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Mountain View Voice: Housing, Transportation are Top Issues at Candidate Forums

By Daniel DeBolt

In a crowded City Council race, Mountain View’s nine candidates are already busy introducing themselves and their platforms to voters at a couple of candidate forums, with several more scheduled in the coming weeks.

In a forum attended by all nine candidates Tuesday, Sept. 2, candidates Mercedes Salem and Ellen Kamei came out against zoning for a new residential neighborhood in North Bayshore, something businesses and the Chamber of Commerce have proposed as a way to deal with the city’s housing crunch. Other issues the candidates discussed included the need for better bicycle and transit infrastructure in Mountain View and involving the city’s immigrant population in local elections.

On Sept. 2, the Housing and Transportation Forum was held at the Rengstorff Community Center. Tuesday’s event was kicked off with a questions about what sort of bike infrastructure projects candidates would support to encourage more bicycling.

“People don’t (ride bikes) unless they feel safe,” said candidate Ken Rosenberg. “I’m in favor of almost anything that is going to promote biking or walking.”

Salem said she liked the proposal for a “road diet on California Street that creates buffers for bikes, buffers for pedestrians.” She said no pedestrians or cyclists should have to die because of unsafe streets, as one of her friends had recently died after being hit by a car while crossing El Camino Real in Menlo Park in a crosswalk.

Candidate Greg Unangst, who chairs the city’s Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, listed some possible improvements, such as more crossings over Central Expressway and a true bike Boulevard on Latham Street that is more than just “putting up signs” directing cyclists to it. Cyclists often point to neighboring Palo Alto’s bike boulevards, which discourage car traffic, as exemplary.

“I’m not a millennial, but I usually use a bike to get around town,” said candidate Lenny Siegel. “Anyone on council or on staff making decisions on bicycle safety should get on a bike and see what it’s like. It’s not just a matter of safety, it is a matter of creating pleasant environments where people want to walk.”

“Every time a development proposal comes before us I’m looking at how bike-able and walkable is it?” said candidate Lisa Matichak, who is also a Mountain View planning commissioner. “Personally I would like to see the trails expanded — we need to have them connect throughout the entire city.”

Kamei said the city’s hiring of a bike and pedestrian coordinator will help, while candidate Pat Showalter said other cities needed to continue to work on the Stevens Creek trail. Candidate Margaret Capriles said bike and pedestrian mobility needed to continue to be a council priority. Candidate Jim Neal said most of the planning had already been done and “from this point we just need to get the details fine-tuned.”

New neighborhood in North Bayshore?

On Tuesday candidates Salem and Kamei both came out against housing in North Bayshore for the first time. Candidates Siegel, Showalter, Neal, Unangst and Rosenberg reiterated their support for housing in North Bayshore in some form or another, while candidates Capriles and Matichak had already made their opposition known.

“The North Bayshore precise plan looks at 500 acres, I think we can devote 100 acres near 101 and North Shoreline to housing and we are not going to threaten our open space,” said Siegel, who founded the Campaign for Balanced Mountain View in January to lobby for the creation of the new neighborhood. If built at a density similar to the five-story apartments at Park Place downtown, there would be enough units to support a school and services and retail. “It will take a lot of work to reverse the course the city has been on since 2012 when council rejected 4-3 the environmentally superior alternative for housing in North Bayshore.” He later added that there was enough demand for extending light rail to North Bayshore from downtown that planning such an extension could start now.

Quoting language city planners used at the time, candidate Unangst said that it is “environmentally superior” to include housing in plans for office space for tens of thousands of new jobs in the area around Google headquarters.

Kamei had hedged on her answer to the North Bayshore housing question before, but this time she expressed clear opposition.

“I also at this point don’t feel that housing makes sense in North Bayshore,” she said, explaining fears that the housing would make it harder to reach the city’s goals for traffic reduction. Proponents make the opposite argument, saying that new housing would lessen commute traffic. “It is important to reach these transportation goals, then it can be revisited,” she said.

Salem said the reason why North Bayshore is so successful is because there’s very little housing out there. She said that a new grocery store would fail because the residents would likely “work at big companies that already provide everything for them from soup to nuts.”

She also raised fears about sea level rise and a lack of stable “bedrock” in an earthquake, though that concern has never been part of the city’s extensive discussions on redevelopment in North Bayshore, where landfills have been excluded from new development plans. Earthquake dangers for development in North Bayshore were found to be “less than significant” in the 2012 general plan environmental impact report.

Showalter, a civil engineer for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, said she has “looked at flood maps and there are places that even with impacts of climate change people should be able to live (in North Bayshore). The impacts of people living close to work is just tremendous. We really have to take advantage of that. People have been concerned that there isn’t shopping but Costco isn’t that far. We also need to consider the reverse commute advantage those people would have.”

At the Chamber-sponsored forum on Aug. 27, Matichak said the current council members she identifies with the most are the four most consistent opponents of housing development: John McAlister, Jac Siegel, Ronit Bryant and Margaret-Abe-Koga. The latter three are leaving the council this year due to term limits.

El Camino bus lanes unpopular

A few years ago, in a 4-3 vote, council members narrowly rejected a Valley Transportation Authority proposal to create an El Camino Real bus experience similar to light rail in Mountain View, with dedicated bus lane and stations along the center of El Camino Real. Citing the city’s car traffic woes, candidates did not indicate they would want to change course on the Bus Rapid Transit plan, with candidates Rosenberg, Siegel and Capriles among the opponents.

“I do not support taking away full traffic lanes for BRT,” Siegel said, adding that there were other ways to “make buses more efficient. Maybe someday we’ll have enough people in buses to take away traffic lanes.”

“We need to work on frequency of buses,” said Showalter, which spurred Unangst to say that there wasn’t enough population density to create demand for more bus service. Unangst touted self-driving car technology and automated people-movers as solutions to transit woes.

“I do not support a (dedicated) lane, not here in Mountain View,” said Rosenberg. Salem agreed, saying, “I don’t see it as a viable alternative for our community.”

Capriles and Kamei called for partial bike lanes to help bicyclists trying to get across town in areas where El Camino Real is the only convenient route. Kamei called for widening sidewalks and removing street parking in particular sections to make room.

Involving immigrants in local politics

Candidates Neal and Rosenberg appeared a bit baffled when asked to comment on how some cities have allowed undocumented immigrants to vote in local elections, so the questions was changed to ask how the candidates would involved undocumented immigrants in their decision making.

“It’s something that can’t be solved at city level,” Neal said of letting the non-citizens vote, as was done in Maryland’s Takoma Park 20 years ago. “It doesn’t matter what the city says about that. My wife is an immigrant from Italy, I don’t have a problem” with immigrants. He added that his wife volunteers at the Day Worker Center and that immigrants always have a right to speak out.

“This is why the Civility Roundtable was conceived,” said Rosenberg, who created the Civility Roundtable series to provide a forum for difficult community discussions. “I’m an advocate of our Day Worker Center and a user of it as well. We had a civility roundtable on this topic.” Some say immigrants need to get in line to get their citizenship, but “there is not process to get citizenship for people who are here,” he said.

“We have to welcome immigrants whether they be kids form Central America or kids from Beijing,” Siegel said. “It’s not only right, these are the people who are going to be paying for our Social Security. Immigration is what we need in this country. I’m not sure they can vote in Congressional elections but I think there are communities who have made that happen (for local elections).” Siegel suggested Spanish translation of council meeting broadcasts. “You have to make people feel comfortable, you have to make them feel empowered. They are part of our future”

“I worked precisely on these issues (as a congressional staffer) in Washington, D.C.,” said Salem. “I’m a huge proponent for the DREAM Act. I do not agree with the federal government deputizing local police” to enforce immigration law. Allowing the undocumented to vote, she said, would take a Constitutional amendment.

Capriles had previously told the Voice she would “love” to allow the undocumented to vote in local elections, but did not reiterate that on Tuesday. “I think that Mountain View has done a superb job of encouraging the undocumented residents to come forth,” she said, adding that she respected the work of Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren and activist Jose Antonio Vargas.

Showalter spoke of wanting to make them feel welcome and to make sure they are not taken advantage of, while Kamei said the question touches on something that makes Mountain View really special, because her own grandparents were immigrants who cut flowers in the Mayfield Mall area and later had their own flower-growing business. She said the keys include multi-lingual translation and “talking to those in the community who we might not normally have outreach with.”

This article was originally published on September 4, 2014 by the Mountain View Voice.

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