The Mountain View City Council voted Tuesday night to approve the East Whisman Precise Plan, a comprehensive strategy to transform more than 400 acres of the city from a low-density office park into a mixed-use urban center with as many as 5,000 housing units.
The plan, which has been in the works for years, stands out from past long-range zoning plans in Mountain View. Interwoven into the 212-page document is a special requirement to maintain a jobs-housing balance within the area, meaning high-value office development cannot proceed without a commensurate number of housing units.
The plan passed at the Nov. 5 meeting on a 6-0 vote, with Councilwoman Alison Hicks recused.
What that means for East Whisman -- an area roughly bounded by Highway 101, the Sunnyvale city limit, North Whisman Road and the Whisman Station neighborhood -- is that 2 million additional square feet of offices can only be approved and constructed if there are plans and signed agreements to assure 5,000 housing units get built along the way. That's a ratio of about 3 units per 1,000 square feet of office space.
Vast portions of the plan are devoted to strategies for how to get that to work, encouraging office and residential developers to work together to "link" projects and providing a range of incentives to ensure residential development remains feasible in a tight construction market. But the main thrust of the plan is that offices can't come before the housing: Residential units have to be under construction before a nonresidential building is occupied.
In order to make residential development more enticing, developers are allowed to demolish office buildings and "sell" rights to the square footage of office space that was eliminated in order to help finance the housing project.
Beyond the jobs-housing link, council members described the East Whisman Precise Plan as an incredibly complicated and interconnected way to strike a careful balance between community benefits and feasibility, which has been a major sticking point in many of the city's long-range growth plans. Fees to pay for schools, parks and other amenities are steep, and developers have argued it will kill the viability of projects and could scuttle the city's vision for East Whisman.
"It's sort of a global experiment for Mountain View trying to figure out how we're going to get this to work," said Councilman John McAlister.
At a basic level, the precise plan is broken into four chunks, with office growth dominating the northern and southern edges, and housing concentrated in a mixed-use region along North Whisman Road, Logue Avenue, Middlefield Road and parts of Ellis Street and Maude Avenue. A commercial and retail-centric hub is planned in the so-called Village Center, located at the corner of Middlefield Road and North Whisman Road that's currently occupied by a strip mall and a gas station.
Density is a key component of the plan, with large swaths of East Whisman now zoned for buildings up to 95 feet tall. In a late revision to the plan, city staff inserted language that allows building heights within close proximity of the Middlefield light rail station to be as high as 135 feet, about 11 to 12 stories tall.
Housing advocates praised the plan as a strong blueprint to create more housing. Mitch Mankin of the nonprofit SV@Home described the goal of 5,000 new homes -- 1,000 of which would be affordable units -- as a positive step, and that the linkage strategy is an "innovative" and unprecedented program. He cautioned that it might need to be updated when it's finally put into practice and might not work exactly as intended.
What turned out to be the major concern at the Nov. 5 meeting wasn't traffic, building heights or office growth, but what to do about schools. Officials from the Mountain View Whisman School District and Mountain View-Los Altos High School District -- which both serve East Whisman -- say the city's residential growth plans are going to encumber local schools with an onslaught of additional students and nowhere to put them. Land costs in the region exceed $10 million per acre, and school facilities are expensive to build, yet the precise plan does not explicitly state how much developers must pay the district to mitigate the costs.
City staffers say a comprehensive "local school strategy" that lays out specific obligations for developers to offset school impacts is still on the way, and will come after the passage of the East Whisman Precise Plan. In the staff analysis on community benefits, the assumed contribution from office development is $20 per square foot to local schools.
Parent Ania Mitros told council members that schools shouldn't be isolated from the rest of the East Whisman Precise Plan.
"When you have something that's really key to a community ... you have to consider it along with the other constraints. You have to weigh it all together at the same time," she said.
Mountain View Whisman Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said the conversations between developers, school districts and the city has been an "unhealthy approach," and that the city needs to do more than lock district officials and developers in a room together to hash out a plan to pay for schools. Up until now, he said, it's all been posturing: Developers say school fees will make their projects infeasible, school district leaders say there's no money to purchase a school, and City Council members worry they won't get the parks and open space they want.
"At the end of the day ... somebody is going to be the loser, and most likely it's going to be the community," Rudolph said.
Mayor Lisa Matichak disputed the idea that schools are an afterthought, arguing that the precise plan explicitly states developers must abide by the local school district strategy. While the strategy is flexible and council members agreed last month that there needs to be more clarity and guidance, she said there's no reason to hold up the precise plan before making those changes.
Extracting park fees and school fees from developers without developers walking away from projects has turned into a top concern in recent years, cropping up as the city rolls out a similar precise plan vision for the North Bayshore area north of Highway 101. Unlike North Bayshore, which has only a few major landowners besides Google, East Whisman has numerous property owners that could make a comprehensive school strategy a big hurdle.
Several projects already in the pipeline within the new East Whisman Precise Plan are also expected to benefit a school district across town. Last year, the Los Altos School District finalized a complicated plan to buy land and construct a school in the San Antonio area of Mountain View, which was financed by selling development rights to developers. Through the transfer of development rights (TDRs), five developers are now seeking to pay the school district in exchange for the right to build bigger, denser projects in East Whisman.
Los Altos school board president Jessica Speiser said the district has already signed an agreement to buy the land for $155 million with a purchase date for the San Antonio property just around the corner, and that the district's deals with developers hinge on the East Whisman Precise Plan's implementation. Crossings resident and parent Colleen Farley said the passage of the plan means residents of the San Antonio neighborhood will finally have a neighborhood school and a park to call their own.
Though the precise plan itself received a 6-0 vote from council members, there was a split vote on the environmental review of the plan. Council members voted 4-2 to approve the environmental impact report, which investigated impacts to traffic, schools, greenhouse gas emissions and other quality of life metrics, with Matichak and McAlister opposed. McAlister said that he generally opposed the review for failing to address significant unavoidable impacts, while Matichak said she worried it doesn't go far enough to address the surge of additional traffic.
Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga added a motion, which passed on a 6-0 vote, asking city staff to come back with a school strategy update early next year.
Assuming the full plan comes to fruition, the project would come with the delicate balance of 5,000 new homes and 2 million square feet of new offices along with 30 acres of parks and open space. The full build-out of the plan is expected to bring in $15.4 million in additional revenue for the city, offset by about $5.4 million in new annual expenses.