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New 'planned community' battles loom in Palo Alto

From Barron Park to Ventura, residents concerned about new, dense buildings

With residents in Barron Park and Green Acres up in arms against a planned housing complex on Maybell Avenue, their counterparts in Evergreen Park, Ventura and other neighborhoods around the city's center are preparing for their own battles against dense development eyed for their backyards.

The latest neighborhood to enter the fray in the grassroots battle against "planned community" zoning and densification is the residential community around El Camino Real and Page Mill Road, a congested intersection that is now the focus of several new proposals. Last year, the Pollock Financial Group bought a parking lot at the northeastern corner of the intersection, where it now looks to build a four-story, 50-foot-tall building that would be occupied by a bank.

To do that, it would need Palo Alto officials to rezone the site to "planned community," which would allow the developer to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated "public benefits." This is the same zoning designation sought by the Jay Paul Company, which is looking to build two four-story commercial buildings with 311,000 square feet of office space a stone's throw away from the lot, at 395 Page Mill Ave.

Both proposals are still in their early phases. Last month, the Planning and Transportation Commission heard a presentation from Pollock but refrained from initiating the zone change. Instead, it directed the applicant to return in four to six weeks, when the city has at its disposal an independent economic analysis of the proposed zone change. Several members of the commission pointed to the growing public opposition to PC-zoned projects and stressed the need to demand adequate public benefits from developers.

At that meeting, only two nearby residents spoke out in opposition to the planned building, which would be 50 feet tall and feature three levels of underground parking. When the project returns to the commission and, ultimately, the City Council, the number of critics will likely swell.

David Rockower, a resident of Silverwood, a three-story condominium complex just northeast of 2755 El Camino, said he and other homeowners have recently learned about the Pollock proposal and are now trying to get the applicant and the city to address their concerns, which mostly pertain to traffic and density. One major driveway, he said, would be placed right next to the Silverwood community, effectively sending cars "2 feet from the residents' backyards."

"It destroys the residential nature of the community," Rockower said.

One neighbor, Deborah Italiano, raised this point at the Sept. 11 meeting of the planning commission, noting that under the proposed layout, cars will be zooming right past Silverwood windows.

"It's going to basically be traffic by people's bedrooms and living rooms," Italiano said.

Earlier this month, the Silverwood homeowners met with Pollock and saw a model of the proposed building. Residents expressed their concerns and were assured by the representatives that they will continue to work with the residents to address the issues. They did not, however, offer any revisions to their plans or accommodations, Rockower said.

At the Sept. 11 meeting of the planning commission, developer Jim Baer, a member of the applicants' team, assured the commission that the project would not have an adverse impact on traffic. One of the public benefits Pollock is proposing, he said, is a right-turn lane from Page Mill to northbound El Camino Real.

Not everyone is convinced. Rockower called the proposed lane a "good solution to a different problem" than the one he and his neighbors are worried about. Morris Page Mill, LLC, which owns the Sunrise of Palo Alto assisted-living facility next to the lot, is also skeptical. In February, Morris Page Mill's attorney submitted a letter arguing that the proposal is incompatible with the nearby "neighborhood commercial" zone and that it would diminish the view of Sunrise residents and "increase traffic congestion in an already-congested area."

Rockower said a Sunrise representative attended the homeowners' meeting with the Pollock Group on Oct. 9. Now, Rockower is circulating a petition that lays out the homeowners' concerns. The petition argues that the proposal for 2755 El Camino is "too large a building, generating too many more traffic problems for local residents, too close to an intersection that is already a major problem."

Chris Donlay, who lives on Pepper Avenue, which lies in the neighborhood south of Page Mill Road, also has plenty at stake when it comes to the recent crop of "planned community" proposals. He is one of a handful of residents who have become engaged in the planning process in recent months, as the Jay Paul and Pollock Group proposals embarked on their crawls through city review. On Sept. 11, Donlay told the commission that he and his neighbors have "grave concerns" about the two proposals and their impact on traffic and parking in the Ventura neighborhood.

"Bringing such a huge project and cramming it into such a small space will only make it worse," Donlay said. "It's underparked and over-occupied, and while we as a neighborhood feel that rezoning may be a good idea, we do not feel that cramming such a huge project into this site is a good idea."

He suggested that the city hold off on approving the Pollock proposal until after it's done evaluating the impacts of the Jay Paul plan.

Earlier this month, Donlay emailed the city's planning department and argued that "no additional projects make sense in the area until the horrendous traffic situation at the Page Mill/El Camino Real is resolved." He also cited the "comprehensive surveys" that residents in the Evergreen Park and Ventura neighborhoods have been conducting, which are similar to ones compiled by Downtown North residents earlier this year.

The map of the Evergreen Park neighborhood, north of the California Avenue Business District, shows the entire commercial stretch of the neighborhood filled with cars. The area bounded by Park Boulevard on the east and El Camino on the west is entirely red between Oxford Avenue and Page Mill at noon, connoting saturation of more than 80 percent. On most blocks in this section, the saturation rate is 100 percent or more, suggesting that there are more parked cars than parking spaces (for details about how these surveys are conducted, see "Much ado about parking" in the Oct. 4 issue of the Weekly or on PaloAltoOnline.com).

Though both the Jay Paul and the Pollock development proposals have received some early praise from a few council members during early "pre-screening sessions," where no formal action is taken, the November election could pose an obstacle for the two applicants. The battle over the planned-community zone change on Maybell has energized land-use critics from throughout the city, with about 4,000 people signing the referendum petition that brought Measure D to the ballot.

The changing public mood has already affected the council's stance toward public benefits. The council decided earlier this year to require independent economic analyses for major new PC proposals. At the Sept. 11 planning commission meeting, Vice Chair Arthur Keller argued that the city needs to be diligent about making sure it is getting enough public benefits from developers seeking a PC zone.

"There's been significant complaints in the community about public benefits that turn out not to be benefiting the public," Keller said, before the commission voted to continue its discussion to a later date.

Comments

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 26, 2013 at 1:40 pm

It's time the City offer more transparency to the planning process that offers the public more information about the projects that are in process--particularly those that are identified as "Planned Community" (PC). This article says that there were only two people present at the meeting, objecting to this re-zoning, and project.

So, how many people actually knew about the meeting, or the project? The City often uses its GIS system to send out mailers about some projects, or events, like public meetings that are educational. But it's clear that the City is not using all of the facilities at its disposal to alert the public to these sorts of meetings, or to accept email, or other digital input, the way it does having people travel downtown to sit through the time-wasting affairs.

People don't have a lot of time to spend on these sorts of issues, so being able to use the Net, to use Instant Messenger, and VideoChat will be increasingly important as Palo Alto comes to see that Planned Community re-zonings are not in our best interest. Perhaps we can eventually get PC terminated via a Ballot Item, or maybe the Council will take the lead and terminate the practice. Or maybe they will stop handing our PCs as if they were candy, and do the job they were elected to do—which is represent all of Palo Alto.

At any rate—it's fair to say that PC re-zonings are becoming a city-wide issue.


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Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 26, 2013 at 2:11 pm

It is time for a referendum on PC zoning. Alternatively
we could require a vote on every PC project paid for by the developer.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 26, 2013 at 6:58 pm

My proposed approach is not to do away totally with PC zoning, but to call an absolute halt to any PC project that is primarily for office space. Although there is admittedly a very high demand for office space in Palo Alto, which in a sense is a nice complement to the city, so what? We don't need more "complements" like that. We as residents of the community simply don't need more office space. If a particular area is already zoned for office space, then so be it. But no more PC exemptions for office space projects that exceed normal zoning.


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Posted by Vote AGAINST D
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 26, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Vote AGAINST D is a registered user.

"The changing public mood has already affected the council's stance toward public benefits. The council decided earlier this year to require independent economic analyses for major new PC proposals."

By such economic criteria, you could justify murder and prostitution. It can't just be all about the public benefit, or a few good things will be manipulatively used to justify anything goes, as this Council is doing. Someone making money can buy whatever pieces of the City they want just because they give us some crumbs or even a nice warm steaming pie.

At some point, we have to remember to do urban planning, planning that takes things like safety, open space requirements, density, and other quality of life factors into account -- and yes, ZONING (which exists for a reason) -- not just ask how high whenever developers tell us to jump.

@Midtown,
Bob Moss will imminently be coming out with an initiative to curb PC zoning. Unfortunately, as we saw at Maybell, the City Attorney currently has the power to write the "impartial analysis" and ballot question, and can make them as leading or biased as she wants. Web Link

A lot of money will come in against residents for such an election, so neighbors will have to count on other neighbors to understand what is really going on, and not let the City Council hit neighborhood after neighborhood individually.

And vote Against D, so the City Council gets the message and acts when citizens qualify referenda and initiatives, not put things to expensive votes as they did at Maybell or High Street. The Maybell ballot question has the same exact bias in it that High Street did, where neighbors narrowly lost -- i.e., do you want X (no explanation) or Y - for this really GREAT thing you get with Y, Yes?!! So the City figures it has the elections sewed up from the start, thinks it doesn't have to listen to the residents, since the City Attorney can influence the outcome so heavily in writing the ballot. (A good analysis would have told us what a yes or a no would mean to the taxpayers!)

Which is another reason to vote AGAINST D -- all these other neighborhoods will find an understanding ear and a well-development citizen network to tap into to battle a City Council that has become tone deaf to citizens.


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Posted by Vote AGAINST D
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 26, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Vote AGAINST D is a registered user.

correction:

I meant to write: a City Council that has become STONE deaf to citizens.


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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 26, 2013 at 7:24 pm

[Post removed.]


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Posted by Vote AGAINST D
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 26, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Vote AGAINST D is a registered user.

It's also time we as citizens had the ability to participate in City Council meetings remotely, log in, and let the Council know just how many Palo Altans are there. Those who go to speak should have the right to ask questions or take instant polls of those listening, as well as City Council. Some kind of BS-o-meter should allow citizens to indicate their feelings while a Councilmember is speaking, and he or she should get a little light that only they can see if more than, oh, 80% of the rabble call them on something they say. People should be able to ask questions via Skype.

The school board would benefit from this, too, as it's very hard for parents to go physically to meetings.

This is Palo Alto, it's not like we can't do that. Vote AGAINST D, if only so City Council will get the message that they cannot just keep treating us like we are beside the point! (I live in the neighborhood, if No wins and they want to start over with a saner plan, neighbors have already said they are okay with that. Just please respect our zoning and right to safety -- even somewhat!)


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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 26, 2013 at 7:39 pm

[Post removed.]


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Posted by Vote AGAINST D
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 26, 2013 at 7:47 pm

Vote AGAINST D is a registered user.

@ Not an issue,
Bob Moss was part of the Terman Working Group, out of which came the 92-unit Terman Apartments (low-income housing in the same neighborhood as Maybell), and which saved the school site at Terman for the future at a time when people didn't think we needed it. Thank God there are people like him when short-sighted interests push their own agendas. Bob is for affordable housing, as his record shows, just not for badly done affordable housing.

I could just as easily say YOU are against disabled children, because PAHC has steadfastly refused to even deal with the issue of the parking impacts of such an underparked site to the most disabled children in our town. They just make comparisons with other housing complexes that have on-site meals and nearby amenities, when Maybell will have none of those things, it's only apartments from which people will have to move anyway when they really need help. Neighbors personally wrote PAHC asking what guarantees they were going to make, what recourse the neighborhood had, if overflow parking caused problems for the limited parking at Juana Briones Park and Juana Briones Elementary School -- of which 3 long-time programs for disabled children in Palo Alto and the County reside on the proposed development end of the school. They simply, steadfastly, avoided answering.

They have to this day never answered the concern that the City is violating the very spirit of the inclusivity laws its using to build the development by allowing a bunch of overdeveloped houses the disabled children could never live in themselves to be built right across the street from their long-time school programs. Or of making such homes that are impossible for those with mobility impairments to live in the new norm for home construction in Palo Alto.

The ordinance itself says toxics from the digging will necessitate sweeping the street and sidewalks daily, but no mention of the impact to the lungs of the children and small children's playground right next to those sidewalks and right across the street from the development.

They have even tried to mislead over the set-aside 11 spots dedicated to employees and visitors, claiming the residents would have all of those spots too in their recent ad -- when residents of the 60-unit complex, up to 120 residents, would only have 36 spots (not 47 spots, which wouldn't be enough either, but those 11 spots aren't for residents).

If you vote AGAINST D, and they really want to build the affordable housing there, neighbors have said they will go for it, just please pay the actual cost (as was done at 801 Alma, so it's not like it can't be done), don't make us -- and our kids -- pay for it. There are no public benefits in that package for neighborhood, only costs and burdens the remain unaddressed. Please Vote AGAINST D.


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Posted by Vote AGAINST D
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 26, 2013 at 7:50 pm

Vote AGAINST D is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


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Posted by Growing More Concerned
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 26, 2013 at 8:02 pm

There seems to be a lot of bombast around these issues, but that shouldn't obscure the reality that Palo Alto has real and growing problems with traffic, overcrowding, and livability. I'm among those who believe that we should not allow our planning process to be taken over by highly practiced and well-funded lobbyists of outside commercial developers. I've signed the petition mentioned by Mr. Sheyner in his article, and I encourage others to read the facts and sign the petition as well:

Web Link.


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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 26, 2013 at 8:03 pm

"I could just as easily say YOU are against disabled children, because PAHC has steadfastly refused to even deal with the issue of the parking impacts of such an underparked site to the most disabled children in our town"

You can easily say whatever you want. The above is another in the long line of baseless charges [portion removed] used by those people like vote against D.
Vote for D. [Portion removed.]


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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 26, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Can someone please tell me why we have to "obey" the "requests" from the ABAG? Do we get billions of dollars in funding from them? Can they shut down our City? I'm actually serious. If we just chose to disregard them, what would happen?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Growing More Concerned
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 26, 2013 at 8:36 pm

In response to Palo Alto Resident, my understanding is that Santa Clara County failed to provide local autonomy to the same level San Mateo County did, and therefore there could be ramifications to ignoring the ABAG targets. However, that's all a red herring when it comes to most of what the developers are foisting off on us. The proposed El Camino/Page Mill office complex includes NOT ONE SINGLE UNIT of housing -- for low-income residents or otherwise. It's just another developer jumping on the "planned community" bandwagon in order to turn a buck (at our expense).


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Posted by Vote AGAINST D
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 26, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Vote AGAINST D is a registered user.

""I could just as easily say YOU are against disabled children, because PAHC has steadfastly refused to even deal with the issue of the parking impacts of such an underparked site to the most disabled children in our town"

You can easily say whatever you want. The above is another in the long line of baseless charges [portion removed] used by those people like vote against D."

[Portion removed.] I am personally familiar with the parking conflicts the families of the school and the county program for the disabled children have there already at certain times, without adding potentially dozens of parked cars on the street there. Even a dozen parked cars would degrade the use of the park and school. There is simply no place for overflow parking there.

But then, you don't live in this neighborhood, and so would not realize that the existing PAHC property next door to the proposed development has 1 parking spot per unit, which they deem enough, and that results in an existing parking problem that we already have. PAHC says it's because people just choose to park over there, which everyone who lives here and at the APAC site know is not true, they needed more parking on-site. I'm sure PAHC also neglected to tell APAC residents that the parking on Maybell will be taken away during the day if Measure D passes, as well as three of their on-site spots, plus much of the parking on Clemo will be gone, too, which will further exacerbate the issues at the school and OH.

[Portion removed.]

Other problems that have been utterly ignored:

** The ordinance says the sidewalk will have to be swept daily during construction to keep toxics in the soil from building up on the sidewalk. No provision has been made at all for protecting the park, and the small children's playground right across the street, or the small children themselves.

** No provision has been made to give neighbors recourse to prevent parking impacts if PAHC is wrong and 36 parking spots for RESIDENTS of a 60 unit complex is not enough. Neighbors asked.

** No traffic safety analysis was done, despite months of calls and every opportunity for the City to do this. Who puts a high-density development on the only Safe Routes to School to 4 major schools and doesn't look at the impact to bikes and pedestrians? The City's own traffic people admitted they didn't review the safety to bikes. The City's policy calls for "heightened scrutiny" for developments on school commute routes - and that's not a "slander", that's a quote. Maybell is a seriously substandard street that already underwent a major safety upgrade and is still not very safe, because there are limits to the infrastructure. [Portion removed.]

I hope every Palo Altan in a residential neighborhood thinks about how they would feel if the City behaved like this toward them and their concerns for the safety of children, character of their neighborhood, and qualify of life. As well as how they would feel if someone wanted to put a 50-foot building in their residential neighborhood when 30 feet is the limit under the zoning, that is only necessary so the City and developer don't have to pay the real costs, the foist them on the neighborhood. (The part about it being about saving money is in the staff reports, and is just a fact.)




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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 26, 2013 at 9:00 pm

[Post removed.]


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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 26, 2013 at 9:38 pm

This is a crazy increase in square footage along Oregon from the tracks to El Camino. I'm glad I don't go that way often. It's going to be a terrible mess during construction and even after it's done. But there's plenty of payola to smooth over any concerns.


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Posted by Vote AGAINST D
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 26, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Vote AGAINST D is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 26, 2013 at 9:59 pm

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 26, 2013 at 10:55 pm

With the reality and fear of PC zoning abuses, maintaining existing
zoning becomes the mantra of those trying to save the City. Actually
the existing zoning with its FAR's for example is too excessive for
the infrastructure of the City and a build-out to existing zoning would
destroy the quality of life and viability of the City. The effort to save
the City needs to start with a resounding "NO" vote on Measure D, as an inflection point, but there is much more that needs to be done and it is
very late.


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