A proposed mixed-use development on San Antonio Road in Mountain View, which would replace a gas station with 62 residential units and a commercial space, gained the support of the Environmental Planning Commission at a Sept. 21 meeting. But the commission remained undecided on how to handle the project’s affordable units after a last-minute alternative option was thrown into the mix.
The project, located on the corner of San Antonio and California Street at 334 San Antonio Road, would replace the existing Valero gas station with a five-story building of flat-stacked, ownership condos, accompanied by 2,000 square feet of ground floor commercial space.
“Our goal and strategy from day one was (for) this project to transform a gas station into an attractive destination,” said Mircea Voskerician, representing the project applicant, at the meeting.
Though the city’s development standards only allow for up to four stories, the proposed fifth floor is allowed under the state’s density bonus law, which lets developers build higher in exchange for making some of the units affordable.
The applicant’s initial proposal offered to build 13 below market rate (BMR), affordable units – enough to qualify for the state density bonus.
In addition to allowing developers to build higher, the state density bonus law also gives housing developments with below market rate units the right to waive more local standards in order to make the development financially feasible. The developer’s initial proposal asked for three such concessions, which quickly became the center of debate at the Sept. 21 project hearing.
First, the applicant requested that the city waive its requirements for subsidized units to have a similar number of bedrooms relative to market-rate units. The breakdown of the applicant’s 13 BMR units was 11 one-bedroom units and two two-bedroom units, which is out of sync with the overall mix of units proposed (17 one-bedroom units and 45 two-bedroom units).
Second, the city’s BMR Ordinance requires ownership developments like this one to include BMR units that are affordable to households earning between 80% and 120% of the average median income (AMI), with a weighted average of 100% AMI. The applicant's weighted average came in at just under 100% AMI, leading to another requested concession.
Finally, the BMR Ordinance requires affordable units to be equitably dispersed within a development, to ensure that lower income households aren’t all clustered together in one area of the development. The project proposal didn't quite meet this requirement, so the developer’s initial proposal sought a concession to keep the current configuration.
A few days before the commission was set to discuss the project, a Sept. 18 letter from the League of Women Voters of Los Altos and Mountain View raised concerns about some of the concessions: particularly the BMR units "not being equitably distributed and not proportional to the overall bedroom mixes," the letter stated.
In response to the letter, Voskerician offered an alternative approach to the BMR units in a Sept. 20 letter, a day before the scheduled hearing. This new option proposed only 10 BMR units instead of the originally proposed 13 units, but the new option offered a better mix of unit types, with five one-bedroom units and five two-bedroom units.
Rebecca Shapiro, the city’s deputy zoning administrator, said that, though staff hadn’t had much of a chance to review the alternative option given how last minute it was added, “our initial assessment is that either of the two options could be carried forward as an acceptable density bonus request from the applicant.”
Commissioners were generally supportive of the project, at least conceptually.
“Let's not gloss over the fact that what we have proposed here (are) stacked flat condos, which we’ve been hoping to get more and more of over the last several years in the city,” said Commissioner Chris Clark. “We’re not displacing any residents, we’re replacing a gas station ... Plus we’re getting inclusionary units, which we haven’t had a lot of on the ownership side in Mountain View.”
But what gave Clark and other commissioners pause were the various concessions the applicant sought for the affordable units. Clark spoke of his own experience of living in a condo complex that was one of the first in the city to have inclusionary BMR units.
“I’ve seen first hand how the community within that building has benefitted from those folks being there, from the units being a mix of different bedroom counts, and in different parts of the building, and really no one there knows which units those are,” Clark said. “Everyone feels like they’re part of that small community that we’ve built there in that small condo complex.”
Kevin Ma, co-head of the local League of Women Voters' housing committee, told the Voice after watching the Sept. 21 meeting that he found the alternative option offered by Voskerician still concerning.
“(The applicant) tried to argue that that is now a proportionate bedroom mix, but that’s not quite right,” Ma said. “The overall bedroom mix of the building is 3-to-1 of two-bedrooms to one-bedrooms. He’s proposing, for the BMRs, a fifty-fifty (split).”
Clark said he would be willing to go with the alternative option – trading three BMR units for an improved, though still not proportionate, unit mix. But he requested that when staff and the applicant sit down to flesh out the alternative option that more attention is given to spreading the affordable units throughout the building. Commissioner Hank Dempsey agreed.
“When I read this I wasn’t thrilled to see that the unit mix wasn’t proportional and that the project was not evenly distributed throughout the entire project site,” Dempsey said. “There may be some justifications for that, but I feel like they weren’t really well explained … The BMR part of this was not well framed.”
Most of the commissioners leaned toward the newer alternative, but expressed that there wasn’t enough information presented to definitively recommend one of the options to the city council. The commission ultimately supported moving the project forward to the next stage of the approval process – allowing it to go before council – but requested that the council decide which of the two BMR options to pursue.