Mountain View's motto: build, baby, build | December 30, 2016 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

Mountain View Voice

News - December 30, 2016

Mountain View's motto: build, baby, build

Housing projects, rent control and office development dominated headlines in 2016

by Mark Noack

Construction cranes seem to be everywhere, and plenty more will be joining the fray in the months to come. For better or worse, Mountain View's slogan for 2016 might as well be "build, baby, build."

Throughout the past year, city leaders have viewed the private-market rush to invest money in Mountain View with both trepidation and hope. On one hand, many of the city's large projects would bring traffic, displacement and disruption for current inhabitants. But as a future vision, elected leaders see the seemingly bottomless desire to build in Mountain View as the best way to fuel a turnaround for Silicon Valley's deepening problems, particularly for housing and transportation.

In the long-term, City Council members across the board have indicated Mountain View should be able to build its way out of its problems. But the public's demand for quicker relief proved a constant source of tension throughout 2016, best shown by voters' support for rent control in November.

For City Council members, this year has been a tricky balance of satisfying immediate needs and assuring the public that a better future is coming.

Housing goes from bad to worse

From the start of the year, it was clear that housing would dominate local politics. Starting in the final months of 2015, scores of tenants began making regular appearances at City Council meetings, complaining that the low-end rental market was moving from expensive to absurd.

Week after week, council meetings stretched into six-hour marathons that showed a surprising disconnect between elected leaders and a struggling population of the city not normally credited with civic engagement.

City Council members — all of whom own their own homes — seemed initially skeptical of apartment tenants' accounts of 30-percent rent increases and working families being displaced. When it came to decision time, the council majority said they could support strengthening lease rules and giving out rental-assistance money. But they refused to have the city meddle directly in the rental market through rent control, as many tenants were requesting.

On a fundamental level, councilmen Ken Rosenberg, Mike Kasperzak, John McAlister, John Inks and Chris Clark said they disagreed with the concept of regulating housing prices. They described it as short-sighted, clumsy and prone to generate more problems than it solved. For that reason, they voted down a proposal by city staff for a binding arbitration system, calling it "soft rent control".

That decision planted the seeds for Measure V when the political groundswell clamoring for rent-control was quickly redirected toward a citizens' ballot initiative.

City Council members tried to resuscitate the soft rent control program they had earlier rejected as competing ballot Measure W. Despite a well-funded opposition campaign and scant support among elected leaders, Measure V emerged victorious on election day, while W was defeated.

As 2016 comes to a close, landlord advocates have filed a lawsuit to challenging Measure V as unconstitutional. For the next few months at least, rent will be on hiatus as the legal issues are resolved.

Some succeed, some fail

Mirroring the housing situation, local business this year also fell into two different camps. On one hand, Mountain View's tech giants were laying out ambitious visions to dramatically expand their presence in the city. But many smaller businesses showed they were locked in a struggle to survive.

Perhaps no other business showed this divide as much as BookBuyers, the second-hand bookstore on Castro Street. Despite abundant public support and fundraising efforts, the 25-year-old bookshop closed its doors for good earlier this year, joining other small businesses such as Zareen's and Seascape pet store, whose owners say they were priced out of the area.

The challenges for small-business owners have frequently placed them on opposing sides of elected leaders. Many business leaders came out strongly against proposals they saw as harmful to their bottom line, including an effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2018 and a plan for closing Castro Street to car traffic at the train tracks.

Meanwhile, the city's tech firms seem to be operating in a different world. Self-driving cars on city streets are ubiquitous. Zume, a Mountain View pizza start-up, received international headlines for its robot-based kitchen and plans for self-driving delivery trucks that could bake pizzas en route to customers.

Google's growing pains

The biggest Mountain View-based business of them all — Google — revealed more of its plans for its long-term growth in the city. In a land-swap deal with LinkedIn, the companies traded various properties to consolidate their positions. The result was Google became the city's predominant development interest in North Bayshore while LinkedIn relocated its headquarters to the Sunnyvale border.

Perhaps more than any other private developer, Mountain View leaders have viewed Google as a partner in helping solve a variety of social woes. City officials continue to press forward on plans for the tech giant to build 10,000 housing units in the North Bayshore area, although the company has indicated recently that most new housing would need to be reserved for its own workforce.

A bevy of other large housing developments are following in Google's wake, to the consternation of some residents. In a sign of things to come, many residents have come out forcefully against early plans to redevelop and intensify the density of the city's older housing. As more of these projects come forward, city leaders will face political challenges in balancing the strain on the city's infrastructure

Email Mark Noack at mnoack@mv-voice.com

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