Last month I wrote about attending a discussion on how to remedy the shortage of affordable housing in Los Altos before the state steps in with mandates. One of the proposals was “form-based zoning” to make multiplex housing blend in with existing neighborhoods.
I said “that train has already left the station” because so many of the new multimillion-dollar homes being built in Los Altos have abandoned the once-ubiquitous California ranch-style home in favor of Craftsman, French Chateau, Mission and Modern two-story models. What is one to blend with?
A second idea floated at the meeting was that Los Altos should aim to become “a walkable community.” I’m sorry, folks. To use a different metaphor, that ship was sunk in the harbor before it even had a chance to sail. “Walkable communities” have sidewalks and streetlights, and any attempt to introduce these urban conveniences to our “rural village” meets immediate opposition from long-term residents. (I wrote about the need for street lighting back in February 2015, and the article generated the most comments of any column I have written.)
Our town’s basic problem in meeting broad and undifferentiated quotas for affordable housing is that Los Altos was never designed to be diverse. It is and always has been a “bedroom community,” defined as a populated area with residents who normally work elsewhere. The term additionally implies a community that has little commercial or industrial activity beyond a small amount of locally oriented retail business. This definition is hardwired into our civic self-image.
The developers of Los Altos never intended to sell property to any but the prosperous middle class. Teachers, firefighters, policemen and retail shop owners could afford to buy in Los Altos back in the 1950s, but it was always assumed by both developers and residents that our gardeners, housekeepers, gas station attendants and other hourly wage earners would live in Mountain View or Sunnyvale or East Palo Alto and commute into Los Altos, while most of the salaried workers who owned homes would commute by rail or car to their jobs in Palo Alto, San Jose or San Francisco.
So when city planners like the ones who spoke to us in February talk glibly about “walkable communities,” they are asking us to change our civic personality, and our sense of what our town is supposed to be. We can debate the wisdom of our founders in designing such a town, but in fairness, who would have predicted in the 1950s that housing in Mountain View and East Palo Alto would become so desirable that even middle-class professionals can scarcely afford to buy there? Who would have predicted that in 2018 six of the 10 wealthiest ZIP codes in the U.S. would be on the San Francisco Peninsula, and that our 94022 and 94024 codes would rank fourth and seventh, respectively?
So do we acknowledge that the world has changed around us and try to change to fit? Or do we cling fiercely to our 20th-century idea of who we are and go down kicking and screaming against outside mandates? That chapter is not yet written.
P.S.: Our street is still fighting that subdivision proposal I mentioned last month. Kicking and screaming have their uses, at least in the short term.