A recent Pleasanton City Council City vote on two proposed Housing Element sites was such an abrupt U-turn it left some feeling sideswiped.
To many, it's almost like Mayor Karla Brown and councilmembers Valerie Arkin and Jeff Nibert are daring Pleasanton Unified School District Superintendent David Haglund to hand over development of one of the district-owned property to the state.
A new state law gives the district the ability to bypass the city completely and build workforce housing on land it owns with very little input from the city and no input from the neighbors. Verbiage in the law will also require the district to build more than four times the number of units on the land than what it is asking for.
Haglund does not want to use this "nuclear option" (as it was referred to by a speaker at the Jan. 17 council meeting), but his primary fiduciary responsibility is to the district.
The Housing Element, which identifies parcels that can be rezoned and developed for state-mandated housing, includes two Pleasanton Unified School District properties -- the roughly 10-acre site at Bernal Avenue and First Street that was the district's headquarters, now referred to as the "Downtown" property, and the approximately 10-acre Vineyard Avenue property located between Thiessen Street and Manoir Lane.
Haglund approached the city early in the site selection process asking that district-owned properties be added to the list, with the goal for the properties to be developed as teacher and workforce housing. This would address the challenge PUSD and many other districts in the state are facing with recruiting and retaining educators when they are financially unable to live in the community in which they work.
Selling underutilized property would also bolster the district coffers for future schools in growth areas.
City and district staff worked together for months to produce a solid plan, with city staff recommending the Downtown property density be 8-16 dwelling units per acre and the Vineyard density be three to five per acre.
The district expressed concerns prior to the Dec. 20 meeting that the limits on density would negatively impact their goals of providing workforce housing and maximizing the value of the properties. Haglund requested the upper limit for the Downtown property be increased from 16 to 20 and that the density of three to five be applied to the entire Vineyard property.
But at the Dec. 20 council meeting, Brown, Arkin and Nibert slammed the brakes on the collaboration by denying the request, then pulled a U-ey by reducing the density for both properties. Continuing in the opposite direction, they voted to add a 3-acre park to the Vineyard parcel.
"It didn't make any sense whatsoever," Haglund said. "How often do you get a situation where the landowner, the developer and the city are in agreement and all get what they want?"
With Councilmember Jack Balch voting no and Councilmember Julie Testa recusing herself because she lives close to the Downtown site, Brown, Arkin and Nibert voted to lower the density for the Downtown site from the staff recommendation of 8-16 units to 8-12 per acre, far less than the district requested 8-20. The Vineyard site density decreased from three to five units per acre to three to four -- minus three acres that are now slated for a park.
"They didn't just say 'no, we're not going to raise it,' but that they were going to lower it. I was really disappointed," Haglund said. "We really tried to think about a design that would keep the project looking like downtown. We were in 100% agreement with city staff, so they went to the council and (the council) took all the collaboration off the table."
What is more confounding is the vote was made after hearing from Ellen Clark, Pleasanton's community development director, that PUSD has the ability under a new state law -- AB 2295 -- to build workforce housing on land it owns without approval of or input from the city, and that the minimum density under AB 2295 is 30 units per acre. Haglund later pointed out later that because AB 2295 requires that a majority of these units be affordable units, the density would likely be close to 40-50 units per acre.
"I feel like I'm between a rock and a hard place," Haglund told me. "I really don't want to put 400 units on this property. I'm being forced into this position that is not necessary and it doesn't fit into the way we see ourselves in Pleasanton, or what I want to do. I'm being forced to (employ AB 2295) or abandon the workforce housing on this property."
"My main concern is how this will change the downtown," Arkin said, explaining her vote. "When I ran for council, the historic small town charm of downtown was the number one concern of residents."
"I was originally not in favor of developing that property," continued Arkin, who was a school board trustee until elected to council in 2020. "But I understand PUSD wanting to provide teacher housing and that is the reason I'm willing to reconsider and zone it for housing."
"Our concerns include traffic on already-congested First Street and the busy intersection with Bernal, impacts on neighbors and neighborhoods, and the effects of building massing and height on the downtown area where it's located," said Nibert. "For these reasons I voted to decrease the upper limit in the draft Housing Element."
"An appropriate housing project must balance all affected parties, not just a single organization. If a project can provide affordable housing to teachers, that is a wonderful bonus, and an important consideration," said Brown.
In regard to the requirement under AB 2295 that the district must retain the property, Brown said, "If a majority of the city council decides to finalize zoning of the district's land from 'public and institution' to 'residential' with medium density, the value of the site will rise significantly and therefore provide a financial windfall to the school district."
In a Jan. 9 letter to the city, Haglund spelled out the repercussions of this vote.
"The City Council's decision has serious consequences not only for these District owned properties, but more importantly the City Council's stated desire to (a) retain local control over planning decisions, (b) protect community members from incompatible high-density projects being located immediately adjacent to their neighborhoods and, (c) create affordable housing opportunities for school district, city and other municipal workers."
"I am concerned about the potential impacts of all state laws that have stripped away local control," said Nibert. "In this case, I believe neither the city nor the school district wants to go down that path because it would ultimately have undesirable results for all parties. I'm confident that the city and PUSD will continue working together in partnership to achieve the best outcome for our community."
"I am in favor of 100 percent teacher housing on the PUSD district office site," Arkin said. "I'd be interested in a partnership with the school district, city and non-profits in order to develop affordable teaching housing."
On behalf of the city, Clark provided a statement in support of continued collaboration "with the perspective that a project developed cooperatively, and at a moderate density agreed on by the city and the district, is most likely to deliver a quality housing development that has the potential to meet the goals of neighborhood compatibility and a meaningful amount of housing affordable to our local workforce, alongside market-rate units."
"It is important to note, we are just evaluating zoning at this time," Brown said, "but any final project will be reviewed later and will affect our downtown for generations."
True, but so will the quality of the school district and its facilities, as well as the look of the property at the corner of Bernal and First -- the gateway to Downtown.
While Haglund wants to be a good neighbor, his decisions have to be based on what's best for the district, its employees and students. He is not pushing this for his personal gain.
"In our collaboration with the city, we're trying to keep all the options on the table," Haglund said. "If we go the AB 2295 route, all those options go off the table. We don't have the desire to do that because it's not in the best interest of the community. But don't lock us into numbers that won't allow workforce housing."
The site, zoning and proposed density need to be finalized by Jan. 31, but the density can be altered. However, the way density is altered is based on what is submitted in the Housing Element.
In other words, collaboration must continue, conversations must be had and compromises must made soon.
Not building on the property is not an option. The district not being able to profit from land bought with taxpayer money is also not an option.
In my opinion, the district's request for an increase in the upper limits of the density should be granted, and the plan crafted by the city and school district -- which addresses concerns from neighbors -- should move forward. It is the best solution for the district, the city and the neighbors.
Speaking of what's best for the city, if the district scraps the plan created with the city, picture 400-plus units without input from the city or neighbors at the corner of Bernal and First -- the gateway to Downtown.
Speaking of the neighbors, they might want to put their support behind this plan; if it's scrapped they could end up with far worse than 200 units in a very carefully, respectfully designed community.
If the PUSD staff is forced to use the "nuclear option" to achieve their stated goals -- which is their right and duty as responsible stewards -- the blame should not fall on the district.