In Pursuit of Green

by Max Hauser

Many people welcome the goal of less car dependence.  Building housing near efficient mass transit logically supports that.  Equally logically, astute neighborhoods investigate, not simply embrace, developer proposals that play to that appeal, as they increasingly do.

Prometheus Revisited

Prometheus Real Estate Group (PREG) is not new to our neighborhood.  Some neighbors closely followed PREG’s 2006 planning of the “Wild Orchid” complex at Dana and Calderon, not far from the Minton’s site at 455 W. Evelyn Ave. That project saw little neighborhood opposition at the time, though the final design exacerbated Calderon traffic backups.

Today, four multi-unit housing developments are pending near the Evelyn transit hub.  As with the 2006 project and others, few people actually oppose redeveloping the Minton’s site.  The problem is the details.

Ever since some neighbors wrote to the Development Review Committee (DRC) last Summer, many have questioned PREG’s proposed radical change to 2.44 times the maximum apartment density that the Evelyn Precise Plan allows on the site.

The Precise Plan is a long-term development vision, itself promoting dense housing near transit, but also harmony with the existing neighborhood.  Another developer, who works within the Precise Plan, reported offering to buy and develop the property (a prospect far less controversial), but reported that the offer was refused.

Traffic, parking spillover, impact on schools, and the troubling precedent of a gross Precise-Plan departure concern neighbors who’ve reviewed PREG’s proposal.  Hence the unusual controversy.

Shades of Green

PREG for its part deploys marketing catch phrases like “green” and “transit-oriented,” appealing but vague.  Does “green” mean solar electricity or hot water, ultraefficient LED lighting?  Not according to PREG’s complete “green” features list. I found essentially typical modern local construction methods and amenities, low-flow toilets, and drought-tolerant plants.  Many modern homes are similarly “green.”

“Transit-oriented” housing has many possible interpretations.  Marketers exploit that vagueness, rather than explain the local statutory definition: entrance within 2000-foot walk of a Light Rail and/or Caltrain station.  Much current Old Mountain View housing therefore is automatically “transit-oriented.”

How Many Use Mass Transit?

Individual residents may commute by mass transit, but the impact of this access on any significant population, as in apartment developments, averages to a consistent 9% drop in car trips compared to housing without mass transit.

From considerable data, our county’s Transportation Impact Analysis Guidelines require city Traffic Engineers to use that number in estimating traffic and parking at new developments meeting the definition. City staff arranged to rigorously measure this effect at an existing Mountain View development that meets the criterion, and recorded almost exactly 9%.

Though that number is well known to experts, well supported, and mandatory in 455-Evelyn planning, PREG’s current marketing website omits to mention it, instead hinting at heavy train use and excess parking capacity.  (Palo Alto, where four neighborhoods recently confronted surprise development side effects, knows all about such utopian claims.)  Fortunate locals who can commute by rail also sometimes demonstrate a sincere, confident overestimation of how many neighbors share the option.

Green Marketing

Some people accept PREG’s marketing claims at face value, or worse.  One “green” group organizer called for an email campaign to City Hall, defending the proposal’s “green features” (see above) and “affordable housing” (not at issue).  The writer claimed critics want to develop the site like the area’s “status quo,” “a handful of single family homes.”

Compare critics’ actual support of the Precise Plan’s apartments; compare the same neighborhood’s acceptance of PREG’s 2006 proposal.  The writer ignored actual criticism, history, and geography (“status quo” actually includes hundreds of apartments and condos). The real controversy, density, wasn’t mentioned. Developers exploit such credulities in pursuing a different kind of “green.”

Less Traffic?

In January, the curious environmental impact study appeared, PREG-funded.  It predicts lower car traffic after redevelopment, assuming 1717 current daily trips at 455 Evelyn.  That’s current traffic from a theoretical “Building Material & Lumber Store” and the other modest tenants, not the actual trickle I’ve seen for years at Minton’s (hard to mistake for Home Depot).  The authors knew about that. if they ever saw the site of their study.  Yet for some reason they substituted artificial traffic data, even though the study sent people out counting cars in 23 other locations.

Parking

The study also concluded “When the proposed project is 100% occupied, the expected garage usage is approximately 97.7%.”  That garage’s 313 spaces include 46 guest (3 handicapped) and 267 resident spaces (6 handicapped, 2 car-sharing, 12 tandem).  Unpredicted parking spillover from recent developments plagues neighboring Palo Alto, despite similar planning procedures.  With other development pending, guest fluctuations, etc., that 97.7% garage occupancy is scant assurance that this particular development will be self-sufficient.

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