After suffering a stinging defeat on Election Day at the hands of residents frustrated about recent development trends, Palo Alto officials will on Monday unveil a process for engaging their critics and reforming the zoning process.
The City Council will kick off its first discussion of a broad-ranging "community conversation" surrounding the myriad development issues that have been dominating City Hall discussions for months and that played a crucial role in the voters' resounding defeat of Measure D on Nov. 5. The vote overturned the council's approval in June of a housing development on Maybell Avenue, which included 60 apartments for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes. Opponents of the measure vehemently protested the council's decision to rezone an orchard site in a residential neighborhood to allow higher density.
In response to the popular angst over density, traffic and parking, Mayor Greg Scharff and City Manager James Keene agreed last week to hit the brakes on two other large development projects in the city's pipeline: Jay Paul's proposal for two office buildings at 395 Page Mill Road, along with new police headquarters for the city at a nearby site, 3045 Park Boulevard; and John Arrillaga's concept for an office-and-theater complex at 27 University Ave., site of the MacArthur Park Restaurant. On Nov. 15, Scharff announced that the two projects will be removed the council's agenda so that the city can engage the community on various broader zoning issues.
One glaring question revolves around the "planned community" (PC) zoning process, which allows developers to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for public benefits to be negotiated between the developer and the council. In recent years, the zone change was used to enable construction of numerous controversial developments, including Alma Village (formerly Alma Plaza), the College Terrace Centre and the Lytton Gateway. The Palo Alto Housing Corporation had also requested PC zoning for its Maybell development. Scharff noted on Nov. 12 that while the Maybell defeat wasn't the sole reason for the community conversation, "It obviously played a role."
A report that the city released Wednesday afternoon suggests numerous ways in which the "planned community" process could be reformed. The city can define the specific types of projects that can apply for a PC district; set minimum lot sizes for these districts; establish minimum "buffer zones" between such projects and residential districts; come up with a menu of public benefits that would be allowed under a PC; and consider a mechanism for mitigating and monitoring conditions, the report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment states.
In addition to considering these changes, the council will decide what to do with the big PC projects currently in the planning stages. In addition to 395 Page Mill and 27 University, the council is slated to consider a proposal to rezone 3980 El Camino Real, where the Jisser family wants to close down Buena Vista Mobile Home Park and replace it with a luxury-apartment complex; and 2755 El Camino Real, a four-story building eyed for the busy intersection of Page Mill and El Camino.
In the report, planning staff doesn't take a position on whether these projects should proceed while the city re-examines the zoning process. The report notes that there are "legal hurdles" associated with deferring projects that comply with zoning but notes that the council has "much more flexibility in deferring consideration of discretionary zoning decisions like PCs or other up-zoning requests."
Staff also plans to discuss with the council the ongoing effort to amend the city's Comprehensive Plan, its guiding vision document for land use issues. Much of the civic discontent that surfaced during the Measure D campaign centered on arguments from the measure's opponents that new developments are violating the city's "land-use bible."
The staff report acknowledges that the surge of large developments has fostered a sense of frustration in the community.
"The renewed pace of development since the end of the recession, daily traffic and parking conditions, and the number of concurrent planning studies, have resulted in many people feeling that there is no coherent vision or narrative connecting individual project review and the various planning efforts underway," the report states. "This feeling has led to significant discontent with the Planned Community (PC) district rezoning process as well as some concerns that the Comprehensive Plan is being ignored or has lost its currency."
Staff proposes in the report a "visioning exercise" aimed getting the community more engaged in the Comprehensive Plan update. This exercise would entail extensive community engagement and would aim to "examine goals and priorities related to community character, land development, traffic and parking, and the preservation and conservation of valuable resources." If the council agrees with this approach, staff would return with a work plan for this exercise early next year.
The proposed "community conversation" over new development and its impacts is expected to span several meetings in December. On Dec. 9, the council is scheduled to discuss a proposed "transportation demand management" program aimed at reducing car trips to the city's primary business areas. On Dec. 16, the council is set to consider a proposed framework for "residential permit-parking programs" aimed at providing relief to Professorville, Downtown North and other areas that have been inundated with cars parked by downtown employees.
At the council's Nov. 12 discussion, Councilwoman Karen Holman expressed high hopes that this broad and public conversation will allow Palo Alto to "build together as a community" in the aftermath of the polarizing Maybell vote.
"I think this will be a good opportunity to take a fresh look at how we review projects, what our criteria is, and hopefully we can work together with the community and come forward with a more positive approach and more positive outcomes," Holman said.