of what's called the Terra Bella Visioning and Guiding Principles Plan, which is a sort of precursor to actual zoning changes. It sets an early framework for future developments that don't fit the area's largely industrial footprint, and could serve as a template for so-called gatekeeper projects that run contrary to the general plan.
That vision, which won support from the City Council last year, includes residential buildings up to five stories tall along West Middlefield Road, and up to seven stories tall along Terra Bella Avenue and parts of Linda Vista Avenue. Shoreline Boulevard between Terra Bella Avenue and West Middlefield Road would also transform into a dense mixed-use corridor with retail topped by either offices or residential units.
All told, the plan would convert about 33 acres to residential uses, most of which is currently used for offices, light industrial and church uses.
The proposal has been a source of consternation among residents living in the nearby Stierlin Estates and along Morgan Street, whose homes would be right up against what they describe as towering buildings that are way too dense for the area. Even a scaled-down version of the plan that nearly halved the number of housing units, which the planning commission ended up rejecting, was still way too much, said Albert Jeans, a Stierlin Estates resident.
"We still don't think the density is appropriate for this area, we think it's way too high," he said.
That's not to say that nearby residents oppose housing, said Rick Spillane, a resident on San Pablo Drive. He said his neighbors believe housing growth is a priority, but not at scale that deeply affects the quality of life of the people closest to the dense new development.
"We all want housing, we just want to make sure that it's planned out in reasonable ways so that Mountain View's character is maintained and that the housing that we have will be pleasant to live in," Spillane said.
Residents also noted that traffic access into the area, limited to Terra Bella Avenue, Middlefield Road, Linda Vista and Shoreline Boulevard, would be a huge problem if thousands of housing units and additional office space were constructed in the area. A comprehensive traffic study will not be part of the visioning process, leaving a void of hard data from which to argue about the traffic constraints.
What commission members could agree on was that the mixed use development along Shoreline Boulevard should favor housing, not offices, and a majority agreed to ratchet down residential building heights from five stories to three east of Linda Vista Avenue.
Although commission members agreed in concept to the idea of "transition zones" that lowered the heights of new buildings as they approach single-story homes, they were split on whether to set specific height limits. Commission member Robert Cox advocated for a two-story cap on any building that runs up against the existing residential neighborhoods, while commission member Margaret Capriles said she wanted to avoid being overly prescriptive on what transition zones should look like at such an early stage.
Another split was whether the taller and more dense vision for Terra Bella should preserve available office and light industrial uses in addition to new housing, or if it's time to strip away the area's long-standing role as a jobs center and turn Terra Bella into a residential neighborhood. Hehmeyer said it's important to stick with a balanced approach and integrated land uses, while Cox fervently opposed changes that would worsen the city's overall balance of jobs to housing.
"It brings me back to asking the question of do I believe in density for density's sake, and honestly I don't," Cox said. "If we were helping to improve the housing situation around here then I can be supportive, but I don't see it right now."
The City Council is scheduled to review the planning commission's input on March 5, and is expected to vote to approve the vision plan in the summer.