The crowd arrived early June 11 and quickly filled every seat in the Council Chambers of Palo Alto City Hall, including the folding chairs set up in the overflow area.
Many were armed with red "No Rezoning" buttons, petitions, videos of traffic congestion and reams of technical legal data. Hundreds had emailed the City Council prior to the meeting, urging rejection of the latest "planned community" development on its way to council approval. Dozens more chose to address the council directly, each blasting the proposed construction of an apartment complex for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes on Maybell and Clemo avenues.
The developer, the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing Corporation, rallied its own troops as well. Nearly half the crowd, including dozens of tenants from existing Housing Corporation developments, wore green "Yes on Maybell" stickers.
The city has approved several affordable-housing proposals over the past few years, including a 50-unit housing complex for low-income families at 801 Alma St., near Homer Avenue, and the 35-unit Tree House at 488 Charleston Road. The latter was also developed by the Housing Corporation, which manages affordable-housing complexes throughout the city. While both projects encountered some criticism from nearby residents before winning approval in 2009, the opposition hadn't come anywhere close to approaching the levels of exasperation and frustration that the Maybell proposal has provoked.
Councilman Larry Klein, who had sat on the council for most of the 1980s before returning in 2005, said he had never "experienced such virulent opposition." Bob Moss, a Palo Alto resident and regular critic of large developments, called the opposition the fiercest he's seen in his four decades of watchdogging.
Proponents of the Maybell project tend to dismiss opposition as the latest flashpoint in the perennial battle between builders and NIMBYs, and it's true that opponents cite potential traffic problems and visual blight on the neighborhood as reason enough to halt the project. But this explanation is partial at best.
It is the city's disregard, in the eyes of some residents, for the values that the city itself has proclaimed it upholds, that disturbs residents the most. On top of that, they say, the city's process for approving 567 Maybell Ave. has taken this disregard and shoved it in their faces.
Long before the City Council's June vote to rezone the property, it had loaned the Housing Corporation $5.8 million to purchase the Maybell site. The city's planning staff had also decided to count the project's 60 affordable units in the Housing Element chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, the city's chief policy-making document for land use. By the time the project came to the council for final approval, some in the community felt the game was rigged.
Art Liberman, president of the Barron Park Association, brought up the issue at July 10's meeting of the Planning and Transportation Commission. Speaking for the association, Liberman said residents "feel they were steamrolled" during the process. Barron Park recently surveyed association members, who supported by a three-to-one margin holding a referendum on the council's decision. Nearly two-thirds supported having the association spend $1,000 on two referendum petitions, one that would bring the council's approval to a citywide vote and another that would ask voters to undo the council's change to the Comprehensive Plan that accommodated the project.
"A palpable undercurrent of anger exists toward the city staff and this commission and the council about your actions on this project," Liberman said.
"They feel you -- staff and the commission -- were pushed by the PAHC to approve this project because of timelines they had set up and by investments and commitments the City Council had made. They feel you and the PAHC ignored their views. They feel that you and city's traffic department have been dismissive of their concerns about traffic and based your decisions on a traffic study that used outdated data, invalid methodology and had glaring deficiencies. They feel the only way for the city officials to listen to them is through a referendum."
The frustrations Liberman described aren't unique to the Maybell project or, for that matter, to south Palo Alto, the area that has had more than its share of residential growth in the past decade. In downtown's Professorville and Downtown North neighborhoods, residents have been urging the city for years to hit the brakes on new developments until the area's exhaustively documented parking shortage is addressed. And around California Avenue, a place of many recent and upcoming changes, residents have called for the city to take a step back and consider cumulative impacts of these projects rather than merely considering the effects of each one.
But from the perspective of frustrated residents, the broader problem is the way in which the Comprehensive Plan has been used (or, many would argue, selectively ignored) by the council and planning staff. While the vision document is often described as the city's "land-use bible," intended to guide development decisions, it has largely disappeared from major discussions over development. City planners and developers still cite Comprehensive Plan programs in advocating for new developments, but these references amount to little more than footnotes in the broader decision-making process, which is increasingly characterized by zoning exemptions and quid pro quo arrangements negotiated between the developer and the council during late-night meetings.
For land-use observers like Moss, that's a problem. Minutes before the council formally approved the Maybell project on June 28, he made a last-minute argument for why the project is inconsistent with the city's official vision. The new development, he argued, will "devastate the community" and "endanger the health and safety of the children going to and from the school."
"It's incompatible with the residential zoning in the area, which is a violation of the Comprehensive Plan, and it's a really bad idea," Moss said.
Seek and you shall find
Frustrations about the Comprehensive Plan aren't limited to the Maybell project. Just about every major proposal that the council has faced in the last three years, including John Arrillaga's idea for an office complex and theater at 27 University Ave. and Jay Paul Co.'s application to build two large office buildings next to AOL's Silicon Valley headquarters on Page Mill Road, has faced the same criticism: The council is paying too much attention to the developer's offer and not enough to the city's vision document.
In theory, the Comprehensive Plan should inform land-use decisions rather than justify them after the fact. The 300-plus page document is described in its introduction as "the primary tool for guiding the future development of the city." The introduction states that the plan "strives to build a coherent vision of the city's future from the visions of a diverse population."
"It integrates the aspirations of the city residents, businesses, neighborhoods, and officials into a bold strategy for managing change," the plan states. The document is supposed to be used by the council and the planning commission to "evaluate land use changes and to make funding and budget decisions" and by staff to make recommendations. It is also used "by citizens and neighborhood groups to understand the city's long-range plans and proposals for different geographical areas."
Given these stated functions, it's easy to see why in the current environment, where just about every major application seeks to be an exception from the Comprehensive Plan and the zoning regulations it fosters, residents are becoming cynical.
No project illustrates the fading influence of this community vision better than 27 University Ave., which also proposes a renovation of the downtown train station and public-transit hub. When the project reached the council in September 2012 for a preliminary review, it was described in an accompanying staff report as an "unprecedented opportunity" to transform the area as part of an "extraordinary public-private partnership." The staff report alludes to the Comprehensive Plan several times and at one point cites five different sections of the Transportation Element that would be consistent with the proposal (these include Goal T-1, "Less reliance on single-occupant vehicles," and Goal T-2, "A convenient, efficient, public transit system that provides a viable alternative to driving").
The report also mentions the city' 50-foot height limit for new developments and cites the Comprehensive Plan's assertion that "only a few exceptions had been granted for architectural enhancements or seismic safety retrofits to non-complying buildings." But it doesn't dwell on the height issue. Instead, it notes that that there are "many existing buildings in the adjacent downtown area" that exceed 50 feet and lists 10 examples.
Council members had met privately with developer Arrillaga in the months prior to the presentation, and most shared staff's initial excitement about the ambitious proposal. Downtown residents, for their part, saw it as a slap in the face.
In the Downtown North neighborhood, 185 people signed a petition circulated by resident Martin Sommer opposing the project. Sommer argued in the petition that the office buildings, the tallest of which was initially proposed at 163 feet tall, would destroy the neighborhood's view of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
"Stop this madness," the petition read. "Retain the Palo Alto 50-foot height limit."
Sommer's petition didn't mention the Comprehensive Plan, though it could have. The vision document includes Program L-26, which contains five "design priorities" for the site. The final bullet point, which isn't mentioned anywhere in the 27 University staff report, could hardly be clearer: "Protecting views of the foothills by guiding building heights and massing."
Nor does the staff report reference any of the Comprehensive Plan's many policies about protecting historic resources. In this case, the new office buildings would displace the Hostess House, which has been at the site since 1932 and is listed in both the city's Historic Inventory and the National Register of Historic Places. The Julia Morgan-designed building, which now houses the MacArthur Park restaurant, briefly served as the nation's first municipally owned community center before Palo Alto moved this function to a larger theater donated by Lucie Stern. The September staff report gives a brief history of the Julia Morgan building, notes that it would have to be moved and suggests El Camino Park as one of several possible new homes. But it does not delve into the broader questions of whether the relocation should happen at all. It doesn't consider whether moving the historic building would be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, even though the Plan addresses this issue directly with Policy L-56 -- "To reinforce the scale and character of University Avenue/Downtown, promote the preservation of significant historic buildings" -- or the much broader Goal L-1: "Conservation and Preservation of Palo Alto's Historic Buildings, Sites and Districts."
Not surprisingly, the proposal to move Hostess House faced a major backlash from the city's Historic Resources Board. At a Dec. 5 meeting, members unanimously panned the idea, with several arguing that doing so would jeopardize its historic status. Board member Michael Makinen argued that the Arrillaga proposal would degrade the quality of life in Palo Alto. Board member David Bower said he didn't understand how the project had gotten so far without the questions of historic compatibility being considered.
"There's not much in Palo Alto that gets more significant than having these older buildings in their original place," Bower said.
Though the Comprehensive Plan has been peripheral to the council's ongoing discussion of 27 University, at least one former official has asserted it should be central in the debate. Former planning Commissioner Susan Fineberg, who during her term served as the commission's unofficial torchbearer for the Comprehensive Plan, pointed out to the council on Dec. 3 that the "Comprehensive Plan and zoning do not in any form support the scale, size and uses of the proposed project.
"The council's actions on the matter will demonstrate to the citizens of Palo Alto whether our Comprehensive Plan and zoning code matter," said Fineberg, who concluded her tenure in 2012 after the council chose not to appoint her to a second term.
The Maybell debate offers another example of the Comprehensive Plan's fading influence among policy makers. In a recent interview, Mayor Greg Scharff pointed to the Maybell project as a perfect illustration of the Comprehensive Plan's limitations. The document, he told the Weekly, encourages the city to both support affordable housing and to protect neighborhoods.
"A lot of time the policies conflict with each other, so it's not prescriptive, and it's not easy to say if something is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. No matter how much we update the Comprehensive Plan, we still have that conflict right there," Scharff said.
But even so, Maybell also showcases the way in which the document has lost authority as a roadmap, being used instead as a tool for ex post facto rationalization. Planning staff had determined that the project would be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and cited in a June 10 report 19 different policies, programs and goals (the report notes that the list is "not exhaustive" and can be further expanded). The list included Policy L-13, "Evaluate alternative types of housing that increase density and provide more diverse housing opportunities"; Program T-36, "Make new and replacement curbs vertical where desired by neighborhood residents"; and Policy L-76, "Require trees and other landscaping within parking lots."
The list did not, however, include Policy L-5: "Maintain the scale and character of the city. Avoid land uses that are overwhelming and unacceptable due to their size and scale." Also missing from the staff report was any mention of Goal T-5, "A transportation system with minimal impacts on residential neighborhoods," or Goal T-6, "A high level of safety for motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists on Palo Alto streets." These omissions were particularly striking given that the heart of neighborhood opposition focused on potential traffic problems and the danger to children riding their bikes to school, with residents offering visual and anecdotal evidence of currently unsafe conditions in the bustling school corridor.
Scharff is correct to point out that the Maybell project includes tradeoffs: It's consistent with some policies and inconsistent with others. Reasonable people can reasonably disagree on whether the goal of promoting affordable housing should trump the goal of protecting a residential neighborhood against additional density. The job of the council, Scharff said, is to weigh these conflicts and make a judgment. But the conflict that Scharff mentions won't be found in the staff report. When planners list 19 reasons for why the project is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and zero reasons why it isn't, it's easy to see why legions of residents in Barron Park, Green Acres, Downtown North and other parts of the city feel like developers are in charge while the neighborhoods are being ignored.
When asked about the omissions in the recent staff reports, City Manager James Keene emphasized the limitations of these reports, which he said neither attempt nor intend to represent all views and tensions inherent in a project. The city assumes, even without explicitly mentioning these policies, "that so much has happened in public discussion and public process that it's really clear what those (tensions) are," he told the Weekly. The findings in the staff reports tend to support the particular staff recommendation rather than represent all views, he said.
"I think it would be a mistake to infer that those (policies) not existing in reports now signify any effort to sort of just steer a discussion toward a particular decision," Keene told the Weekly.
He acknowledged the city can do a better job identifying the tradeoffs that exist in the various development proposals and tracking the evolution of these projects. He said he plans to address this topic with Acting Planning Director Aaron Aknin for future projects.
"When we publish a final report, it's really trying to represent findings upon which that particular recommendation is being made," Keene said. "One of the things we should think about is how could we efficiently track and report the whole record of changes on a project going through time."
Keene also said the city recognized that the process it was following for 27 University was not effective. The new strategy involves more community involvement and strategic planning. On June 3, the council approved a staff recommendation to launch a "focused community input" process for the site. This process will include six to eight community meetings with the goal of coming up with a vision for the site acceptable to the community.
"We are trying really hard to be supportive and responsive to council and community intentions," Keene said. "We can't design a perfect process every time. We have to actually modify processes along the way based upon feedback."
Of carts and horses
When it comes to strategic planning, the Jay Paul Co. proposal for 395 Page Mill came at an unfortunate time. For the past four years, city planners and consultants have been working with residents and business owners around California Avenue on a "concept plan," a detailed vision document for the dynamic area that's been called the city's "second downtown." Over a series of sometimes emotional meetings featuring PowerPoint presentations, breakout sessions and debates over desired amenities, the group put together a detailed analysis of each section of the eclectic, mixed-use area between Cambridge and Portage avenues, which includes the Fry's Electronics site. The document, according to a March staff report, is supposed to "guide future land use and development activity within each area through the use of land-use designations and supporting Comprehensive policies and programs."
At a September discussion of the Jay Paul project, resident Fred Balin urged the council to complete the area's vision document before considering the new development, which at 311,000 square feet would bring more commercial growth into the city than the entire downtown has seen in a quarter century. Councilman Pat Burt also alluded to the timing issue, calling the council's deliberation "putting the cart before the horse" because the concept plan is still in the works.
Others disagreed. Councilman Larry Klein and then-Vice Mayor Greg Scharff both urged speeding along on the Jay Paul proposal. Klein encouraged his colleagues not to "dither" and rejected the idea that the city should wait for the concept plan to be completed before making a decision on the development.
"It might be nice to have a concept plan in place, but that's classic Palo Alto -- 'Let's study this thing until it doesn't have any life to it,'" Klein said.
Scharff shared Klein's enthusiasm for the proposal, which would also include a new police headquarters, calling it "a great idea, in concept" and predicting that the giant office complex would "add a lot of vibrancy on California Avenue."
This year, Scharff and Klein are both members of the council's newly formed Infrastructure Committee, which is charged with coming up with a plan to finance needed infrastructure repairs, such as a new police headquarters. In April, the committee, which also includes Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilman Marc Berman, discussed the Jay Paul proposal and tacitly approved an accelerated timeline for reviewing it. If all goes as planned, the project would go up for a council vote next year, in time for officials to decide whether to pursue a November infrastructure measure.
Even though this would be one of the largest commercial developments in the city, the Comprehensive Plan didn't come up once during the April discussion. (Scharff said recently that such a conversation was beyond the committee's purview and would have been premature.)
While 395 Page Mill gallops toward a vote, the area concept plan is languishing in planning purgatory. Numerous complications have arisen. These include a project to transform the California Avenue streetscape, which includes reducing the number of lanes from four to two on the commercial strip between El Camino Real and the Caltrain station. Merchants recently filed a lawsuit opposing the lane reduction, a move that "temporarily delayed the concept plan," according to staff.
The Jay Paul application itself delayed the concept plan's adoption. According to the June 24 staff report, the proposal has "shifted focus away from the concept plan until a more definite 395 Page Mill Road project was prepared and submitted to the city."
In a recent interview, Aknin characterized the city's simultaneous weighing of a concept plan and the Jay Paul application as a difficult "balancing act." In a "perfect world," Aknin said, the city would have a concept plan completed before an application is submitted.
At the same time, he said the two processes can contribute to each other. The city has just launched the environmental review for the Jay Paul proposal, and the traffic analysis from this review can inform the environmental review for the Comprehensive Plan, which is set to take place next year.
Furthermore, if the Jay Paul project were to be approved, it could inform the conversation about how land elsewhere in the area should be used.
"If in the overall area plan we are looking for X amount of office square footage and the Jay Paul project does go through, you'd have to say, 'If a lot of office is approved here, maybe more housing is appropriate for another portion of the plan," Aknin said.
Finding the right balance between current and advance planning is one of the biggest challenges of being a city planner, Aknin said. But even if this balance is achieved, one thing is clear: Much like with the Maybell debate and with Arrillaga's plan for 27 University, the community's vision is being strongly influenced by a single developer's proposal, rather than vice versa.
Mapping the future
As its broad name implies, the Comprehensive Plan means different things to different people. At the recent joint session with the council, planning Commissioner Carl King called it "a document that's probably referenced more than the Bible in Palo Alto" -- one that people "will point to for decades in saying that 'The city must do such-and-such.'"
For Commissioner Arthur Keller, the Comprehensive Plan and zoning laws serve to protect neighborhood character against the exuberance of the marketplace. At a March commission meeting, he recalled the housing boom of the mid-2000s and the council's 2006 decision to require "conditional-use permits" in certain areas before more housing could be approved. Without this restriction, Keller argued, more houses would have gone up, and "People would've lost their shirts trying to sell that housing in a housing downturn."
"To some extent, part of our job is to respond to market forces, but I think part of our job is actually to reduce the response to market forces," Keller said. "Because after all, what is built today and tomorrow is going to be here for 50 years. ... Moderating this so that the market forces don't overwhelm is part of our job," Keller said.
Council members Burt, Karen Holman and Greg Schmid routinely cite the document as an important foundation for weighing new policies, but they are the minority in this regard. Most council members appear content with approaching growth on a project-by-project basis, one "planned community" application at a time.
Keene called the Comprehensive Plan "one absolutely critically important piece of the puzzle," though he emphasized that there are many other pieces that the city has to consider in setting policy.
"The Comprehensive Plan is an important foundational document, but it can't be looked at in isolation from other tools that the city has it its disposal," Keene said. "It works in conjunction with the zoning ordinance. It works in conjunction with currying community opinion, involvement and voice, and in conjunction with the marketplace."
Mayor Scharff, for one, rejects the characterization of the Comp Plan as a "land-use bible." In an interview with the Weekly, Scharff noted that a Comprehensive Plan (or "General Plan" as documents of this sort are typically called) is legally required and "nice to have." But its value is limited by the fact that many of its policies conflict when evaluating a particular project.
Scharff also defended "planned community" (PC) zoning, which by definition is the exception to the rule -- allowing development that exceeds zoning regulations that, theoretically, were guided by the Comp Plan. PC projects have become increasingly controversial during the hot building climate of recent years (for more on this trend, see "Balancing benefits" in the April 12 edition of the Weekly).
The PC approval process, he noted, gives the council the power to demand things from an applicant that would make the project better, things that the applicant otherwise wouldn't have to provide. He pointed to the four-story office building that developer Charles "Chop" Keenan plans to build at 135 Hamilton Ave. and the redevelopment of the eight-story Casa Olga convalescent home downtown, which will reopen as a hotel. Both projects are consistent with the zoning code, and each relies on parking exemptions in the code. Each is thus expected to exacerbate downtown's already terrible parking shortage. Yet because these projects are consistent with their zoning designations, the council can't require them to provide more parking, Scharff said.
"If it (the Casa Olga project) was a PC, I would have discretion over it," Scharff said. "I think the PC process has merit. It allows a lot of flexibility and community benefits. It allows you to control the process in a way that is positive."
Scharff also rejected the suggestion that the city is overlooking the Comprehensive Plan in discussing major projects such as 395 Page Mill Road and 27 University Ave. Neither project has been approved, he said. Each would have to undergo review from the planning commission and the council, which would ostensibly involve discussion about compatibility with the Comprehensive Plan. The Infrastructure Committee intentionally avoided discussion of the Comprehensive Plan when it sped up the timeline for reviewing the Jay Paul proposal, he said.
As for Arrillaga's proposal, "It's unfair to talk about the Comp Plan with 27 University Ave.," he said. "No one has sat down and made findings to approve it. No one said whether it's within the Comp Plan or it's not."
But deferring this conversation carries its own costs, both financial and political. If 395 Page Mill is later found to be incompatible with the Comprehensive Plan, then the city is needlessly dragging its feet on the concept plan for California Avenue. If Arrillaga's proposal is later found to be completely incompatible with the Comprehensive Plan, then the city will have spent as much as $250,000 on design work and an initial environmental review with little to show for it.
Scharff acknowledged that some thought should be given to the Comprehensive Plan in the early stages, though he said he expects this to happen at the staff level.
"I think it would be incumbent upon staff if they thought they'd be inconsistent with the Comp Plan, to say so," Scharff said.
And while the Comprehensive Plan hasn't been a major feature of the Jay Paul discussion thus far, Scharff said he can think of several planning policies in the Comprehensive Plan that would be consistent with the proposal, including encouragement of development near transit areas.
The Comprehensive Plan, Scharff said said, is a "vision document about where in the big picture you want the city to be." But at the same time, things in Palo Alto have changed greatly over the past four or five years, Scharff said. These changes, he said, justify a complete overhaul of the Plan, which the planning commission decided to do after the council launched an "amendment process" in 2006. The revision is now entering its final phase after numerous detours.
Scharff said he expects the commission to complete its review of the updated Comprehensive Plan later this summer, at which time the council will begin reviewing each section (called an "element") one meeting at a time. Scharff said he is optimistic the process will be completed next year, an estimate that may seem ambitious given that the city's last effort to adopt a Comprehensive Plan took nearly 30 meetings.
The council's adoption of the amended Comprehensive Plan promises to finally bring to the forefront the debate over the city's values and strategies for growth. For Schmid, that can't happen soon enough.
In a recent interview, he echoed Scharff's observation that the Comprehensive Plan, while an important expression of community values, sometimes has a hard time keeping up with changes on the ground. Since the city adopted the vision document in 1998, the city has undergone four "revolutions," he said -- the dotcom boom in the late 1990s, the dotcom bust in the early 2000s, the influx of residential developments in the mid-2000s and the economic crash in late 2008. His list doesn't even include the last three years, which have seen the city rebound from the recession doldrums, spurring an influx of new office buildings.
A document created in 1998 can't possibly address all these changes, Schmid said.
"I think applications are very powerful, and I think there is a tradition in Palo Alto of permitting PCs, -- that is, variations from planned zoning because of special benefits," Schmid said. "I think it's an indication of the Comprehensive Plan having a hard time explaining or giving guidelines to a very dynamic community in a changing world."
Schmid agreed that many policies and programs in the document are now outdated. But even so, community values have not disappeared, and the vision statements at the beginning of each chapter should be taken extremely seriously, he said.
Holman agreed. Even with the Comp Plan revision languishing and the city undergoing massive changes, the existing document has plenty of good direction to offer policy makers, she told the Weekly.
"The Comprehensive Plan does talk about not having abrupt changes in scale (of buildings). It talks about having compatible uses next to each other. I don't think we do a very good job of that," Holman said in a recent interview. "I don't think we follow that well at all, and I think (the Comp Plan) is wonderful guidance."