NIMBY’s Summer in Silicon Valley’s Most Luxurious Town

SAN FRANCISCO – The tech giants had to navigate a lot to get where they are today – the dot-com crash, the 2008 recession. a backlash against the power of technology, epidemic. They weathered boardroom struggles, investor power struggles, and regulated land mines.

But this summer, some of them have encountered their most feared rival: multi-storey townhouses.

Their battle takes place in one of Silicon Valley’s most exclusive and affluent towns: Atherton, Calif., a 4.9 square mile site just north of Stanford University with a population of 7,500. There, tech executives and venture capitalists rallied together against the specter that more than one home could exist on an acre of land in the general vicinity of their property. .

Their weapons? The letters have strong words.

Faced with the possibility of new construction, Rachel Whetstone, Netflix’s communications director and an Atherton resident, wrote to the City Council and mayor that she was “very concerned” about traffic, tree relocation trees, light and noise pollution, and school resources.

Another locality, Anthony NotoThe chief executive of financial technology company SoFi, and his wife, Kristin, wrote that thefts and petty thefts have gotten so bad that many families, including him, have hired security private security.

Their neighbors Bruce Dunlevie, a founding partner at investment firm Benchmark, and his wife, Elizabeth, say the developments contradict Atherton’s Heritage Tree Ordinance, which regulates the removal of trees. and would create “a town that is no longer suburban in nature but urban, which is not why its inhabitants moved there. “

Other residents also protested: Andrew Wilson, chief executive officer of video game maker Electronic Arts; Nikesh Arora, chief executive officer of Palo Alto Networks, a cybersecurity company; Ron Johnson, former top Apple executive; Omid Kordestani, a former top executive at Google; and Marc Andreessena brilliant investor.

They all struggle with a plan to help Atherton comply with state housing requirements. Every eight years, California cities must let state regulators know that they have planned new housing to accommodate the growth of their communities. Atherton is adding 348 units.

Many towns in California, especially those with the wealthy, have resisted plans to build higher-density housing in recent years, a trend that has become known. like NIMBYism for “not in my backyard.” But Atherton’s situation stood out because extremely wealthy of its inhabitants — the median home sale in 2020 is $7.9 million — and because the tech leaders who live there are championed for the housing cause.

Companies that make Atherton residents rich have donated huge sums of money to nonprofits to offset their impact on the local economy, including increasing costs. House. Some of the letter writers have even sat on boards of charities that address the area’s poverty and housing problems.

Atherton residents have opposed the development despite the town’s extremely low housing density, housing advocates say.

“Atherton is about home,” said Jeremy Levine, a policy manager at the San Mateo County Housing Leadership Council, a nonprofit that has expressed support for the multi-family housing proposal. for many families as if it were an invasion of Mars.

Atherton, which is part of San Mateo County, has long been known for dodging development. The town had previously sued the state to block a high-speed rail line from running through it and voted closing a train station.

Its zoning rules do not allow multi-family homes. But in June, the City Council proposed an “overlay” designating areas where nine townhouses could be built. Most sites will have five or six units, with the largest having 40 units on five acres.

That’s when the outcry began. Some opponents offer innovative ways to comply with state requirements without building new housing. One tech executive suggested in his letter that Atherton try counting all the homes with pools.

Others speak directly about the value of their homes. Mr. Andreessen, venture capitalist, and his wife, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, an affiliate of real estate developer John Arrillaga, warned in a letter in June that more than one residence per acre “will STRONGLY reduce the value of our homes, the quality of life of ourselves and our neighbors, and IMMEDIATELY increases traffic and noise pollution.” The couple signed the letter with their address and a clear reference to the four properties they own on Atherton’s Tuscaloosa Avenue.

Atlantic reported earlier on Andreessens’ letter.

Mr. Andreessen has been a strong proponent of building all things including housing in the Bay Area. In a 2020 essay, he lament lack of housing built in the United States, calling San Francisco “housing prices skyrocketing like crazy.”

“We should have glittering skyscrapers and breathtaking habitats in all of our best cities,” he wrote. “Where are they?”

Other venture capitalists who live in Atherton and oppose townhouses include Aydin Senkut, an investor with Felicis Ventures; Gary Swart, an investor at Polaris Partners; Norm Fogelsong, an investor at IVP; Greg Stanger, an investor at Iconiq; and Tim Draper, an investor at Draper Associates.

Many of the biggest tech companies have donated money to address the Bay Area’s housing crisis in recent years. Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, where Mr. Andreessen was a member of the board of directors, has commit 1 billion dollars for the problem. Google commit 1 million dollar. Apple top both with a $2.5 billion commitment. Netflix has funded Business Community Partners, a housing nonprofit. Mr. Arora of Palo Alto Networks to be on the board of Tipping Point, a nonprofit focused on fighting poverty in the Bay Area.

Mr Senkut said he was saddened that Atherton’s proposal to build a townhouse was made surreptitiously without the community’s input. He said the increased traffic has made him worry about the safety of his children.

“If you have to do something, ask the neighborhood what they want,” he said.

Mr. Draper, Mr. Johnson and representatives of Mr. Andreessen, Mr. Arora and Mr. Wilson of Electronic Arts declined to comment. Other letter writers did not respond to requests for comment.

The number of responses prompted Atherton City Council to remove the townhouse section from its plan in July. On August 2, it proposed a program to incentivize residents to rent accessory apartments in their properties, to allow people to subdivide the property and potentially build teacher housing on the premises. school member.

“Atherton is really different,” the proposal claims. Despite the town’s “perceived affluent nature,” the plan says, it is a “cash-poor” town with few people considered to be at housing risk.

Rick DeGolia, mayor of Atherton, said the problem with townhouses is that they won’t fit the state’s definition of affordable housing, as land in Atherton costs $8 million an acre. One developer told him that these devices can cost at least $4 million each.

“Everybody who buys into Atherton has to spend a lot of money to get in,” he said. “They care a lot about their privacy – that’s for sure. But there’s another focus to getting affordable housing, and that’s what I’m focusing on.”

Atherton’s new plan needs approval from the California Department of Housing and Community Development. Cities that fail to comply with state requirements for new housing to accommodate community growth face fines, or California could expropriate local land rights.

Ralph Robinson, planning assistant at Good City, the consulting firm Atherton hired to develop the housing proposal, said the state has rejected most of the initial proposals in recent times.

“We are very aware of that,” he said. “We know we’re going to get this feedback and we might have to rethink some things in the fall.”

Mr. Robinson has seen similar situations unfold across Northern California. However, the main difference with Atherton is its wealth, attracting attention and interest, not all positive.

“People are less sympathetic,” he said.

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