After years of hearing citizen complaints about Palo Alto's practice of allowing developers to exceed zoning limits by offering "public benefits" that often don't live up to promises, the City Council has voted not to accept or approve any new proposals until it can figure out how to reform the system.
Since the council must already approve any project seeking a PC zone, adopting a formal moratorium shouldn't be necessary at all. The council can simply vote them down if they come forward, although that has not happened in recent history.
As Council member Pat Burt observed, it's ironic that a moratorium is considered by some to be the best way to "control our urges."
"We're almost acting like we're the town drunk who burned down the liquor store to keep himself from drinking," Burt said. "We shouldn't need that."
What is really going on is a strong desire by the Council to re-make itself and demonstrate that it is listening to the public after the intense negative reaction to the warm reception given to the Arrillaga proposal for 27 University, the Council's approval of the PC office project at 101 Lytton, its willingness to entertain a huge development at 395 Page Mill Road, and the defeat of Measure D, overturning the Council's approval of a senior housing PC project.
Redemption is particularly urgent for Greg Scharff, Nancy Shepherd and Gail Price, who must polish their positions and voting records in preparation for their anticipated re-election campaigns this fall. (Karen Holman is also up for re-election, but her record of skepticism and opposition to major development projects is unassailable.)
Depending on the quality of the challengers, this November's election has the very real chance of sweeping out of office more than one incumbent due to dissatisfaction with the Council's handling of development and traffic issues. (There will also be at least one "open" seat due to Larry Klein being termed out.)
Scharff and Shepherd, who were both pushing for fast-tracking the now-withdrawn massive Jay Paul project (behind the AOL building on Page Mill) in order to try and obtain the public benefit of a public-safety building, are now looking to convince voters they have heard the outcry, seen the light and are now ready to institute reforms.
Indeed, Scharff has come full circle since he ran in 2009, with no previous political or government experience, when he advocated reform of the PC zoning process in his campaign but then initiated no steps to do so until now. It was Scharff who, when supporting the 101 Lytton office project PC, took the position that a well-designed building should be considered a "public benefit" worthy of exceeding the zoning requirements.
Regardless of the individual motivations or sincerity in adopting the "time out" for PC projects, the system does need major reforms. The process of staff negotiating privately with developers over development exceptions and public benefits and then supposedly assuming a neutral role in evaluating the project once it is unveiled is unseemly and improper.
The lack of quality economic analysis quantifying a developer's financial gain from zoning exceptions or the value of the public benefits has left the city in a weakened negotiating position, and the historically bad monitoring and enforcement of past PCs gave rise to great cynicism.
We have advocated reform of the PC process for years, so we are glad to see this finally embraced by the city staff and council. But this is but one of the planning and land-use challenges facing the city.
The greater threat and worry is the state of our current commercial zoning throughout the city, which allows for large increases in density as property owners redevelop smaller buildings to the maximum size allowed under the existing zoning, one project at a time.
Much more complicated and fraught with legal dangers than reforming the discretionary PC process, that is the task that will really put the City Council to the test, and that candidates will hopefully be forced to address as they seek our votes this fall.
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