At face value, it’s a proposal packed with exactly what Mountain View leaders want — a colossal new apartment complex that would single-handedly boost the city’s affordable housing stock by about 15 percent.
Yet the city’s Environmental Planning Commission exhibited plenty of nervousness earlier this month when members reviewed plans for a 711-unit apartment project to occupy 777 W. Middlefield Road. For starters, the 10-acre location is already home to the Village Lake Apartments, a 208-unit neighborhood described by residents and city staff as one of the few examples of “naturally affordable” housing left in Mountain View. That led some members of the public to warn that the mass displacement of current residents would do more harm than good.
“I realize this checks some of the boxes of what we want in Mountain View: it’s adding some housing and it’s adding some affordable housing,” said Sarah McDermott, a Village Lake resident. “But this is going to be a loss. A lot of people living here aren’t going to be able to continue living in Mountain View.”
Village Lake has long been marked for future development. Last year, a so-called gatekeeper request to build as many as 650 units on the site was approved, signaling that city officials were amenable to rezoning the land for high-density development. Last December, the applicant abruptly withdrew the gatekeeper application and sold the site for a reported $145 million to the Los Gatos-based development firm FortBay. In interviews, city staff members admit that having the site in the pipeline for gatekeeper review likely boosted its sale value.
At the Oct. 5 planning commission meeting, FortBay team members presented a retooled development plan that upped the total number of apartments to 711 – including 144 affordable units – which would be spread out between four buildings of four- and five-stories, each with two levels of underground parking.
Built in the 1960s, the Village Lake apartments are nearing the end of their useful life, so it made sense to rebuild them, said Perry Hariri, a FortBay principal. Any construction would still be at least two years away, and he assured city officials that the current Village Lake residents would be taken care of. But he cited the large number of affordable units being built as the reason why his firm couldn’t build the project in phases to allow residents to immediately transition over to the new apartments.
“We’ll make sure all the residents have a place to go with adequate assistance and to be able to relocate there,” he said. “Nobody’s going to be forced to move without a place to go.”
As one of Mountain View’s largest residential proposals ever, redeveloping Village Lake prompted plenty of other concerns. Its location nestled between Shoreline Boulevard and Middlefield Road is already regarded as one of the city’s worst traffic hotspots, and several neighborhood residents pointed out that adding high-density apartments would likely worsen that snarl.
Echoing the concerns of her colleagues, Commissioner Lisa Matichak said she supported affordable housing, but she faulted the city’s gatekeeper process for moving a project forward even though it was significantly different from its original proposal. Originally, the city was looking at a phased project with fewer units that would provide a public park as a community benefit. Those details had all been modified, she said.
“This is pretty different than what the City Council said they were OK with,” Matichak said. “Now we’re very far along down this path, and I don’t want to change things because of that.”
Assistant Community Development Director Terry Blount gave reassurances that the proposal was still at a relatively early stage, and various aspects, such as the traffic impacts and community benefits, were still being studied. But he reminded commissioners that FortBay’s affordable-housing component is generous, far exceeding what the city could require solely through its housing-impact fees. The bare minimum fee the developer had to provide would amount to only 43 units, he calculated.
“Even if the city made a contribution and leveraged funds, we’d never get a project of this size,” he said. “We do believe that it is much better for the city overall to go this route.”
Another question hanging over the meeting was how the city’s proposed rent-control measures would impact apartment redevelopment. Under the California Costa-Hawkins Act, rent-control measures can only affect apartments occupied prior to 1995, which could create an incentive for property owners to redevelop older building as a way to circumvent rent restrictions. A city attorney at the planning commission meeting declined to interpret how this scenario would play out.
Contacted by the Voice, Members of the Mountain View Tenants Coalition explained in an email that their proposal – Measure V – does not explicitly guarantee tenants a right to return to redeveloped apartments at the same rent-controlled price. Some aspects of how tenants would be impacted by redevelopment projects would depend on how the City Council or rental-housing committee chooses to interpret Measure V, they said. Other cities with rent-control policies have usually made it standard practice that older units being demolished must be replaced by an equal number of rent-controlled or affordable units.
“If Measure V passes, what happens with particular development projects will depend in part on whether and how the city implements (state law) within the municipal code and regulations under the Charter Amendment,” wrote Measure V co-author Juliet Brodie in an email. “I know that may be an unsatisfying answer, but the truth is there’s not a simple ‘what will happen’ in some of these scenarios.”
As for the other rent control plan, Measure W, commissioners pointed out the City Council had postponed expanding Mountain View’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance, which is referenced in the measure. Currently, only low-income and special-needs tenants must be paid relocation fees by a property owner if they are displaced as part of a redevelopment project.
In the end, the planning commission raised no major objections to the Middlefield project, but members asked for further analysis of the building height and the mix of affordable-housing. The Mountain View City Council is scheduled to review the project at its Nov. 22 meeting.