California's effort to require cities to provide their "fair share" of housing gained some muscle last month when Attorney General Jerry Brown sued Pleasanton over the city's housing cap.
But in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park and other California cities currently revising their long-term housing plans, planning officials aren't exactly rushing to meet the state's ambitious housing mandates. Some, in fact, argue that state guidelines for housing construction should essentially be ignored.
Palo Alto, like other Bay Area cities, gets its housing mandates from the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), a regional planning association. After revising its numbers last year, ABAG determined that Palo Alto would need to build 2,860 housing units by 2014 -- 1,969 more than the city has approved for construction thus far.
Last week, when the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission met to discuss the city's vision for housing, Commissioner Arthur Keller suggested that the city not base its growth plans on ABAG mandates. Instead, Palo Alto should identify sites where new houses could be constructed and where they wouldn't significantly impact schools and existing communities, Keller argued.
"I think that in terms of our various priorities, meeting the ABAG housing requirement is the lowest priority," Keller said. "You want to do a bottom-up analysis of where it makes sense to put housing."
Commissioner Lee Lippert, meanwhile, said he was concerned about the city's recent practice of allowing housing to be built at sites formerly occupied by neighborhood retailers. He also questioned the city's vision statement, which states that Palo Alto "will aggressively pursue a variety of housing opportunities and enhance the character, diversity and vitality of the city" and that the city is "committed to increasing the development of affordable and market-rate housing, including converting non-residential lands to residential or mixed use."
Lippert argued that the city has been too aggressive in promoting housing around El Camino Real, where an Italian restaurant and a major hotel were both transformed into housing developments in recent years. As a result, the neighborhoods along the busy stretch have suffered.
"Our vision statement is contradictory, if not dysfunctional, in terms of what we're doing," Lippert said. "Take El Camino -- the aggressive policy has really done a disservice to those neighborhoods.
"There's been vibrant retail along El Camino Real that has slowly been poached and turned into housing."
Palo Alto officials, like those in other Peninsula cities, note that Brown's lawsuit deals only with Pleasanton's voter-approved decision to institute a 29,000-unit housing cap, a limitation that other Peninsula cities do not have. In that sense, Brown's decision is expected to have no immediate effect on other cities.
But at the same time, planning officials say Brown's decision to take Pleasanton to court over the housing allotment suggests that state officials are becoming more concerned with enforcing mandates dealing with housing, traffic and air quality.
"I don't think (the lawsuit) is a concern yet, but I think we need to be aware of it," said Curtis Williams, Palo Alto's interim planning director.
"Someone is watching the air-quality requirements, the climate-change legislation and CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) compliance.
"It's something we'll continue to make the (planning) commission and the council aware of."
Mountain View Planning Director Randy Tsuda, said he doesn't expect the Pleasanton ruling to have any impact on his city's effort to update its Housing Element. Mountain View, like most cities, doesn't have a housing cap, he noted.
Douglas Frederick, Menlo Park's housing manager, also said it's too early to tell whether the lawsuit will impact his city. Menlo Park has been asked by the state to build 1,800 housing units.
"It might signal that the state is trying to reach further into enforcement of the housing-numbers mandate," Frederick said. "But so far, there's really not a lot of teeth to it, other than through the courts."