Faced with a stampede of massive new developments, Palo Alto officials are taking a fresh look at the zoning code and considering whether it's time to puncture the city's 50-foot height limit for new buildings -- a critical provision that has guided local development for nearly four decades.
The height limit, which the city instituted in the early 1970s, has long been considered a sacred-cow restriction by planning commissioners and residentialists intent on limiting development and protecting neighborhoods from the long shadows and parking impacts of new towers. While the City Council has occasionally allowed developers to transcend the 50-foot ceiling, such exceptions have been rare and typically involved extensive negotiations and significant public benefits offered by applicants.
Palo Alto already has several buildings that are much taller than 50 feet, including 11-story Channing House, the 15-story office building at 525 University Ave., and the eight-story Casa Olga building on Hamilton Avenue.
The four-story Lytton Gateway development, which the council approved earlier this year, is 50 feet tall but its design includes a corner tower that is 70 feet in height.
While city officials are unlikely to remove the height limit entirely, they are starting to chip away at the bedrock provision. Last month, during the council's long discussion of John Arrillaga's development proposal for 27 University Ave. -- a proposal that includes a theater and four office towers with heights greater than 100 feet -- council members directed staff to reexamine height limits in general.
The Planning and Transportation Commission considered this topic Wednesday night, Oct. 10, and while commissioners didn't take any votes, they were generally sympathetic to the idea of relaxing the city's height restrictions in certain cases. Commissioner Alex Panelli argued that tall buildings don't have to be eyesores and stressed that they could, in some cases, create new opportunities for the pedestrian environment.
"Is an eight-story building with a lot more open space better than a four-story building that's built sidewalk-to-sidewalk and road-to-road?" Panelli asked. "I don't know, but there are tradeoffs and I think we need to talk about those tradeoffs."
Others shared his view that taller buildings should be considered, but only under certain conditions and in certain locations. The most likely sites would be near the city's major transit hubs -- namely, University and California avenues. In 2010, the City Council voted to direct staff to explore exempting developers from the height ceiling for projects located next to Caltrain stations.
The topic of height limits also loomed large at the Sept. 24 council discussion of 27 University Ave. -- a project so ambitious that it will probably go to a vote. Councilman Pat Burt was one of several council members who argued that the proposed office buildings are too tall (the largest one would be 161-feet tall). Though he said he would be willing to exceed the 50-foot ceiling for this proposal because of its public benefits (the new theater with a public plaza and extensive improvements to the roads around the transit center), he also called on the city to reaffirm its general commitment to the height restriction.
Members of the planning commission likewise had mixed feelings about exceeding the 50-foot limit. Commissioner Samir Tuma said he would be open to allowing builders to go beyond the 50-foot ceiling by a few feet if doing so would result in a more attractive and interesting project. Easing the restriction, he said, would give developers more flexibility in designing the new buildings.
"What makes the environment interesting and enjoyable to us isn't just a matter of height and mass," Tuma said.
At the same time, Tuma argued that the city should have a broad discussion and consider a host of factors, including location and what the building would be used for. He also argued that this process should proceed independently of the recent proposal from Arrillaga.
"We want to come up with something that covers the whole city and not one project," Tuma said.
Chair Eduardo Martinez and Commissioner Michael Alcheck both said they were "protective" of the height restriction, citing its impact on the city's character and scale. Alcheck said it would be a mistake to completely avoid risks and ignore the lessons from the past 40 years about "smart growth" and transit-oriented developments. Even so, he stressed the need to proceed slowly and gather community input about the city's height limit before making any decisions.
"I'd tread cautiously there because there is a success story in Palo Alto that's not shared in the same way at the communities that surround it that has made the real estate values here so high," Alcheck said. "There's tremendous demand to be in this community because of its success story. The notion of changing certain development limitations is an important one."
Members of the city's Architectural Review Board (ARB) voiced similar sentiments on Oct. 4, when they tackled the topic of height limits. Most said the city should ease restrictions, but only in certain contexts. Board members generally supported allowing greater heights near transit centers but stressed the need to consider the parking impacts of the new developments.
ARB Chair Clare Malone Prichard said she supported eliminating the height limit and instead limiting the number of stories at new buildings. This would give developers more flexibility in designing the projects. She acknowledged, however, that an outright abolition of the height limit probably wouldn't fly in Palo Alto because of the community's fear of tall developments.