It was a tough series of trade-offs involving trees, parking and environmental health, but the Mountain View City Council voted 4-2 on Tuesday to approve a major infill development project that packs hundreds of housing units into an existing apartment complex.
The decision marks the end of a lengthy saga for 555 W. Middlefield Road, a project that has wound its way through the planning process for seven years. Proposed by the developer AvalonBay Communities, the project has gone through multiple major revisions and met its fair share of opposition, both from residents in the apartment complex and those living nearby.
Top of mind for those opposed to the project was that it would create heavy-duty construction impacts for tenants in the 402 existing apartments on the property in order to construct 323 new units, which will be added on the current surface parking lots. The work is expected to kick up particulate matter, particularly dust, that would reach unhealthy levels.
Although one of the project's biggest perks is the developer's intent to build around rent-controlled apartments instead of razing them for a complete redevelopment, it's also causing some of the biggest challenges. Existing residents are going to have to deal with seven years of construction, and a suite of perks, including air filters and upgraded windows, did little to assuage the concerns of current tenants.
"I will not be able to live in seven years of construction, dust, noise and stress," said resident Elizabeth Munoz. "We all deserve to live in a place of peacefulness."
Opponents also decried the loss of 51 heritage trees, which would be cut down in order to build additional homes and underground parking. Across the many years the project has been mired in the development process, the number of trees on the chopping block has changed dramatically, always reducing the total slated for removal. At one point, 117 heritage trees were going to be cut down, which was pared down earlier this year to 62.
After the City Council held back on approving the project to give the developer one more try to save more trees, the latest version came back with a proposed loss of 51 heritage trees. Doing so took a significant trade-off, and required a parking reduction of 44 spaces.
Despite efforts to soften the blow, the majority of the dozens of speakers at the May 10 meeting still opposed the project, largely for the air quality issues and loss of trees. Resident Kristine Keller said she was concerned about the detrimental environmental impacts of losing a tree canopy and protective buffer from the pollutants and noise coming from State Route 85, which is directly east of the project.
"These are our climate warriors and our sound buffers for our entire community," Keller said.
Gita Dev, speaking on behalf of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, said that her organization is supportive of infill development but only when it is "respectful" of nature, calling the trees slated for removal an important part of the tree canopy and biodiversity corridor that connects the Bay to the hills.
"Ecosystems and natural communities are not merely property that can be owned, destroyed or damaged," she said.
The stance differs significantly from the Sierra Club's past position on felling hundreds of redwood trees in North Bayshore.
Other speakers argued that Avalon has done what it can to reduce the impacts of the project time and again, and that the city can't keep moving the goalposts and demanding more of the developer. Resident Salim Damerdji said the community isn't best served by the city when housing development takes seven years to get across the finish line, and that these last-minute changes – like demanding a trade-off between parking and trees – indicate the city doesn't even know what it wants and failed to make its expectations clear from the outset.
"When you set up hurdle after hurdle for new housing, you are making new housing more expensive. When you make exaction after exaction of a project, you are making housing more expensive," Damerdji said. "All of this micromanagement I understand is well-intentioned, but it is hurting the community. And I genuinely think it's embarrassing."
For some residents opposed to the project, there was a feeling that Avalon can't be trusted to mitigate poor air quality and provide tenants with information and the support they'll need to make it through long phases of construction. In recent months, residents of the apartment complex have complained that they were blindsided by asbestos removal efforts on the current buildings and felt unsafe in and around their homes. City officials say air quality regulators are monitoring Avalon's work and ensuring health and safety, and that tenants have been offered arrangements to temporarily vacate homes when asbestos work is underway.
Avalon is offering to transfer elderly tenants, families with children and those with medical conditions to a different apartment complex in the area (also owned by Avalon) in order to get them away from the construction impacts. Those who want to get away from the construction by terminating their lease will not face termination fees.
Mayor Lucas Ramirez said the project has a lot to offer despite some of the drawbacks, including 48 affordable units, a 1.3-acre park and millions in community benefit funds. On the whole, he said the project's merits outweigh the impacts. Councilwoman Pat Showalter pointed out that the developer complied with a late request in February to save trees by reducing parking, and that it's important that the rent-controlled apartments will remain in place.
Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga opposed the project, and said she worries people are taking too lightly the air quality impacts and how they will affect tenants and nearby residents on the site. She worries that while the project isn't displacing anyone outright, people are going to last six months to two years before moving out because they're "miserable" with the construction.
Although Avalon has made concessions to ease the impact of particulate matter caused by construction and will be preserving some trees, Abe-Koga said she felt the project as proposed should never have been greenlit to go through the planning process, and is fundamentally not a good fit.
"I believe that from the beginning this could have been done better," she said.
Councilwoman Lisa Matichak took a similar stance, pointing out that the city's general plan and blueprint for housing growth in Mountain View did not contemplate ratcheting up density on the property. She also said the downsides of the development are still too steep.
"That is still a lot of trees that are proposed to be removed," she said.
The council voted 4-2 to approve the project, with Mayor Ramirez and council members Showalter, Sally Lieber and Alison Hicks in favor. Abe-Koga and Matichak opposed the project, and Councilwoman Ellen Kamei was absent.