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By Douglas Moran

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About this blog: As a teenager (in the 1960s), I stumbled across the insight that real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. As a grad student, I belonged to an...  (More)

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How Bad Policy Happens

Uploaded: Jul 25, 2014
Failure to lay proper groundwork for deliberations is a common cause of bad decisions. Sometimes this failure is simply ineptness, and sometimes it is a deliberate tactic by advocates to avoid scrutiny of their position. A developing example of this is a proposal to make substantial, far-reaching, long-term changes to the Housing Element of the City's Comprehensive Plan. Although this is complex proposal with highly technical aspects, only its text has been made available. There is no explanation of the intent of the various components, nor the data to understand the likely consequences, … Despite this failure to provide the necessary groundwork, a special meeting of the citizens' advisory group ("Community Panel") has been called.(foot#1) A common pattern is for such a meeting to be misrepresented as having gotten meaningful input from a wide range of stakeholders in order to move the proposal forward. When residents finally get the information and time needed to understand what is being proposed, they are too often told that they are "too late" and admonished for not becoming involved at the proper stage of the process.

As an illustration, I am going to step through this proposal.(foot#2) (foot#3) The authors of the proposal are two prominent affordable housing advocates who are among the (appointed) members of the Community Panel.(foot#4)
The Comprehensive Plan is structured into three basic levels: "Goals", "Policies" and "Programs". "Goals" are broad, abstract statements of intent. "Policies" provide specificity to the "Goals". "Programs" describe how the "Policies" are to be implemented. In the excerpts from the proposed changes, bold text indicates changed and added passages. Please bear with me on the limited formatting capabilities of the blogging package on this site.

The reader can get the gist from the first couple of examples. Masochists may want to read to the end.

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1. "H1 Goal: Change language: Maintain the unique character of residential neighborhoods while accommodating the need for more housing in appropriate locations."

When proposing a change of wording, it is inexcusable to not use the feature long available in text formatting programs to have strike-out/through text to show what has been replaced. In this case, "Maintain" is replacing "Ensure the preservation of". The change indicates an intent to greatly weaken the protection for neighborhoods, yet the authors do not indicate what they saw as the problem with the current text. But those questions pale in the face of the added text "while accommodating…": The phrase "appropriate locations" gives Staff and the Council an excuse to disregard the primary goal of this document whenever it suits them. Is this wise given their history of routinely make large concessions to developers for tiny amounts of affordable housing?

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2. "H1.4 Policy: Add Program: To allow for a gradual transition from dense to less dense zones, evaluate the possible rezoning to a new transitional low-density multi-family zone or overlay for existing R-1 areas that are contiguous to multi-family and/or commercial zones."

First, the members of the Community Panel have not been provided with maps showing the locations of "multi-family and/or commercial zones". While some neighborhoods came about as large tracts of single-family (R-1) houses, there are other neighborhoods, such as mine, that have multi-family housing mixed in with the single-family homes.
Second, notice that what is to be rezoned are not the properties that are immediately contiguous, but the "R-1 areas". What do the authors mean by that?
Third, even if "area" were to somehow defined to be a small one, this would create a mechanism for progressive rezoning of R-1: Areas close to multi-family or commercial zones would be rezoned to this new zone, which is itself a multi-family zone, and this would thereby qualify the R-1 areas near it to be rezoned, and on and on. Because this would seem to offer a bonanza to developers who have the influence and knowledge to work the system, this proposed change could provoke substantial redevelopment and densification of the existing R-1 areas.
Recognize that both authors of this proposal have considerable expertise and experience with planning, zoning and the Comprehensive Plan, and advertise themselves that way. I find it implausible that they would not have considered the issues I raised above.

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3a. "H2: Add Policy: Heighten community awareness regarding the social and environmental values of maintaining economic diversity in our City by providing affordable and mixed income higher-density housing along transit corridors and other appropriate locations."
3b. "H2: Add Program: Continue to provide information to the community via all forms of media regarding the need for affordable housing, the financial realities of acquiring land and building affordable housing and the reasons why affordable housing projects need to be higher density."

Although this talks of "provid[ing information", my expectation is that it will be used to proselytize for a very narrow political viewpoint. Given that the City Manager acknowledges that Staff Reports advocate for positions (foot#5) and have been widely criticized for doing so, why compound the problem? And if you need further convincing, consider the political dynamics of the Maybell-Clemo project that caused the critics to decide that a referendum is needed (that dynamic has been discussed extensively elsewhere on this website and is off-topic for this blog). I was told that at an an earlier meeting of the Community Panel, one of the authors of this proposal (Packer) wanted to include in the revised Housing Element that "residents' attitudes" were an obstacle to building affordable housing,(foot#6) but that Staff nixed that.

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4. "H2: Add Program: Consider amending the Zoning Code to add an Affordable Housing Overlay zone."

Explanation: A zoning overlay allows special rules to be applied to a particular area of an underlying zone (thereby avoiding a messy proliferation of the basic zoning categories). These rules can either add restrictions or allow additional uses. For example, residents of some neighborhoods that were built as single-story houses have chosen to have a "Single Story Overlay" to preserve that characteristic. For example, there are overlays for hotels, churches, auto dealerships … that allow them to be located where the underlying zoning wouldn't.
No explanation has been offered for what an "Affordable Housing Overlay" zone would be. I have searched the City's website and found a few mentions of this term, but no hint of what they see as a problem, or what sort of rules are being considered.
This is likely to set off alarm bells for anyone with experience in a bureaucratic organization, and for many managers: A vague agreement in principle can be recast as a commitment to approve or support the details of whatever results.

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5. "H2.1 Policy: Change the last sentence: Emphasize and encourage the development of affordable and mixed income housing to support the City's fair share of the regional housing needs and to ensure that the City's population remains economically diverse."

No explanation has been offered for the addition of "and mixed income", but notice the word "encourage". "Encourage" typically means giving developers bonuses and exemptions beyond what the zoning allows, and the value (profits) from these "encouragements" have traditionally not been tied to the value (costs) of the affordable housing. Recognize that some of these "encouragements" are mandated by the State of California, and some are Palo Alto choices.
Since the City already encourages mixed-income housing in the form of BMR (Below Market Rate a.k.a. "affordable") housing as part of Market-Rate housing developments, what is the purpose of this addition? Are we to provide bonuses to developers who build a mix of Market-Rate (for-profit) units in a development? Seems far-fetched, except when you consider local history. Palo Alto's Planning staff has time and again misused, distorted and misrepresented the Zoning Ordinance and the CompPlan to benefit developers. We would be crazy not to be paranoid about this happening again.

Now about "to ensure that the City's population remains economically diverse": The City doesn't have the legal power or financial resources to achieve this. But don't dismiss this as a meaningless, feel-good statement. Instead view it as opening the door for demands for programs that their advocates will claim will address the problem.

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6. "H2.1.1 Program: Change language: To allow for higher density residential development, amend the Zoning Code to permit high-density residential in mixed or single use projects in commercial areas within one-half mile of fixed rail stations and within one-quarter mile of transit [nodes along El Camino Real and San Antonio Road, …."

The first set of changes effective convert the "consider" of the current version ("Consider amending the zoning code to allow high density residential in mixed …") to "do it". Both the proposal's authors know from their long involvement in planning issues that mixing housing and commercial can be quite complex, and that some situations can be very destructive of commercial operations, including forcing businesses to close or to leave the area. They also know from the extensive discussions on protecting ground-floor retail that single-use housing projects (buildings that are all housing) can damage the vitality of retail in an area by reducing its density. Yet they seem quite happy to ignore all this.

On the "transit nodes" on El Camino and San Antonio: The map provided to the Community Panel was from 2002 and made no/little sense to the panel member who asked me about it. I served on the Citizens' Advisory Group for the project that generated that map, and I couldn't figure it out. As I discussed in earlier entries, the dogma of assuming that housing on these streets will generate significant transit users is faith-based, and contrary to both analysis and experience.(foot#7) Furthermore, these streets are supposed to be offer retail to the nearby neighborhoods, but again single-use housing development will further disrupt those districts.

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7. "H2.1.2 Program: Change language: Allow increased residential densities and mixed-use development while ensuring that urban services, amenities and roadway capacity are not overly impacted."

The current language is "where adequate urban services and amenities, including, traffic capacity, are available." Quite the change. The current version is already quite weak because the City routinely finds ways to declare that projects will have "no significant impact", but at least that is something residents can challenge. "Not overly impacted" is essentially a declaration of "Anything goes."

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8. "H2.1.3 Program: Change language: Amend the Zoning Code to increase the minimum density in all multi-family zoning districts as follows: the minimum density for RM-15 would be at least eight dwelling units per acre; the minimum density for RM-30 would be at least fifteen dwelling units per acre; the minimum density for RM-40 would be at least twenty dwelling units per acre."

The current Housing Element contains the minimum for RM-15 zones (Residential Multi-Family, up to 15 units per acre). The minimums for the higher density zones are new. The primary motivation was that developers were building well below the allowable densities because that was what was most profitable for them, and this difference made it more difficult for Palo Alto to meet the housing targets assigned by ABAG (Regional Housing Needs Assessment). A secondary motivation was that it was hoped that smaller units would mean fewer school-age children, but I don't know how that worked out. I don't know of the pros and cons of minimum densities for RM-30 and RM-40 zones.

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9. "H2.1.6: Change language: Implement density bonuses and/or concessions allowing greater concessions for 100% affordable housing developments."

"Implement" was previous "Encourage" and a qualifier has been dropped: "consistent with the Residential Density Bonus Ordinance." Again, the members of the Community Panel have not been provided explanation or background information. I don't have any knowledge on this issue.

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10. "H2.1.7: Add language: Develop a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program that is heavily weighted in favor of the development of affordable higher density housing in appropriate locations."

This seems to be intended as a change to Program H2.1.9: "Explore developing a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program to encourage higher density housing in appropriate locations."

The concept of TDRs is simple: Development rights that are locked onto a specific property create a use-it-or-lose it mentality that incentivizes developers to maximize each project. Allowing some transfers provides flexibility in exactly where specific development occurs and theoretically can lead to better projects. In addition to the theory-versus-practice problem, TDRs invite abuse. For example, TDRs granted to a developer for doing something that he wouldn't do anyway are "free money" (TDRs are valuable commodities), but obscures that fact from the public.

Then there is again that phrase "appropriate locations." My experience with affordable housing advocates is that virtually every location is an "appropriate location".

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11. "H2.1: Add [Program as follows: To encourage the development of affordable housing, amend the Zoning Code to remove density restrictions for affordable housing projects in commercial zones along El Camino Real and San Antonio Road, while retaining the Floor to Area Ratio (FAR) requirements."

More units = smaller units. The City is apparently considering "micro-apartments" of 150-300 square feet.(foot#8)
A persistent problem has been that the City planners forget that the El Camino commercial zone is adjacent to R-1 (single family homes).

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12. "H2.1: Add [Program as follows: To encourage the development of affordable housing, amend the Zoning Code to remove mixed-use requirements for 100% affordable housing projects along El Camino Real and San Antonio Road."

Again ignoring the potential for disrupting retail districts and causing problems for other commercial activities.

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13. "H2.1: Add [Program as follows: To encourage the development of affordable housing, amend the Zoning Code to change the multi-family zones from RM-15 to RM-30 along Alma Street."

So it is important to increase the density of housing near transit (above), and it is important to increase the density of housing where there is little or no usable transit?

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14. "H3.1 Policy: Add language: Encourage, foster and preserve diverse housing opportunities for extremely low-, very low-, low- and moderate- income households."

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15. "H3.1.11 and H3.1.12: Programs: Add very low- and low- income to these programs.

Probable typo, should be H3.1.10 and H3.1.11:
H3.1.10: "Adopt a revised density bonus ordinance that allows up to a maximum zoning increase of 35 percent in density and grants up to three concessions or incentives. The density bonus ordinance will meet State standards for the provision of housing units for very low- and lower-income renters, seniors and moderate-income condominium buyers in compliance with Government Code Section 65915, et seq."
H3.1.11 "Recognize the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park as providing low- and moderate income housing opportunities. Any redevelopment of the site must be consistent with the City's Mobile Home Park Conversion Ordinance adopted to preserve the existing units. To the extent feasible, the City will seek appropriate local, state and federal funding to assist in the preservation and maintenance of the existing units in the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park."

---- Footnotes ----
1. Housing Element Community Panel Meeting: Thursday 31 July 2014, 4:30-6:30pm in the Community Room of the Lucie Stern Community Center. Open to the public, but with any comments from the public coming at the end of the meeting (typically agendized for 6:15pm).
2. The proposal involves changes and additions to Chapter 5.2 of the Housing Element (2007-2014) of the Comprehensive Plan (CompPlan). This chapter starts at numbered page 165 which in the PDF is page 175 (of 238).
3. The text of the proposal as distributed has been made available on my website because I couldn't find it on the City's site.
4.Proposal authors: Dena Mossar is currently the Vice President of the Board of the Community Working Group, and a former Palo Alto City Council member. Bonnie Packer is currently the President of the Board of Directors of Palo Alto Housing Corporation, and a former member of the Planning and Transportation Commission of the City of Palo Alto.
Although people's roles and participation in various organizations are large factors in their being appointed to the Community Panel, their participation is as individuals, and their positions do not necessarily represent those of their organizations.
5. In "Residents, developers clash over city's vision:..." (Palo Alto Weekly 2013-July-19) City Manager James Keene is reported as having acknowledged this: "The findings in the staff reports tend to support the particular staff recommendation rather than represent all views, he said." (also cited the accompanying editorial "In city that loves to plan, Palo Alto's creates cynicism").
6. This would have been in Chapter 4 "Housing Constraints", which starts on numbered page 126, which is page 135 in the PDF of the Housing Element.
7. On transit nodes: Earlier blog entry Public Transit Follies and a comment of mine (Jun 12, 2014 at 2:12 pm or search for "VTA bus") on an entry before that (The Law of Supply and XXXXXX).
8. Micro-apartments of 150-300 sqft: Mentioned in an early blog entry "Should Palo Alto really aspire to be more like a Chinese factory city?". For visualization: A typical two-car garage is at least 420 sqft. For a Volvo station wagon to just be able to fully open its doors requires a garage of just under 200 sqft (11.5 ft wide by 17 ft long). Or consider the size of single person prison cell: A sample of the range of values found by web search: 48 sqft (6x8), 84 (7x12), 140 (10x14).

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The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

Comments

Posted by Bill, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 25, 2014 at 5:03 pm

Doug, after reading your post a few times, I'm not sure what you're asking us to do. Of course, the current process and proposed plan have been hijacked by low income housing proponents. I think we all expected that going into the update. Clearly, the majority of this will impact the south and Barron Park. There's no pretense that the existing character of our neighborhood is important and should be preserved.

What are our options, legal and otherwise?


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 25, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

@Bill,
I intentionally decided against making suggestions about what people should do, but rather by that absence I wanted encourage others to decide what response they wanted to encourage.

For example, members of the Community Panel could use this as background to ask questions of the stakeholder groups they are representing.

Secondarily, this information could provide a jumpstart for people asking questions of City Council candidates and/or listening to what they say. Similarly, this entry and subsequent comments could provide something for those candidates to leverage off of (pro and con). Those campaigns are just getting underway and tend to slowly ramp up during August, so there likely to be limited opportunities. However, candidates tend to start showing up at neighborhood "ice cream socials" (if invited/allowed).


Posted by Residentialist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 25, 2014 at 7:05 pm

@Doug,
I'm tired of calling the PAHC bloc affordable housing advocates. Affordable housing is a side-effect of what is now the interests of a large self-interested organization with very highly paid employees at the top, with developers on the board. Affordable housing for Palo Alto in whatever way works best for Palo Alto and its residents has come below the interests of the organization, otherwise the City's affordable housing fund would have gone to help at BV rather than for buying up Maybell.

What you have described is what is best for that organization, intended apparently to make what happened at Maybell impossible when they try the next time -- NOT to make it possible for people in Palo Alto to increase and preserve inclusionary housing, of which low-income housing is only one category. High density housing happens to be practically inaccessible to the disabled and those with mobility problems, and making all new housing so inaccessible is becoming discriminatory (something inclusionary housing rules were supposed to prevent).

I would note, too, that building right up to the sidewalks shuts off advances in transportation and energy that could mean better mobility for the disabled on separated throughways - Segways with exoskeleton attachments? "driverless" wheelchairs? -- it's hardly possible to even use the sidewalks comfortably for a single-file group of pedestrians. Making the roadway so constrained makes travel so unpleasant, what happens when advances in energy make emissions not the problem anymore and the narrow roadways constrain options for driverless vehicles?

Housing for the disabled, whether low-income or not, should be the first priority of inclusionary housing rules. In my experience as a PAUSD parent, small units only means people cram into small units to send their kids to local schools. It's as predictable as the experience at Arbor Real, where we were somehow promised those units would be only of interest to older people without kids. (I'm sure there were other ridiculous rationalizations like single-family homes would be freed up by empty nesters moving in there, I can't remember now. They weren't even good lies.)

I'd love to see you post about what we residents can do about this. I don't have time to spend on this farce. Although, when I tried, I was unable to even open the Natural Environment and a few other key elements. Do they open now? I find it interesting that we don't have a separate Safety or Traffic Circulation Element as the state mandate enumerates (I realize we can roll it together but it ends up making those an afterthought), but in this revision somehow there is now a separate "Business" Element which the state doesn't even require. Would that be a further weakening of the place of residents in their own town's future?

Safety should be the priority, and development should play second fiddle to safety. Just curious, has there been any attempt to revise and improve the Safety Element (in the Natural Environment Element for some ridiculous reason)?

Could you please post what residents can do to oppose this boobytrapped document? Will it be enough to vote in a residentialist slate of City Council candidates? What are the administrative and legislative remedies if we object? I think we should go back to the existing plan and start discussing how to improve it so that more Big Picture planning happens, that takes into account resources and quality of life. Barring that, I think opposing this doc will be Measure D 2.0. What are the steps?

****************************

P.S. I find it interesting that when it served PT&C's purposes to call Arastradero a residential arterial, City documents say only that it's surrounded by R-1 neighborhood on all sides. When they wanted to push through the upzoning, it was a different story, trying to use the exception of the Tan and Arastradero Apartments to recharacterize the area.

Residents of Palo Alto should be really alarmed by this. And frankly, so should anyone who cares about affordable housing. If this goes through, it will create such a backlash against affordable housing like this town has never seen. It's Packer's attitude that could use a change, if she had only realized residents' not liking opposing PAHC over what they felt was a bad plan would have been only too happy to put the citizen energy into finding a different way to achieve the affordable housing, including the same public pushing to help the residents buy BV at that point in time. But that would have put affordable housing above the organization's interests, and based on the revisions above, that's clearly not what they want.


Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 25, 2014 at 9:44 pm

> I have searched the City's website and found a few mentions of this term

The City's web-site search engine is notoriously unproductive in rendering search results. There are a number of reasons—the top two being that many documents on that web-site are in image-pdf format, which can not be searched. The other reason is that there is no way to know what kinds of documents are on the site to be searched to begin with.

I agree with the first poster—there is not real closure to this posting. Your explanation does do much for people who are not as detailed-oriented as you are, or who have the time/inclination to dig into these matters as you do. If you want to be helpful, you need to be more helpful in providing at least some alternatives. Other people will doubtless come up with their own ideas, but this posting isn't likely to help very many people.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 25, 2014 at 11:49 pm

I have nothing against the idea of affordable housing in principal. What worries me most is that the people who we think of as needing help e.g. teachers, police, firefighters, etc. don't necessarily want to live in the place they work or would rather live somewhere cheaper so that they can afford a proper house with a yard for their family.

Those that end up in affordable housing are often unable to maintain the property for various reasons and the housing can end up looking like a slum. When we talk about affordable housing, are we talking about renters or homeowners? At least the landlord of renters should be able to maintain the property if the renter keeps breaking things, but homeowners may not see the need for keeping things in order. Of course many people will do their best to maintain the property, but it just takes one to make the place look bad.

If we can guarantee that the affordable housing does not turn into slums, that's fine. But can we guarantee it?


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 26, 2014 at 12:37 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

The issue of "slum" is a red herring, and I (the blogger) am ruling it off-topic.

"Affordable housing" should not be confused with poverty which should not be confused with lack of pride in where you live.
Many of the people living in affordable housing have decent jobs.

Qualifications for the BMR (Below Market Rate) housing units--often mistakenly called affordable housing--is based on family size and the Area Median Income (AMI) where "area" is Santa Clara County, not Palo Alto. There is some variation in how AMI is calculated and the qualifications.

Using the numbers from 2008 (the first I could find), a family of four is regarded as:
- "extremely low income" for a household income up to $32K (30% AMI)
- "very low income" up to $53K (50% AMI)
- "low income" up to $85K (80%)
- "moderate income" up to $105.5K

Because of how the housing market and the regulations work, most of the BMR units built in Palo Alto are in the top-most range (for "moderate income").


Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Jul 26, 2014 at 3:07 pm

> … notice the word Encourage…

Most of the city's "plans," as well as staff objectives, are loaded with words like this – vague and unmeasurable: revitalize, work on, ensure, assist, promote, …

Random examples from 2013 budget Goals and Objectives (upper case highlights are mine):

Goal 1: WORK WITH customers (property owners and developers) and the public to efficiently process planning, land use and zoning applications for quality design
Objectives:
• IMPROVE customer satisfaction and staff response time
• INCREASE the number of affordable housing units
• PROMOTE increased levels of greenbuilding and sustainability practices with development

How are these guys evaluated when there's nothing quantifiable in their objectives? Will a 1% increase or decrease guarantee the objective is met?

The city council has no clue about priorities or managing by objectives, probably because very few of them have ever worked for a real company. So they allow staff to get away with their little games instead of calling City "Manager" Keene on the carpet and telling him his job is on the line. (As if that will ever happen.)

When words are not precise, people can interpret them as they choose and redefine them to suit their own ends.

Consider: "Hillary Gitelman, the city's director of planning and community environment, said the staff report submitted to the council later this week "will be very clear that the proposed project rests on an interpretation of the term 'building envelope.' Web Link


Posted by Bob Moss, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 26, 2014 at 3:28 pm

I sent this letter to the Planning Commission last week in response to the proposals by Mosser and Packer.

Housing Element Updates

Since the Housing Element will be reviewed and discussed again later this month I wish to submit some comments on it and address the suggestions for modifications that have been submitted by Dena Mosser and Bonnie Packer. While well-intentioned many are inappropriate and unlikely to generate any significant number of affordable housing units, but they could adversely impact existing R-1 housing.

The Housing Element must state clearly that recommendations by ABAG and other regional organizations to locate higher density housing developments within ¼ mile or ½ mile of transit corridors such as El Camino Real or CalTrain are unacceptable and shall not be approved in Palo Alto. The vast majority of land and existing development in those areas is single family residential and is and for over 40 years has been zoned R-1. There must be a strong statement that it is firm City of Palo Alto policy that no land that is zoned R-1 will be redeveloped at higher density. This policy has been stated repeatedly by the City Council and most members of the Planning Commission, and is strongly supported by Palo Alto residents and homeowners.

The proposed change to Goal H1 "while accommodating the need for more housing in appropriate locations" should be modified to add "which exclude any properties now zoned R-1 or developed as single family neighborhoods."

The addition proposed to H1.4 would destroy R-1 housing and neighborhoods adjacent to multifamily housing, violate the Comprehensive Plan and established City Council policy, allow almost any residential area to be identified as a transitional zone suitable for high density development, and can generate significant community outrage and strong responses.

Proposed new Policy H2 is inappropriate. Affordable housing is not a zone that can be applied anywhere. Palo Alto has required a portion of new housing developments to include or fund affordable housing for almost 40 years. We were one of the first cities to impose such as requirement on housing developments. Emphasizing affordable housing in specific areas can tend to concentrate lower income households and is bad public policy. The existing requirements can assure a portion of new housing developments will be BMRs, providing lawsuits in other cities don't prohibit BMR requirements in future developments. The reference to "other appropriate locations" is extremely vague and can mean almost anything or anywhere.

The proposal to add an Affordable Housing Overlay Zone fails to define the zone characteristics, where it could be applied and why it is preferable to lump affordable housing into certain sites. Existing city housing policy that requires a portion of new housing developments to include at least 10% or 15% BMR units is superior as it both obtains BMR housing and makes those BMR units an inclusive part of the development. It is bad policy to concentrate affordable housing in specific locations.

The addition to H2.1.1 of "to permit high-density residential …within one-quarter mile of transit nodes along El Camino Real and San Antonio Road" should not be adopted since almost all of those areas are R-1 zoned and single family occupancy. High density residential is unacceptable in current R-1 zones.

Modifying H2.1.3 to require that actual development density of new projects in RM-15, RM-30 and RM-40 is at least half the maximum allowed zoning is dubious. Previously developers insisted on building fewer than the maximum allowed number of units with larger floor areas, stating that was what the market demanded. Before such a requirement is adopted a number of active developers should be contacted and asked if there is in fact a market for those kinds of developments.

The proposed new programs under H2.1 should not be adopted. It is a very bad idea to remove density restrictions in any zone. It is essential that adjacent property owners have a clear idea of what may be built near them, and this proposal makes future land use and development a guessing game. It is especially inappropriate along El Camino and San Antonio that abut large areas of R-1 housing.

Removing the mixed-use requirement for housing along El Camino would have several serious negative impacts. El Camino is supposed to be a street with ground floor retail that serves nearby residents and makes it easy and convenient to shop. Eliminating the ground floor retail will adversely impact shopping vitality, make nearby neighborhoods less walk able as shopping locally will be more difficult, and puts residential units directly on street level along a very heavily trafficked commuter route. Since market rate housing in Palo Alto is lucrative, such a requirement can force out local retailers, badly damaging El Camino real as a walk able shopping area, and destroying small businesses.

Increasing the zoning along Alma from RM-15 to RM-30 will have little benefit for affordable housing since as usual any residential development in Palo Alto will be market rate with the number of BMR units limited to the percentage required by law. However a significant increase in density will have a very negative impact on the R-1 homes that about multifamily housing along much of Alma, and will greatly increase traffic on Alma.

Obtaining a significant number of affordable housing units in Palo Alto is very difficult, since median housing prices in Palo Alto are the highest of any city in the U.S. that has both housing and commercial development. In June 2014 the median price of a home in Palo Alto was $2,339,000. Land costs are as high as $8.7 million/acre, based on what the 2.49 acres at Maybell and Clemo recently sold for. Zoning for affordable housing, or urging developers to build affordable housing is ineffective. Without a major source of funding to subsidize affordable housing, either from philanthropists or government sources, only BMR units that are required based on city law will be built. Despite the requirement for BMR units as part of new housing developments, in 40 years only 438 BMR units were built in Palo Alto. The assigned goal of over 1100 more BMRs by 2023 is extremely unlikely to be met.


Posted by Neilson Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 26, 2014 at 5:09 pm

It is great that public engagement on the Housing Element has started and will continue into 2015. These discussions and debates will add clarity and improve the Comp Plan. Three things to think about:

Eliminate the word "encourage". Insert "identify incentives and exemptions". Minimize the weasel words. At the program level require that incentives and exemptions are fully vetted thru public process and are always sunsetted at a pre-determined time point.

Provide a glossary. For example, affordable housing has at least 3 primary market segments. 1)lower income families, 2)mid income workers such as nurses, public safety, etal 3)post college, young, well educated, high potential engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists(bio, medicine, nano, computer,attorneys(God forbid!), financial wizards, etal. In Palo Alto it is a nightmare for these segments to get a foothold. Although they have a very wide range of disposable income, the housing elemet must address programmatically housing inventory will satisfy their demand and at which "high" price will they pay.

Palo Alto's Culture will be driven by its housing inventory not its commuter culture. A Comp Plan program should require the Mayor to report the housing/job ratio each year and give this metric full public view. Likewise, the State of the City Address can shed light of the mix of housing types, prices and locations. A simple annual revelation of housing "mix" clarifies who we are and who "we" will be.


Posted by resident, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jul 26, 2014 at 10:25 pm

Thank you for a very insightful topic with great responses ( except for "red herring" item). Bob Moss and Residentialist provided great information. Seems like the city is just creating a panel that makes it easy to "slip in" new programs. City can now claim a "community panel" suggested these ideas? How can the city be told they are not providing enough information to residents? These panels seem very secretive. I did not see any current minutes published on the Website. Web Link

Next housing element meeting is Thursday July 31, 4:30-6:30 at Lucie Stern Community Center.

4:30 is not a very good time for the working population. It seems most of the panel represents their "work/nonprofit" so unfortunately, timing of these meetings did not need to suit Palo Alto residents. Panel member's obligations/work also explains why the panel does not represent the ideas of most Palo Alto residents.


Posted by Bob, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 27, 2014 at 9:29 am

> What worries me most is that the people who we think of as needing
> help e.g. teachers, police, firefighter

Have you been paying attention to the constant increases in salaries and pension benefits that these three groups have been awarded over the years? Police and firefighters in this town (and most of the large urban centers in CA) are now drawing salaries of $140K to $200K+ a year. Teachers in the PAUSD average about $90K a year, with a significant number now drawing salaries over $120K a year. For those who are living in two-income homes, it's hard to believe that many of these couples are not drawing over $250K a year between them.

And all of these people will be drawing millions in their retirement years. These people don't need "affordable" housing, or any help from us.

> A Comp Plan program should require the Mayor to report the
> housing/job ratio each year and give this metric full public view.

While the new registry might give the City some sense of the number of jobs in town, it is a meaningless number—and the City should not be encouraged to use it. This whole concept has been discounted time and again.

The idea that someone from SF can take the train to PA, sit with ten other people on two sides of a long table that perhaps takes up 60 to 100 sq feet, and now the City has to find space for him, his family, and who knows how many friends to live in PA, is NUTS!

Most people live where they want to live—not where the government, or unelected social engineers, wants them to.

> A simple annual revelation of housing "mix" clarifies who we are and who "we" will be.

Not certain that this is true. Palo Alto has an ever increasing number of retired folks, who often just want to live out their years not being pawns in anyone's political theatre.

> Seems like the city is just creating a panel that makes
> it easy to "slip in" new programs.

Actually—it's hard not to find any Board/Commission that isn't stacked towards the City's agenda. The same names, faces and voices are heard time-and-again.


Posted by iconoclast, a resident of University South,
on Jul 27, 2014 at 7:00 pm

"My experience with affordable housing advocates is that virtually every location is an "appropriate location". "

Except, of course, the R-1 enclaves they live in.


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 28, 2014 at 10:30 am

Can this thing be referended?


Posted by Neilson Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 28, 2014 at 10:53 am

My point is that affordable housing is commonly misunderstood as subsidized housing for low income citizens. I would broaden affordability to a goal for housing inventory that allows key groups of citizens to live in Palo Alto at market rates.
Lets analyze affordability at the extreme level. Many top level Stanford masters and PhD graduates with earning power find it difficult to locate in Palo Alto. Not only are prices pushing beyond their earnings but also vacancies are few. Is this what we want for the long term? If Palo Alto and the entire region keep housing inventory relatively fixed, then we will find ourselves out of luck for mid-income, non-stock option folks like public safety, RNs and many more. The impact on lower paid service workers and their family life is profound. Palo Alto is just one tiny piece of the irony of region. The options seems to be to do nothing, find tiny adjustments and/or set some goals for job/housing ratios.


Posted by Bob, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 28, 2014 at 11:30 am

> Many top level Stanford masters and PhD graduates
> with earning power find it difficult to locate in Palo Alto.

And your point is?

> Is this what we want for the long term?

There is only so much space here in Palo Alto. The premise that Stanford graduates should somehow be given priority for living space is not very "democratic". It also doesn't even remotely reflect the way a market works.

> we will find ourselves out of luck for mid-income,
> non-stock option folks like public safety,
> RNs and many more.

Again .. people live where people want to live. People who want to own a boat, or an RV, and need to park these vehicles somewhere—will find themselves bumping up against Palo Alto's "culture". Hunting and fishing—such people are pariahs in many PA neighborhoods.

When people walk into a bank for a loan—they have to reveal their total household income. Claiming that a single person in a given job title can't live here is unprovable—without having the total family income open for inspection.

> set some goals for job/housing ratio

Not a viable option. Doing nothing would put the onus on where to live back on the individual—not the government.


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 28, 2014 at 1:41 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Re: Neilson v. Bob

My earlier blog entry "The Law of Supply and XXXXXX" (Web Link) discussed the fallacy of considering the jobs-housing (im)balance as an issue of housing, ignoring jobs.

The local and regional governments have long not only ignored that the growth in jobs was greatly exceeding the housing supply, but actively encouraged that job growth.

As a starting point, consider two extreme positions:

1. Anyone who wants to have a job here -- both companies wanting to locate jobs here and the individuals filling those jobs -- should be able to do so and at a price that they can reasonably afford. It is the obligation of existing residents to sacrifice to allow this to happen.

2. We don't have a housing deficit, but rather a jobs bubble. We should let "the market" punish those involved in the bubble, especially the commercial real estate interests that overbuilt. Residents should not be required to bail-out those who made bad investments. That some "innocent" parties, such as individual employees, are damaged in the process is an unavoidable part of how "the market" works.

In considering positions between those extremes, understand the scale of the problem:
There was a calculation (I believe by Council member Pat Burt) that Palo Alto would *not* meet its current "Housing Allocation" (from ABAG) even if it were to bulldoze the whole of the Downtown North neighborhood and replace it with housing at Palo Alto's current maximum density (Downtown North was selected for this calculation because of its proximity to the University Ave Caltrain station). And that "Housing Allocation" would *not* resolve the jobs-housing imbalance even if no new jobs were added in Palo Alto.


Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Jul 28, 2014 at 4:23 pm

pat is a registered user.

If you are opposed to ABAG and its housing mandates, sign the petition at Web Link


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 28, 2014 at 5:07 pm

"There was a calculation (I believe by Council member Pat Burt) that Palo Alto would *not* meet its current "Housing Allocation" (from ABAG) even if it were to bulldoze the whole of the Downtown North neighborhood and replace it with housing at Palo Alto's current maximum density"

Did that calculation consider that Downtown North is already Palo Alto's most densely populated neighborhood, so the displaced population would need to be rehoused?

The only arithmetically viable option is to distribute new housing throughout Palo Alto so every neighborhood resembles Downtown North (which is a great place to live, BTW). Carrying out any option would involve eminent domain proceedings on a massive scale, with a commensurate civic government expenditure. It ain't gonna happen.

Ignore ABAG, let them expire of terminal whining.


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 28, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: curmudgeon "...only arithmetically viable solution..."

Clarification: The point of the "bulldoze Downtown North" calculation I reported was not anyone advocating doing it, but rather to provide a *visualization* of just how much space would be required--there were widespread misconceptions that a little here and a little there would be enough.

Since what was being advocated was very high density near transit, the University Ave Caltrain station was chosen ("Baby Bullet", Stanford,...) and DTN was chosen as the closest residential neighborhood to that station.


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 29, 2014 at 9:49 am

Understand and concur. FWIW, here's another. An apartment building at 27 University with 25 units per floor that fulfills our current 2179 ABAG quota would be 88 stories (basically 900 ft) high.

But back to the main topic: city hall has learned some lessons from CC first edition, which tended to be embarrassingly specific about certain community livability points that city hall would rather pretend away. This new plan will be much more amenable to favored interpretations and, unlike edition one, it won't have to be amended to conform to each egregious development.


Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 29, 2014 at 11:55 pm

Doug why don't you run for Council. There is still time, and this would be a good year for it.

Are you going to the exclusive slate strategy session Wednesday in Professorville? If you are, don't tell them that you are running for Council or you are likely to be disinvited.

I admit the above is more a reaction to the column generally and not adding anything to the discussion per se. Can't you take a compliment?

(I should say the same thing to Neilson and Bob Moss --in fact I have...)


Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Aug 7, 2014 at 12:09 pm

Speaking about "Bad Policy" .. During the Maybell chaos, Blogger Moran made the comment in one of the many discussion threads: "governance my ballot initiate is a bad idea".

That was his opinion, and he may be sticking with it. But it certainly seems like there are many, many, more ballot initiatives in our collective futures.

[[From the blogger: Just to keep this from propagating as a "fact". (1) I could not find this quote using web search, both generic Google and on the PA Online site, (2) it is very unlike me to make two typos within three words, (3) it is unlikely that I would have made this statement in that context: I see initiatives as a useful tool for citizens to deal with unresponsive governments.]]


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