North Side Residents Want Safer Access to High School

Sunnyvale’s City Council met for nearly six hours on January 24 to hear public input on the city’s study issues, adjust the Housing Mitigation Fee, approve neighborhood grants, and sign off on the city’s Legislative Advocacy Positions.

Corporation Yard Master Plan

Before the Regular Meeting, Public Works presented a Study Session for a master plan to renovate the Corporation Yard (“Corp Yard”) on Commercial St. Several city departments use the yard for vehicle fleet maintenance and storage.

Most buildings at the 8.72-acre site were built in the 1950s. The structures are sound, but the old buildings will need replacement as the city grows. The master plan, split into three phases, is projected to run near $100 million. This project is not yet funded, and the city will pursue various funding options once the Council approves.

Councilmember Russ Melton noted that, during a site tour, he wondered whether the city could rehabilitate the existing structures. But the need for expensive seismic retrofits made a strong case for rebuilding the site.

For Public comment, Kristel Wickham, Chair of the Sustainability Commission, cited the need to plan for additional electrical needs as the city’s large vehicle fleet electrifies. Former Councilmember Tara Martin-Milius emphasized that “Cutting GHGs now has a tremendous impact.”

Board and Commission Recruitment

Councilmember Alyssa Cisneros reminded the public that the city has several vacancies on our Boards and Commissions and invited residents to apply. The application deadline is Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, at 4 p.m.

Current vacancies:

  • Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (1)
  • Board of Library Trustees (2)
  • Heritage Preservation Commission (1)
  • Sustainability Commission (1)

Dark Skies

Rani Fischer of the Santa Clara Audubon Society gave a short presentation for Oral Communications on the hazards of excess night lighting. She sought to raise public awareness of safe night lighting practices and encourage the city to adopt a Dark Sky Ordinance.

“Light pollution is reversible,” explains Rani Fischer, of Santa Clara Audobon

Study Issues and Budget Proposals

Council next opened a public discussion on Potential Study Issues and Budget Proposals for 2023, which brought a large volume of public comment.

Bridget Watson highlighted the increased number of children at Sunnyvale’s Homeless Shelter. She encouraged Council to consider funding a dedicated staff position to address homeless concerns. She advocated hiring someone who could immediately look into reconfiguring the city’s shelter to provide for family needs, including privacy and kitchen access.

Anya Gajula, a Fremont High School student, spoke in support of a potential ballot measure to fund bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and in favor of Bike Lanes on Hollenbeck. Said Gajula, “only 5% of Fremont students bike to school, compared to 15% at other schools. The area around Fremont High School is especially dangerous: cars regularly drive 50 miles per hour across seven lanes of traffic, and there are no protected bike lanes. Our Vision Zero Plan lists Sunnyvale-Saratoga as a high-priority project for protected bike lanes, but there has been no progress made due to a lack of funding.”

A typical Street View of the bicycle route Fremont High School students can take from the North. Few students take the city’s invitation to ride in the gutter next to three lanes of traffic with a posted speed limit of 40 MPH.

Several members of the public spoke in favor of investigating an on-demand shuttle service to address the safe transportation needs of Sunnyvale students. Peggy Shen Brewster introduced Sunnyvale for Equity in Education (SEE), which is focused on the underserved transportation needs of Fremont High School students. Fellow SEE member Laurie Thomas explained that she sees students in Sunnyvale leaving the public school system in their high school years because Fremont can not reasonably be accessed by bicycling or public transportation. “We need a path for children to be able to get to Fremont High School, or we need a high school in North Sunnyvale.”

NOTE: As I wrote this article, the city website un-published the index of study issues it had previously advertised at, so I am unable to find and link study issues referenced after this point in this post. -danny

Several residents spoke in favor of installing bike lanes on Hollenbeck and against adding a second right-turn lane from Fremont onto Bernardo, as a second turn lane would make the intersection–identified by Sunnyvale’s Vision Zero policy as a “high injury” intersection–even more dangerous. Many regarded their advocacy as especially necessary, as Public Works staff recommended against a bike lane on Bernardo due to the need to remove parking from one side of the street and because staff favor adding a double right-turn at Bernardo in order to facilitate increased car traffic. “Adding an extra lane for car traffic is only going to induce more car traffic, and we’re going to end up with a fatality,” explained resident Nick Brosnahan.

Sharlene Liu of Bike Sunnyvale presented an image of Hollenbeck with protected bicycle lanes and parking on one side of the street.

Councilmember Murali Srinivasan proposed a study issue to implement a shuttle service for North Sunnyvale students to access Fremont Highschool, in addition to creating an app for residents to access city services. Councilmember Alyssa Cisneros introduced a study issue to prohibit right turns on red at Fremont and Bernardo and for improved homeless shelter services focused on the needs of families. Councilmember Richard Mehlinger proposed a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers and a budget allocation for a pilot program to contract a consulting firm to investigate the next three road collisions in Sunnyvale that result in death or serious injury. Councilmember Linda Sell proposed a “Bicycle and Walking Safety Metrics” study issue to better guide the city’s efforts at implementing Vision Zero, Safe Routes to Schools, and Active Transportation. Councilmember Russ Melton proposed a budget allocation to improve enforcement of the Short Term Rental ordinance, citing a recent shooting on Navarro. Each of these proposals received multiple co-sponsors.

The City Council will prioritize and rank 2023 Study Issues at the Study Issues and Budget Proposals Workshop, to be held on February 16.

Non-Residential Housing Mitigation Fee

The Non-Residential Housing Mitigation Fee is charged on new office, R&D, retail, and lodging developments to support new affordable housing development. Given that new commercial development brings workers into Sunnyvale, the city has a greater need to ensure affordable access to housing. Stephanie Hagar of Bae Urban Economics presented a summary of the Nexus Study Issue to help the city adjust this fee based on economic factors. Based on the results of the Nexus study, citing economic circumstances, staff recommended increasing the Office/R&D fee but not increasing the fee for retail, lodging, or industrial uses.

Councilmember Richard Mehlinger proposed slightly higher fees for Office/R&D than the staff recommendation in order to zero out retail fees. His motion was supported by Councilmember Omar Din, who explained that lowering the fee on retail would improve the economic feasibility of mixed-use housing development. Mayor Larry Klein explained that the retail fees are already relatively low, saying, “I don’t think that the fees are what’s keeping retail from expanding. And the majority of retail coming to the city is replacing existing retail, so they are paying none of these fees.”

City Council unanimously approved the staff recommendation to increase the Office/R&D fee to $11 for the first 25,000 square feet and $22 per square foot over the first 25,000 square feet.

Neighborhood Grant Program

The city funds various community events and provides financial grants to neighborhood organizations to host events. The Community Events and Neighborhood Grant Program Subcommittee previously worked through the various funding proposals, and the City Council unanimously signed off on their recommendations.

Priority Advocacy Issues and Long-term Legislative Advocacy Positions (LAPs)

The city maintains an advocacy document that allows the mayor and city staff to advocate for policies at the state and federal levels on Sunnyvale’s behalf.

Councilmember Richard Mehlinger expressed concerns about the advocacy document’s process and contents. “This document has substantially been on autopilot.” Mehlinger cited various strong positions the city has taken over the years, including positions on controlled substances and the use of non-lethal force and local control of housing policy, where public discourse has since shifted. “As an elected official, the most important thing you have is your name, and what you put your name to matters a lot, and that is not an authority that I’m willing to give up lightly.” Mehlinger concluded, “I think a Council subcommittee to review the content of these positions would be very helpful to help us make sure that what we have in here is something that the whole council feels very comfortable supporting.”

Councilmember Linda Sell spoke in favor of the city’s ability to rapidly engage in advocacy. “I’ve seen how these letters work: a good environmental bill is out there, and then suddenly, all this opposition comes toward it. Supporters need to rapidly get city support. I do believe that these letters are very important, and being nimble is very important.” Sell explained that almost every year, Community Choice Energy comes under attack, and Sunnyvale is able to stand for it.

Mayor Larry Klein and Vice Mayor Omar Din thought it was reasonable to omit the names of council members on advocacy letters, as not all council members necessarily took those positions. Din: “it makes sense to me that when these letters go out, they are going out on behalf of the city, not on the behalf of seven individuals here.”

Councilmember Mehlinger proposed two amendments to the Policy document: first, to retain the city’s position on opposing Internet content filtering, pending further review, and second, to tweak the wording on the proposed 2023 Priority Advocacy issues to better reflect the need to balance between local control and expanded housing opportunities. The first amendment succeeded, whereas the second failed.

City Council adjourned at 11:50 pm.


Council Approves Community Center Renovation

Vice Mayor

In Sunnyvale, Vice Mayors serve one-year terms, elected by their peers on the City Council. Tuesday’s January 10 City Council meeting opened with outgoing Vice Mayor, Councilmember Alyssa Cisneros, praising the incoming Vice Mayor, Councilmember Omar Din. “I’ve known Omar for a very long time. He’s a fantastic public servant, very humble, extremely smart, and extremely dedicated. He’s ready for this challenge.”

Mayor Klein thanked Cisneros for her service. Councilmember Cisneros recounted that, not long ago, when she was at Homestead High School, she had no idea who the Vice Mayor was and that in the past year, she would hear from folks that “you don’t look like a Vice Mayor.” Cisneros went on: “and now, this is what a Vice Mayor looks like. Rather than elevate an ego, I really felt that this humbled me. It’s about serving the City, knowing that you’re the first line of defense.”

Vision Zero

Unlike Sunnyvale, Fremont tracks and publicizes roadway safety data on its Vision Zero website.

For Oral Communications, the City Council heard from residents Sharlene Liu and Mark Hlady on behalf of Bike Sunnyvale. Ms. Liu expressed concern about the progress toward Sunnyvale’s Vision Zero policy. She called for a permanent dedicated funding source and a ballot measure to fund bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects. Ms. Liu also called for the City to create a page on the City’s website to track progress toward Vision Zero.

Mark Hlady elaborated on the web page request, citing Fremont’s Vision Zero page, which tracks the rate of harmful collisions over time. Mr. Hlady reminded the City Council that two of the best strategies to prevent severe injuries on our roads are to build separated bike lanes and to reduce vehicle speeds.

Block 20

The Council next considered a Specific Plan amendment to modify Block 20 of the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP), which sits on the East side of Mathilda Ave, between Olive Ave and El Camino Real. Some parcels were zoned residential, and others zoned commercial. Developers petitioned the City to adopt Mixed Use zoning, allowing more housing to be built on top of commercial services.

While the City wants to allow for more housing to be built, there is a reluctance to up-zone too aggressively due to state housing density bonuses. Staff recommended changes to permit an increase in commercial zoning from 16,400 square feet to 36,500 square feet and a potential increase from 51 housing units to 103, with no explicit increase of the 40-foot height limit. Developers are allowed by the state to exceed these limits in exchange for additional units of affordable housing.

Neighbors from the nearby single-family Heritage District expressed concern at the City’s inability to enforce firm height limits and at missing meeting notifications from the City. “The public is being played,” declared resident Ray Johnson in response to what he and other neighbors called “overbuilds” in the downtown area. Other residents expressed their support for increased housing. Jason Roberts pointed out, “the increase is on the order of 50 residents of our community. I would love for more people to be a part of our community.”

Staff accounted for the notification policy’s complexities, which differ for legislative changes versus development projects, and are further complicated when efforts, such as Block 20, get continued from one meeting to another. Director of Community Development, Trudi Ryan, conceded: “I think that we haven’t been consistent on whether or not we notice nearby tenants and property owners. I own up to that.”

Responding to questions from Councilmember Cisneros, Ms. Ryan gave an overview of available housing bonuses, from Sunnyvale’s modest Green Incentives program to state housing laws that allow up to 50% higher limits for a market rate project that has enough affordable units. Per state law, developers can request a concession or waiver of local regulations if they can not build a housing project within local limits. “There are not a lot of controls the city has when some of these waivers are requested,” explained Ms. Ryan. Ryan said that the City was proposing less than what the developers had requested to account for the developers’ likely application of density bonus laws. “When it’s a housing development, more recent state laws have taken away control from local agencies. So, I could not promise that they won’t build above the height limit or they won’t request a deviation from some other standard when housing is concerned. The City has a lot more control on the non-residential components.”

Ryan explained a general strategy: “one of the tools we have is to not prepare our zoning codes to the maximum that we are comfortable with, but cutting that back some, which is what we did recently on El Camino Real. We built in that opportunity for density bonuses.”

Councilmember Richard Mehlinger clarified with staff that if the City denied the proposed plan amendment, developers could still build beyond the City’s 40-foot height limit by leveraging density bonuses and that Mixed Use development would be off the table. Councilmember Russ Melton confirmed with staff that the state prohibits residential downzoning, so the City has no power to lower the height limit. Councilmember Linda Sell asked about notifications that would follow from the modified DSP. “Neighbors will receive a mailed notice of a public hearing, or, prior to that, to a community meeting,” for the individual development projects, answered Ryan.

In support of the proposal, Councilmember Mehlinger explained: “This is a highly walkable neighborhood. It is well served by retail, by transit. It is within easy walking distance of Target, Whole Foods, and our downtown. This meets a serious community need for more housing.” Mehlinger addressed the state density bonus: “it is not something the developers get for free. To utilize the density bonus, developers must provide affordable units at restricted rents. These units are desperately needed in our community. Affordable units often have waiting lists 50 or 100 names long for a single unit. Every single one of those units means that someone who would probably be forced out of our community would be able to stay.”

Councilmember Sell added her support: “I know it’s difficult to consider the heights, but for some in our community, it is more difficult to stay in a home.”

The Specific Plan Amendment for Block 20 passed with 5 votes. Councilmember Murali Srinivasan opposed it, and Mayor Klein, who lives nearby, was recused.

Community Center

Jennifer Ng, Assistant Director of Public Works and City Engineer, presented a plan to renovate the grounds of the Sunnyvale Community Center on Remington Drive. The most visible change will be to reduce the size of the pond, to make room for picnicking, playgrounds, and an amphitheater. The fountain on the upper level will be rebuilt smaller to make room for a tree-covered plaza with more seating. The new grounds will also incorporate a series of walking paths and a new restroom. Community feedback revealed that the biggest complaint with the current Civic Center grounds was goose droppings. Staff explained that the geese were attracted by the short-cut grass with easy access to the pond. The new plan seeks to remove about 1/3 of the turf and most of the pond, making the grounds less desirable to our avian neighbors. Since seniors expressed that they enjoy looking out over the water when visiting the Senior Center, a smaller pond will be retained.

Sunnyvale Community Center Preferred Concept Plan, via file 23-0088.

Councilmembers Cisneros and Mehlinger asked if all turf adjacent to the pond could be removed to further deter the geese. Ng said that switching out some grass was possible but cautioned that “generations of geese have established themselves in this location. So despite all of our mitigation measures, we aren’t going to completely eliminate the geese from living here.” Director of Public Works Chip Taylor added: “if we do have some sort of pond or water body, I think we’re going to have some sort of waterfowl.” Councilmember Melton confirmed with staff that it was feasible to move the fountain sculptures safely.

Councilmember Sell and members of the public asked whether more grass turf overall could be converted to native landscaping and mulch. Staff explained that landscape conversion has been limited to keep the capital expense of the renovation within the allotted budget and that public lawns are an amenity for residents in higher-density housing. Staff also explained that, due to historical reasons, water metering at the Community Center is not straightforward, making it difficult to assess the water use and potential savings of landscape conversion. Councilmembers requested that staff look into improved metering as part of the renovation project.

Mayor Klein recommended designing walking paths into 1/3 mile segments, as that is a convenient measure for folks who track their exercise. (1/3 mile is 536 meters.) Resident Steve Scandalis echoed Mayor Klein’s suggestion: “.33 and .66 routes are very conducive to supporting an Orienteering course for the Scouts.” Resident Diane Bracken complained that Sunnyvale has 22 parks for children. “You’re taking away the only adult park. A normal park has a lot of noise because of children. This park has been used by seniors for reflection. And that is going away.”

The preferred concept plan proposed by City Staff to renovate the Civic Center grounds was unanimously approved by the City Council.

Answering to Nature

Mayor Klein made a budget proposal to fund increased trimming for street trees over the next two years, to address a backlog in trimming. City Manager Kent Steffens reported that the city had thus far weathered the rain storms without property damage or injuries, but city staff has been busy responding to downed trees and minor street flooding. “We’ve given out more than 3,000 sandbags.” Council adjourned at 10:41pm.