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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.