City to Consider District Elections

On September 5, the City Council will convene a special meeting, in order to set direction regarding public outreach and to potentially put a charter amendment on the 2020 ballot to change how the City Council gets elected.

The City Council is currently composed of seven seats, selected “at large” by voters from across the city. The City Council elects council members to serve as a Mayor and a Vice Mayor. This is fairly typical for California cities. One concern is that the at-large system dilutes minority votes, leaving minority leaders at a disadvantage at the ballot box.

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A view of race and density in Sunnyvale grabbed from The Racial Dot Map

This has led to lawsuits across the state, most notably in Santa Clara, which, until this year, had a system like the one we have in Sunnyvale. In July, Santa Clara lost a court case brought by the South Asian Law Alliance and was ordered to shift to a district-based system. This November, Santa Clara voters will elect representatives from their six districts, and a mayor will be elected in a city-wide election.

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Santa Clara’s Six Districts

City staff has prepared an in-depth report, detailing the scope of the challenge that Sunnyvale faces in terms of minority representation. The city’s population is 14% Latino and 33% Asian. Our voter turnout sees 11% of voters with Spanish surnames and 21% turnout for Asian surnames. Sunnyvale’s demographics are similar to Santa Clara.

Over the years, Sunnyvale has had City Council candidates and Councilmembers that identify as a minority race or ethnicity.

  • In 2013, Magana ran for City Council and lost to Hendricks.
  • In 2011, Chang lost to Meyering; and Pan lost to Milius.
  • In 2009 and 2003, Flores lost to Moylan and Swegles, respectively.
  • In 2003, Chu won but was not reelected in 2007, when he lost to Whittum.
  • Lee won in 2003 and served a term as mayor. Lee was not challenged in 2007 and served another term.

City Staff is recommending a period of public outreach through Spring 2019. Next summer, Council should decide on a ballot measure for the 2020 general election. Assuming the charter amendment is approved by voters, districts would be set up in 2021 based on the 2020 census, with Sunnyvale’s first district elections in 2022.

Apply for Boards and Commissions by Friday!

From https://sunnyvale.ca.gov/government/boards.htm:

The City has a strong tradition of community participation, one of which is through volunteer service on a board or commission. Boards and Commissions advise City Council on specific policy issues and provide a forum and opportunity for broad community input. Applications are accepted on a continuous basis; appointments are made by City Council as needed throughout the year.

  • You must be a resident of Sunnyvale and registered voter of the City to apply for a position on a City board or commission, unless otherwise noted.
  • Members serve four-year terms, unless otherwise noted.

Current Openings

Recruitment is underway for the following upcoming commission openings:

  • Arts Commission (2 vacancies)
  • Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (2 vacancies)
  • Heritage Preservation Commission (2 vacancies)
  • Housing and Human Services Commission (1 vacancy)
  • Parks and Recreation (1 vacancy)
  • Personnel Board (1 vacancy)

Application deadline is 5 p.m. on Aug. 31. Interviews are tentatively scheduled for Sept. 11. Appointments by City Council are scheduled for Sept.25.

The application and instructions are available at: https://sunnyvale.ca.gov/government/boards.htm

A Passion for Zero Waste in Sunnyvale

In May, Sunnyvale resident Tim Oey gave a TEDx Talk at Homestead High School about his passion for Zero Waste. A few take-aways for me:

  1. Sunnyvale’s web site has a page called: “How to Get Rid of Anything”
  2. You can purchase deli/meat/bulk items from local markets using your own reusable containers.
  3. Bicycling is great. (Out bicycle infrastructure could be a lot better.)
  4. I would add that e-bikes are a great innovation that can expand your range: I bought one last year, and with a baby carrier, often run over 30 miles round trip, including daycare drop-off!

Take 15 minutes to watch Tim’s presentation over on YouTube: https://youtu.be/SSKjWyAFH14

Council to Consider Minimum Wage Delay

On January 1, 2019, the minimum wage in Sunnyvale is scheduled to raise from $15.00 per hour to $15.53 per hour. Per the San Jose Mercury News, Sunnyvale and Mountain View are ahead of neighboring cities in raising the minimum wage.

San Jose, Palo Alto, Los Altos and Cupertino will increase their minimum wage rates from $13.50 to $15 in January, Santa Clara from $13 to $15 in January and Milpitas to $15 by July 2019. The statewide rate will jump from $11 to $12 next year and incrementally rise to $15 by 2022. Campbell, Los Gatos, Gilroy, Saratoga and Morgan Hill are following the state’s lead.

In July, City Council voted to consider delaying the scheduled increase to the city’s minimum wage in order to achieve a more consistent minimum wage level with neighboring cities. There is a fear is that businesses may move to cities like Palo Alto or Santa Clara in order to reduce wages.

A vote on the issue has not yet been annuonced, but is expected in September.

Per the San Jose Mercury News:

Although Vice Mayor Larry Klein and council members Gustav Larsson and Nancy Smith expressed support for delaying the next increase for a year, councilmen Russ Melton and Michael Goldman didn’t.

Melton worried about the “pocketbook impact” that delaying the increase would have on the city’s minimum wage earners. He said that for a couple who works full-time, 53 cents an hour can make a difference of roughly $2,200 a year. “On average, that’s a monthly rent in Sunnyvale. I actually think the public interest would be served by having other cities keep apace with Sunnyvale. I would argue that they accelerate instead of Sunnyvale decelerating.”

Russ Melton has a call to action on his Facebook page.

Sunnyvale Attracts the Nation’s Highest Proportion of Millenial Residents

Per the Daily Mail:

Sunnyvale, California had the highest influx (76.6 percent) of Millennials in the country in 2016 – which makes sense given the big tech employers like Google, Apple, and LinkedIn located in that area.

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This map illustrates which cities had the most success attracting international Millennial talent in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available (porch.com)

 

How to Cover Urban Planning: A Guide for Local Journalists

By Nolan Gray, republished from Strong Towns

So, you’ve been assigned to write a story about urban planning. Maybe there’s a rezoning underway that would allow for more apartments in a downtown neighborhood. Or perhaps there’s a proposal to expand an already-six-lanes-wide suburban stroad. Or let’s say the city is moving to add a protected bike lane to a busy downtown street.

At this point, you’ll typically encounter three variables: First, there will be a group of people who are extremely pissed off about the proposed change and very vocal about their concerns. Second, you’ll find that, for all the surface-level local focus, the outcome of this planning initiative could have important impacts on citywide affordability and mobility. Third and finally, you will discover that a vast and complicated web of regulations, agencies, and ulterior motives are at play, which you are now expected to learn and distill down to 600 words.

All of this is to say, you have a lot on your plate! Which might explain why journalists at all levels so frequently get the reporting wrong on urban planning issues. For those of us who follow these issues with a passion, a lot of local coverage of urban planning can be a painful experience, littered, as it tends to be, with victim blaming, myopia, and uncritical restatements of special interest talking points.

To address this, I have a compiled a list of 11 friendly suggestions for local journalists covering these issues. I hope this set of guidelines will improve your reporting and leave your readers better informed. And if you’re reading this and you’re not a journalist, consider sharing it with a local reporter.

1. Don’t overemphasize the angry naysayers for things like rezonings, street diets, etc. Don’t give them the lead or headline unless you (or your editors) value clicks over quality reporting. Remember to mention supporters of the initiative and not just the developer or contractor who serves to benefit. Depending on the issue, seek out your local housing affordability or mobility activist groups and ask for their opinion.

2. The people who show up at the meetings are one unique slice of the community, not “the community.” Not everyone has the time or resources to show up for a three hour weekday evening meeting to share their mild approval of a proposed road diet. But that doesn’t mean that their voices should be ignored. As with the last suggestion, make an effort to reach out and hear the other side of the story.

3. Put the issue in the appropriate broader context. Speaking of “the other side of the story,” don’t get swept up by parochial concerns. If you only listen to the angry locals at the community meeting, the rezoning you are covering might sound like the end of the world. But if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, you may find that proposal ties into broader citywide issues. Small planning decisions have big impacts on citywide affordability and mobility. When it comes to things like housing affordability, that “bigger picture” might even be national. Clue your readers into the full story.

4. If you are covering a rezoning, explicitly name and describe the current and proposed zoning. It’s actually a bit remarkable how many articles I read about rezoning that don’t once mention the zoning districts at play or the details of how they’ll regulate development. Sometimes an article lists a proposed change without actually explaining the current laws. You wouldn’t report on an election and not say the names of the candidates or whose seat they’re running for; why leave out such basic details in urban planning coverage?

5. Always link to the relevant public reports, studies, hearing recordings, etc. Most of the reports and studies you are citing will be publicly available online as PDFs, and many cities now have their public hearings recorded and posted online. This simple addition adds depth for the more engaged readers, without boring casual readers.

6. Confused? Ask the city planner assigned to the case. Their job is literally to explain this stuff to elected officials and the public, and they will almost always have a comprehensive knowledge of the situation. Plus, if they are professional, they won’t editorialize, unlike most of the other people, you will be interviewing.

7. Things that strike you as crazy might actually have solid evidence-based support among experts and professionals. For example, let’s say your city is considering pricing on-street parking or removing a lane of traffic. Everyone in the room might be up in arms about how this will make parking and driving harder, but both of these initiatives have rock-solid researched evidence to support them and to explain their benefits to your community. That doesn’t mean these sorts of decisions should be an open-and-shut case, but leaving out such details impoverishes your reader’s perspective.

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Typical pedestrian-blaming in a headline (Source: CT Post)

8. Blaming the person hit by the car is bad form. Sadly, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths are an all-too-common story that you may be forced to cover at some point. Don’t overemphasize some tiny “error” on the part of the pedestrian/bicyclists (for example, “she wasn’t wearing a helmet,” “he had had a few drinks,” “she didn’t walk a mile down to the crosswalk,” etc.) especially if the driver was known to be speeding and/or distracted. Don’t implicitly (and inappropriately) assign blame simply by the way you structure sentences (for example, say “the bicyclist and the semi-truck collided,” not “the bicyclist collided with the semi-truck”). Police reports may, at times, engage in this kind of lazy victim blaming, but know that you don’t need to overemphasize it, as stories of this nature frequently do.

9. It’s “traffic crashes,” not “traffic accidents.” “Accident” assumes that there was nothing that could be done about the incident. This is rarely the case, and I’m not just talking about careless drivers here. In many cases, grossly negligent street design makes traffic crashes practically inevitable.

10. Not everyone drives. Keep their perspectives in mind. If you are a driver, it can be easy to assume that everyone drives. But if you are reporting in a mid-size city or larger, or a college town, chances are good that anywhere from one in 10 to one in four of your readers commute via by transit, walking, or bicycle. Furthermore, every city has plenty of residents who don’t drive because they are too young, too old, disabled, can’t afford a car, etc. Some of your readers may be reading your article about a proposed dedicated bus lane as they sit on a bus stuck in traffic. Don’t leave out that perspective.

11. Try to conclude with how an interested reader can get involved. When you first report on a local planning issue, the fight is almost certainly far from over. Share the dates, times and locations for upcoming hearings. Perhaps even let your readers know who in government they might contact about this issue. Local journalism matters, in part, because it strengthens local democracy—the level at which America’s ideals come closest to reality. Make it easy for your readers to join the discussion about the future of their community.

Planning Commission: July 23, 2018

Municipal Link: https://sunnyvaleca.legistar.com/MeetingDetail.aspx?ID=575384&GUID=E4A53C8E-C5BA-41D2-9AEA-B7377C56B83E

Study Session A: 18771 E Homestead Road

The developer is planning to subdivide a 0.8-acre site near the Apple campus into five lots for single-family homes. The new homes will be arranged around a shared driveway off of Homestead Road. Three of the houses adjacent to Eichlers on Lorne Way will be single-story, in a modern style evocative of Eichler design. The homes adjacent to Homestead will be two-story homes.

Planning Commissioners were concerned with the quality of the facade facing Homestead, and the variety among the facades within the site. Neighbor Craig Molito shared a concern that residents on Lorne Way wanted to remain a cul-de-sac, and avoid the prospect of reduced safety due to cut-through traffic from Homestead. The current plans call for no access to the site via Lorne Way.

Study Session B: Consideration of Usable Open Space in Required Front Yards

City Staff are researching whether the shared front yard space in residential complexes can be counted toward their requirement for usable open space. Deviations have been granted previously for some smaller townhouse developments on corner lots, which had a lot of frontage. Planning Commissioners expressed a preference for having a flexible policy, especially for smaller developments on corner lots, but not creating an excuse for developers to swallow up usable open space at the rear of the property.

Community Outreach meetings on this topic will be held at the West Conference Room in City Hall on Thursday, August 2 at 10am, and Monday, August 6 at 6pm.

Agenda Item 2: 1441 Norman Drive

This project is to demolish a one-story home and build a two-story house. The Planning Commission needed to review this project because the floor area exceeds 3,600 square feet and the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) exceeds 45%.

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Project Rendering: 1441 Norman Drive

The proposed house is 6 bedrooms, including an Accessory Dwelling Unit. The high quality of the design was praised by Planning Commissioners, but there was concern expressed that the Floor Area Ratio of 59% was out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood.

The owner, Nirmal Sharma, explained that due to the cost of land, it is important to build as much house as possible, so that he may provide a home for his family, multiple sets of grandparents, and the children, and that living arrangements of this nature are intuitive to families from his native India. City staff opined that while the house was large for the neighborhood, that concern was compensated for by superior design.

Voting 5-2, the Planning Commission denied the project, with instructions to staff to work with the applicant to redesign the home with a goal of around 50% FAR, including the ADU.

Agenda Item 3: 863 San Pablo Ave

This project is to add a 498 square foot addition to the second story of a two-story home. The Planning Commission needed to review this project because the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) exceeds 45%.

 

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Streetscape Elevation: 863 San Pablo Ave

Due to the timing of this home expansion relative to previous home expansions, there was a concern as to whether the timing and scale of this home expansion was made to avoid a Fire Code requirement to add sprinklers to the house. The homeowner, Mr. Jagait, explained that the phased development of the house was due to construction costs, balanced with the changing needs of his growing family and that if required to do so, he would be willing to add sprinklers. City staff cautioned that sprinkler requirements were outside the authority of the Planning Commission.

Planning Commissioners were pleased with the design of the extension, and that the expansion would make the front of the house appear more balanced. The plan was approved unanimously, with amendments requiring matching window treatments on the upper and lower floors, that the Fire Code would be met, and that Mr. Jagait was encouraged to install sprinklers.

Agenda Item 4: 982 Yorktown Drive

This project is to demolish a one-story home and build a two-story house, with an attached Accessory Dwelling Unit. The Planning Commission needed to review this project because the floor area exceeds 3,600 square feet.

 

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Front Elevation: 982 Yorktown Drive

Spencer Tsai explained that his family has lived in the existing house on the corner for many years and that he had long yearned for a second story view. Planning Commissioners expressed concern with the security of the sliding glass door on the ADU. Due to the small size of the ADU, a sliding door was preferred over an inward-opening door. It was also noted that due to the shape of the lot, the sliding door was facing toward the side of the property, and less visible from the street.  There was some confusion over a fifth parking space jutting off the side of the driveway in front of the house, which had at one point been added to accommodate the ADU, but later removed when it was noted that the ADU does not require additional parking.

An additional concern was noted that the layout of the house, which includes an upper floor and a basement, made it amenable to being subdivided into multiple unpermitted accessory-type units. Mr. Tsai explained that the layout was intended to provide adult members of the extended family some space, including a man cave in the basement.

The Planning Commission approved the project unanimously, with amendments that staff would exercise discretion in determining that the ADU door was sufficiently secure and that if desired, a fifth parking spot could be added by widening the driveway with a semi-permeable material.

Agenda Item 5: Rezone Two Lots from R-1 to R-0

The project requests that two lots be rezoned from R-1 to R-0. The Planning Commission makes a recommendation to the City Council.

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Zoning Map: 932 Eleanor Way and 1358 Hampton Drive

In Sunnyvale, R-1 and R-0 are both low-density residential zones which permit 7 units per acre. A primary difference is that the minimum lot size for R-1 is 8,000 square feet, while the minimum lot size for R-0 is 6,000 square feet. The R-1 designation provides a “large lot” feel for neighborhoods.

The applicant, Cyrus Fakhari, who lives at 1358 Hampton Drive, was concerned at plans to rebuild the neighboring 932 Eleanor Way to include a two-story Accessory Dwelling Unit in the rear, which would have a good view of surrounding neighbors. He purchased the lot to avoid this outcome. Mr. Fakhari prefers the “small home” feel characteristic of Hampton Drive. He explained his concern that the “large lot” R-1 designation had, due to economic circumstances described by the meeting’s previous applicants, become a palette for oversized homes that were inconsistent with the original intentions of R-1 zoning. Mr. Fakhari’s ambition with the proposed zoning change was to reconfigure the two large lots into three smaller lots, with modest-sized homes on each lot, which would be consistent with many of the surrounding houses.

Mary Sullivan and Henry Alexander III spoke in opposition to the zoning change, citing concerns with neighborhood character, population density, and parking. Mr. Fakhari responded that the immediate area had plentiful street parking and that three smaller homes would collectively be required to provide more off-street parking than two larger homes.

The Planning Commission, citing concerns with spot zoning, neighborhood character, neighborhood opposition, and the city’s policy to maintain different zoning designations to facilitate different housing types, voted 6-1 to reject the proposed zoning change. This recommendation will be considered by the City Council, which has final authority on zoning changes.