NIMBY's Summer in Silicon Valley's Poshest Town

SAN FRANCISCO — The titans of the tech industry have come a long way to get to where they are today — the dot-com meltdown, the 2008 rec...


SAN FRANCISCO — The titans of the tech industry have come a long way to get to where they are today — the dot-com meltdown, the 2008 recession, a reaction against technological power, the pandemic. They have overcome boardroom clashes, investor power struggles and regulatory landmines.

But this summer, some of them encountered their most threatening adversary yet: multi-family townhouses.

Their battle took place in one of the most exclusive and affluent cities in Silicon Valley: Atherton, California., a 4.9 square mile enclave just north of Stanford University with a population of 7,500. There, tech CEOs and venture capitalists coalesced on the spectrum that more than one home might exist on a single acre of land in general proximity to their estates.

Their weapon? Strongly written letters.

Faced with the possibility of new construction, Rachel Whetstone, director of communications for Netflix and Atherton resident, wrote to the city council and the mayor that she was “very concerned” about traffic, the felling of trees, light and noise pollution and school resources.

another place, Antoine Notochief executive of financial technology company SoFi, and his wife, Kristin, wrote that the robberies and robberies had already become so serious that many families, including his own, had called in private security.

Their neighbors Bruce Dunlevie, founding partner of investment firm Benchmark, and his wife, Elizabeth, said the developments conflicted with Atherton’s Heritage Trees Ordinance, which regulates the felling of trees, and would create “a city that is no longer suburban in nature”. but urban, that is not why its inhabitants settled there.

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

All were fighting a plan to help Atherton comply with state housing requirements. Every eight years, California cities must show state regulators that they have planned new housing to accommodate their community’s growth. Atherton is about to add 348 units.

Many California cities, especially those with wealthy people, have fought higher-density housing plans in recent years, a trend that has become known like NIMBYism for “not in my garden”. But Atherton’s situation stands out because of the extreme wealth of its inhabitants — the average home sale in 2020 was $7.9 million — and because the tech leaders who live there have championed housing causes.

Companies that have made Athertonians wealthy have donated huge sums to non-profits to offset their impact on the local economy, including driving up housing costs. Some of the letter writers have even served on the board of charities aimed at addressing the region’s poverty and housing problems.

Residents of Atherton have raised objections to the developments even though the town’s housing density is extremely low, housing advocates said.

“Atherton talks about multifamily housing like it’s a Martian invasion or something,” said Jeremy Levine, policy officer at the San Mateo County Housing Leadership Council, a nonprofit that expressed support for the multi-family townhouse proposal.

Atherton, part of San Mateo County, has long been known for its reluctance to develop. The city previously sued the state to block a high-speed rail line from crossing it and voted in favor shutter of a station.

Its zoning rules do not allow multi-family homes. But in June, the city council proposed an “overlay” designating areas where nine townhouse developments could be built. The majority of sites would have five or six units, with the largest having 40 units on five acres.

That’s when the outcry began. Some opponents have offered creative ways to comply with state requirements without building new housing. A technology manager suggested in his letter that Atherton try to count all the pool houses.

Others spoke directly about their home values. Mr. Andreessen, the venture capitalist, and his wife, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, a descendant of real estate developer John Arrillaga, warned in a letter in June that more than one residence on a single acre of land “will MASSIVELY decrease our home values, the quality of life for ourselves and our neighbors and will IMMENSELY increase noise pollution and traffic “. The couple signed the letter with their address and an apparent reference to four properties they own on Atherton’s Tuscaloosa Avenue.

The Atlantic reported earlier on the letter from the Andreessens.

Mr. Andreessen has been a strong supporter of building all kinds of things, including housing in the Bay Area. In a 2020 essay, he lamented the lack of housing built in the United States, denouncing the “soaring real estate prices” in San Francisco.

“We should have sparkling skyscrapers and spectacular living environments 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 at Felicis Ventures; Gary Swart, investor at Polaris Partners; Norm Fogelsong, investor at IVP; Greg Stanger, investor at Iconiq; and Tim Draper, investor at Draper Associates.

Many of the biggest tech companies have donated money to help solve the Bay Area housing crisis in recent years. Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, of which Mr Andreessen is a board member, has engaged $1 billion for the problem. Google promised $1 billion. Apple overcome both with a $2.5 billion pledge. Netflix has provided grants to Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit housing association. Mr. Arora of Palo Alto Networks has been on the board of directors of Tipping Point, a non-profit organization focused on alleviating poverty in the Bay Area.

Mr Senkut said he was upset because he felt the Atherton townhouse proposal had been done in an underhanded way without community input. He said the potential for increased traffic had him worried 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 for Mr. Andreessen, Mr. Arora and Mr. Wilson of Electronic Arts declined to comment. The other authors of the letter did not respond to requests for comment.

The volume of responses led Atherton City Council to drop the townhouse portion of its plan in July. On Aug. 2, he instead proposed a program to encourage residents to rent secondary suites on their properties, to allow people to subdivide properties and potentially build teacher housing on school property.

“Atherton is indeed different,” the proposal stated. Despite the “perceived affluent nature” of the town, the plan says it is a “cash-poor” town with few people considered to be at risk for housing.

Rick DeGolia, the mayor of Atherton, said the problem with the townhouses was that they would not have met the state’s definition of affordable housing because land in Atherton costs $8 million l ‘acre. A developer told him that the units could cost at least $4 million each.

“Everyone who buys from Atherton has spent a huge amount of money getting in,” he said. “They are very concerned about their privacy, that’s for sure. But there’s a different goal to getting affordable housing, and that’s what I’m focusing on.

Atherton’s new plan must be approved by the California Department of Housing and Community Development. Cities that fail to comply with state requirements for new housing to accommodate community growth risk fines, or California could usurp the local land use authority.

Ralph Robinson, an assistant planner at Good City, the consulting firm Atherton hired to create the housing proposal, said the state has rejected the vast majority of initial proposals lately.

“We are very aware of that,” he said. “We are aware that we will have these comments, and we may have to revisit some things in the fall.”

Mr. Robinson has seen similar situations unfold in Northern California. The main difference with Atherton, however, is his wealth, which attracts not entirely positive attention and interest.

“People are less sympathetic,” he said.

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